Reality to riches

Saturday January 19, 2013

A family in Las Vegas wanted to start a pawn shop back in the 1980s. In those days there were no pawn shops in Sin City. The casino owners had it covered. In fact, they managed to get the city to write an ordinance that forbid pawn shops until the city’s population reached 250,000. At the time it was written, the population was 20,000. In 1988 the population finally exceeded 250,000, and the Harrison family got the very first pawn shop license in Las Vegas. Now, some 25 years later, they have hit it big, thanks to the History Channel’s reality show "Pawn Stars." There are a lot of average businesses that became successful, but only when they were the subject of reality TV.

There are two kinds of reality television shows, the ones where days upon days of filming get edited down to one 30 minute episode, and then there are reality television shows that are scripted. I would imagine that the scripted shows are cheaper to produce due to the efficiencies of knowing what you are going to be doing every day and being able to follow a schedule. Most producers claim that they simply set up scenarios that play to the strengths of the "stars," and they pretty much act naturally. OK, it is a very loose form of scripting, but it really does make money.

I can think of a number of reality television programs that started out with the characters working at their small shop, store, garage, what have you. Then, as the show gains in popularity, you see the clashes and drama of a little business suddenly needing to get bigger fast. The smart entrepreneurs can drive their reality television enhanced businesses to amazing heights of profitability by using a simple formula. The "American Chopper" series is a perfect example. When they started, it was a father and son operation in a small shop. Sure, they argued, and the fact that Paul Teutul Senior is a raging dry alcoholic with an outlook so warped by his addictive personality that it made for entertainment. That wasn’t the thing that made them rich. What made them rich was building chopped Harleys into gaudy tribute bikes for corporate customers. Why would Fortune 500 companies buy a chopper from these knuckleheads, no pun intended. Because an investment of less than $200,000 gets you millions in free publicity. The corporations will tell you that it’s about building morale among their employees ... OK, whatever.

I’m not saying that this is bad, and I don’t look at this form of television with too much skepticism. In many cases they go beyond entertainment to provide a good deal of education, especially "American Pickers," "Pawn Stars" and "Cajun Pawn Stars." The potential for trouble begins If the reality show is a hit. At that point you get to watch real folks deal with the problems created by success. It can be everything from, overblown egos, temper tantrums, fractured relationships, or in some cases you see folks handle it all quite well. The cast of "American Pickers" seems to have handled their success quite easily, but I guarantee that you will eventually see the trappings of wealth. Chumlee on Pawn Stars suddenly sports an intricate and colorful full sleeve tattoo. Those things are very expensive. Mike Wolfe of "American Pickers" is now sporting a very expensive wrist watch. The Teutuls now have beautiful homes and drive Land Rovers and Mercedes G wagons. The Roloff family of the show "Little People, Big World" built a beautiful addition onto their home, went on an exotic vacation, and definitely upgraded their wardrobes. Life in reality television can be very, very good for the bottom line.

Just like the old bell curve, these programs have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The end generally comes when there’s a family rift, a smart decision to get out while the getting is good, or the public gets very bored and sometimes resentful of their blue collar heroes driving around in exotic European sports cars with equally outrageous egos. Eventually they all come to an end, yet the demand for this kind of entertainment is not waning.

On long winter days when I have time, I will watch a reality television show or two, and it can be quite entertaining and educational. Would I drive down to Newburgh New York to buy a T shirt at Orange County Choppers? Probably not. I’ve passed it many times on I-87 and never had the desire to stop in. However, I have to admit that for a while there I enjoyed watching a dysfunctional family other than my own.

Arlo Mudgett’s Morning Almanac has been heard over multiple radio stations in Vermont for nearly 30 years, and can be tuned in at 92.7 WKVT FM Monday through Saturday mornings at 8:35 a.m.


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