Credit: William Ross
Credit: William Ross
Crowning the packrat as king

In the mid-2000s, the History Channel went through a much-needed facelift. The channel always had felt a bit like PBS minus the pledge drives, attracting a small yet fiercely dedicated audience through a combination of multi-part documentaries and educational series like Modern Marvels. Compared to a newcomer like National Geographic Channel or perennial challenger Discovery Channel, though, History looked like a weathered hag – sadly fitting for a channel whose hallmark was talking-head interviews with tweed-wearing professors.

The first hint of History’s transition came soon after the success of Discovery’s Deadliest Catch series. When the show premiered in 2005, it took a fly-on-the-wall approach to reality TV, opting for verisimilitude over the trumped-up drama of Survivor or The Real World. Discovery managed to take a documentary-worthy subject and serialize it, tapping into the sexiness of a reality show while staying true to its roots as a high-brow channel. The results are undeniable: Now in its eighth season, Deadliest Catch still attracts more than 2.5 million viewers, making it the highest-rated cable reality show on Tuesday nights.

It makes sense, then, that Discovery’s spiritual counterpart and primetime competitor at History would follow roughly the same model. In 2007 and 2008, History redefined itself with the visceral one-two punch of Ice Road Truckers and Ax Men, and parent company A&E couldn’t have been more proud. As the scrappy channel underwent full-blown programming surgery to replicate the success of Deadliest Catch, it added a fresh and admittedly catchy tagline: “History: Made every day.”

When interest becomes fetish

History Channel’s new mantra legitimizes the kind of programming it now specializes in: reality shows documenting niche cultures, typically with an educational or cultural slant showing how history truly is made every day. But the influence of A&E – the channel behind Hoarders, Parking Wars and Dog the Bounty Hunter – is undeniably found in History’s most popular and unlikely program, Pawn Stars.

Now halfway through its third season, which begins again on May 21 after a month-long break, Pawn Stars follows the owners of an upscale pawn shop on the outskirts of Las Vegas as they barter for junk, collectibles and the occasional rare find, including Super Bowl rings and an original Picasso. According to press materials on the show’s website, “pawning was the leading form of consumer credit in the United States until the 1950s” and the U.S. is now home to roughly 12,000 individual pawn shops. The site in particular makes a strained but believable case for the show’s purpose on History Channel – there’s a timeline on pawning in the U.S., along with stats and video features on more notable items from the show – and each show includes a brief on the origins of featured items. 

The Sin City location is fitting for reality TV, but Pawn Star’s subject matter is far from deadly crab fishing or modern-day logging. For an audience, the muted interest of seeing a samurai sword for sale at a U.S. pawn shop is barely more engaging than the subsequent price haggling – after all, folks at home don’t stand to gain anything. Not only does the routine seem strikingly similar to PBS’s Antiques Roadshow, but the stars – three generations of chubby, average men led by owner Rick Harrison – are remarkably ordinary. They fight on occasion, but the squabbles are short-lived and fairly mundane by reality-TV standards. Rick has an impressive knowledge of antiques, but his on-camera explanations often feel painfully staged, and he’s barely as charismatic as the documentary narrators he replaced. By all reasoning, the show should be boring as hell.

Yet Pawn Stars quickly has gained traction since it premiered in 2009, thanks to a bizarre and unlikely formula audiences didn’t know they wanted – and one History Channel had never tried before. The show completely abandoned the documentary aesthetic honed by predecessors such as Ax Men, and opted instead for an amalgam of antiquing, misplaced zeal and ho-hum conflict. Against all odds, it works: In 2011, Pawn Stars became History’s highest-rated program with an average of more than five million viewers, and is cable TV’s most popular reality show after MTV’s Jersey Shore.

Although cable’s two top shows are seemingly disparate, they both show how U.S. culture cherry-picks portions of other cultures – Italian flags for one, foreign antiques for the other – and churn the separate parts into a fascinating whole. Where Jersey Shore highlights the pitfalls of the melting pot with Snooki’s spray-tanned, faux-Italian antics, Pawn Stars glorifies the U.S. pastimes of materialism and debt by handing out quick-cash loans for pieces of mildly interesting junk. As with most popular reality programs, they’ve both made superstars of previously uninteresting people: The cast of Jersey Shore have produced spin-off shows and commercials for weight-loss pills, while Rick Harrison has gone on to hawk everything from pawning advice to an autobiography – sort of expected for a guy who makes a living selling time-worn trinkets.

