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History Channel Thrives on Character Development

History’s top draws today are reality shows starring characters like the Old Man and Chumlee from “Pawn Stars,” but not so long ago History was considered cable’s pre-eminent World Ward II channel — even jokingly called the Hitler Channel by some. That was before shows like “Pawn Stars” and “American Pickers” helped History evolve into the category-defining brand it is today.

Hard-core history buffs might not think reality shows fit well with the History brand, but these shows share entertaining ways of doling out facts in easily digestible bites.

“It was a very deliberate and strategic decision to move to character-driven series,” says Dirk Hoogstra, executive VP and general manager of History and H2. “We looked for characters that fit into what we deemed the DNA of History. There’s insight and information built into all of our series. Our viewers expect that from us.”

“Ice Road Truckers” was one of History’s first unscripted shows, but the format really soared with the 2009 premiere of “Pawn Stars,” and the addition of “American Pickers” a few months later.
“Those two shows are a network’s dream come true,” Hoogstra says. “It’s like we got two lightning strikes in one bottle.”

(Sam Spratt for Variety)

They also opened up a new world of merchandising opportunities.

“Since the launch of ‘Pawn Stars’ in 2009, our History licensing business has completely changed,” says Kate Winn, senior VP, consumer products, A+E Networks. “Where we once were pretty much limited to media extensions like books and magazines, we’re now generating impressions at a number of retail locations — from mass merchants like Walmart to outdoor retailers like Gander Mountain, Cabela’s and Bass Pro — across a variety of licensing categories, including lifestyle. Those products and retailers were not a meaningful part of our licensing business before our programming focus shifted.”

Even the businesses depicted on the shows have newfound branding opportunities.

“There’s Antique Archeology merchandise, and there’s ‘American Pickers’ merchandise,” says “American Pickers” creator/executive producer/star Mike Wolfe. “I came up with the name ‘American Pickers’ but when we sold the show to History they bought the show concept, the format and the name.”

What Wolfe wasn’t prepared for was the immediate influx of customers his Iowa shop would see, and what it would mean for his Antique Archeology brand.

The day after the series debuted people lined up outside the store.

“A lot of people who came in, probably 80%, didn’t want old stuff,” Wolfe says. “They wanted T-shirts, they wanted coffee mugs, they wanted long-sleeve, they wanted short-sleeve, they wanted hoodies. My customer changed overnight — I’m basically in the clothing business now!”

Wolfe’s deals also include an Iowa state Mike’s Picks scratch-off lottery ticket, Art of the Pick greeting cards and wall art, and Rustoration Lighting. And the avid bike collector recently designed a bike for Felt Bicycles.

“The guys on ‘Pawn Stars’ have ‘Pawn Stars’ swag in their shop, but the one thing all the fans want to buy is Gold & Silver (merchandise),” says Brent Montgomery, owner of Leftfield Prods. and executive producer of “Pawn Stars,” “American Restoration” and “Counting Cars.”

“They have the IP (intellectual property) and license for well over 20 products and make a nice piece of change being on the Las Vegas Strip with that,” Montgomery says, noting that most reality personalities don’t generate much ancillary income at first. “By the third season they might start to have a bit of a payday.”

While the network has final say on items directly related to its shows, Winn values the input of the talent in developing the licensing programs.

“It’s their lifestyles that we’re presenting, so their feedback ensures our product extensions are authentic,” she says. “And they’re really on the frontlines with fans, so they can help us identify what products will resonate.”

She says the talent typically share in the revenue those items generate.

Success can lead to yet more brand extensions. History’s education initiative, History Classroom, incorporates network programs with curriculum. There’s also an “American Pickers Pick and Tell” scholarship contest, and this summer “Pawnography” — a gameshow spinoff of “Pawn Stars” — will debut.

In “Pawnography,” contestants will compete against the show’s stars — Corey and Rick Harrison, and fan favorite Chumlee — for a chance to win actual items from the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop.

“We thought it would be funny to escalate the level of difficulty for the contestants by having them take on Chum, then Corey, and finally Rick,” Montgomery says. “Everyone always asks me, ‘Is Rick really that smart?’ and I say yes, because he is. Here he’ll prove it.”

Whatever the deal, Winn says authenticity is crucial.

“When your viewers are as passionate as ours, you need to be absolutely certain that any brand extensions you engage in feel authentic and organic to the programming experience.”

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