Pawn Stars hasn’t attracted the same ire as Jersey Shore, though, and for good reason: A pawn shop’s brand of consumption seems less harmful than the youthful narcissism of MTV. And I’m not trying to say the two are on level playing grounds – there’s a huge difference between drunken shenanigans and the fine art of haggling. But the basic format of the two shows is so similar, and the underlying currents of U.S. indulgence are so strong, that it’s not far-fetched to see how they’ve attracted a broad audience.

Cashing in

A shared cultural connection with other reality TV programs still doesn’t fully explain the allure of Pawn Stars. How did a program set in a pawn shop become a nationwide obsession? Pawn Stars succeeds by fetishizing a culture that is thoroughly modern and inherently American: consumerism. When History Channel opted to drop documentary-style objectivity for more traditional faux-reality TV, it automatically changed the program’s entire purpose. Rather than explore the unique but arguably dull world of antiquing – much like Antiques Roadshow has done for some four decades – it spiced things up with dramatic flair and added only a sliver of informative, thoughtful analysis. This turned the sole act of buying and selling into a form of entertainment, and viewers continue to eat it up, like The Price Is Right with only the prizes and no Plinko.

When consumerism itself became a TV-ready fetish, the floodgates opened and the packrat milieu was suddenly chic. Pawn Stars blazed a path for countless imitators, spin-offs and rehashing on a handful of networks, all with the same strange mix of interpersonal drama and faux-sexiness. There’s the brand-new Baggage Battles on the Travel Channel, where a spattering of eccentric buyers vie for abandoned luggage at East Coast airports. A&E has Storage Wars, a similar auction program featuring unopened storage containers. History Channel itself rounds out nearly every primetime slot with the Pawn Stars spin-off American Restoration, starring Rick Harrison’s friend and show contributor Rick Dale, along with the antique-hunting show American Pickers and Louisiana-based replica Cajun Pawn Stars. Even Discovery Channel has hopped on board with Oddities, a funky show that follows a Manhattan shop specializing in macabre antiques like mummies and old-fashioned medical devices.

Given the History Channel’s longstanding reputation for relatively balanced, often intriguing shows, it seems odd that network heads would sit back and allow a program like Pawn Stars to make it on air when they were gaining headway with more immediately entertaining fare. The show lacks originality, objectivity and genuine insight – as it has progressed, the day-to-day drama between Rick Harrison and his family has grown even more stilted, and the swath of imitators is picking away steadily at its core audience. If one thing can be said for a show like Swamp People, History’s doc-style program about rifle-totting alligator hunters in Louisiana, it’s that only a small subset of people actually hunt gators with rifles on the bayou. When pawn shops and auction houses are on every corner, it takes only the slightest bit of tweaking for another network to green-light a Pawn Stars clone. 

And that’s just the concern with these programs: The act of consumption – whether spending hours at Rick’s pawn shop or watching the show about it at home – has become something to strive for and glamorize. On an unconscious level, though, the Pawn Stars imitators speak volumes about the current state of consumer culture. Almost by mistake, they’ve tapped into the very American urge to consume by glorifying people who live to sell, buy and re-sell, often in and endless loop that changes little from week to week. Of course, there’s the argument that recycling unwanted but unique wares is better than visiting Walmart for mass-produced junk, but there aren’t any TV programs dedicated to Walmart shoppers – let alone a whole sub-genre.

TV is always fickle – a fast-burning program like Jersey Shore is now on its last leg after declining interest last season – but Pawn Stars is guaranteed at least one more season, and it has shown little sign of slowing down (even repeats regularly snag ratings in the top-10 for basic cable). It’s hard to say if the programming trend it inspired will die or remain vibrant, but the inexplicable popularity highlights the lasting appeal of consumerism in a frighteningly effective way: when you have something people are even remotely interested in, keep selling it and selling it until you find a taker. A portion of U.S. television has become a pawn store, with millions and millions lining up to indulge.  

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