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TruTV Strikes Pure Gold With ‘Hardcore Pawn’

Family drama and thousands of clients draw millions of eyeballs and a ratings hit for niche net

Hardcore Pawn at 100

Perhaps not even the expert pawn team at Detroit’s American Jewelry & Loan could estimate the value that their personalities and business operation would offer to TruTV upon the launch of reality series “Hardcore Pawn.”

Since its series debut in 2010, “Hardcore” has brought record-breaking ratings to the cabler, routinely drawing more than 3 million viewers in its Tuesday 9 p.m. timeslot, besting even some competitor programs on broadcast.

Now approaching its 100th episode on April 16, “Hardcore Pawn” continues to draw fresh eyes to the program with each run.

The first season of “Hardcore” averaged about 1.5 million viewers at 10 p.m., and in 2011, Tru bumped the program up to its 9 p.m. timeslot on Tuesday nights. Today, “Hardcore Pawn” at times pushes up against the 4 million mark in total viewers, terrific ratings for a niche network. Its season seven opener in March 26 drew Tru’s largest 18-49 aud ever, with 1.6 million adults in that coveted demo. That episode was the No. 1 unscripted program in its time period among all basic cable networks for adults and men 18-49, as well as total viewers.

The skein, produced by Zodiak Media’s subsid Zodiak New York, has become the backbone of TruTV’s lineup, steadily building upon its viewership and even spawning TruTV spinoffs “Hardcore Pawn: Chicago” and “Combat Pawn.”

Before the series, American Jewelry & Loan was familiar to local Detroit auds for its ads that ran during daytime runs of “The Jerry Springer Show.” It was “Springer” vet and independent producer Richard Dominick who saw star potential in the American Jewelry & Loan family business, run by Les Gold and his son and daughter, Seth Gold and Ashley Broad.

Dominick, now a series exec producer, recalls his first trip to the shop: “I went to their store and thought, when do you see a pawn shop this big? You always picture a storefront in an alley in a major city.”

When Dominick left Springer to pursue other ventures in 2008, the first people he thought of were the Gold family, phoning them just weeks after his departure.

“There was no pawn shop show at the time,” Dominick says. “Les is a great personality and as a producer, you get a gut feeling about someone. I had that gut feeling about Les — I knew he would work on TV. You would love him or hate him, but he would work, and that’s what you need for success.”

One sizzle reel and pitch from Dominick to RDF TV — which would later be acquired by Zodiak — and “Hardcore Pawn” began to take shape. TruTV was impressed by the reel and immediately ordered a pilot for the show, which aired in late 2009. After a solid performance by the pilot, TruTV officially debuted “Hardcore Pawn” as a series in August 2010.

TruTV exec VP/chief operating officer Marc Juris believes that “Hardcore Pawn” has become a ratings hit for the net because it resounds with two of its three primary demographics: “urban blue collars,” “fun seekers” and “heartlanders.”
“Urban blue collar is a great transition audience for us, and they’ve helped us move towards the fun seeker audience and build our brand more with shows like ‘Killer Karaoke,’” which debuted last year, says Juris.

While the program has drawn comparisons to History Channel’s “Pawn Stars,” Juris and Zodiak New York chief creative officer/series exec producer Mike Gamson contend that the two shows are distinct. Pawn Stars focuses on the provenance of an item, which resounds with History’s mandate, while “Hardcore Pawn” centers on familial relationships and loud personalities, thereby complementing TruTV’s brand.

Despite all the success, the skein still faces a PR problem that plagues much of the reality TV landscape: that the program is scripted, and encounters in the American Jewelry & Loan store are salted beforehand, a production strategy employed by some shingles in order to decrease production time and costs.

Juris admits that some reality programs are “salt-scripted,” but adds, “we are fortunate with Hardcore Pawn because it’s so crowded in the store — there’s so much volume when it comes to items, and a brother and sister working together gives you enough drama in one day that you don’t need any script. … We have plenty to choose from.”

Gamson, who exec produces the series, notes that the loans offered for items at the pawn shop is the Gold family money alone.

“They put down their money for real,” Gamson says. “I couldn’t imagine trying to tell Les to buy something.”
While speaking of the veracity of the series, Gamson recalls the season five finale, when a store thief was discovered to be a store security guard.

“We were shocked as we watched it unfold, just as the family was,” Gamson says.

Zodiak and TruTV have discovered through “Hardcore Pawn” their similar sensibilities, and this has led to a partnership on other successful Tru shows including “Lizard Lick Towing” and “Killer Karaoke.” “Lizard Lick” and “Hardcore Pawn,” specifically, have helped put Zodiak’s Gotham branch on the map, which launched at the beginning of the year.

“For us in New York,” Gamson says, “’Hardcore Pawn’ and ‘Lizard Lick’ are the foundation of the company because we’re building a new development team here. Obviously without that foundation, you can’t build a company, so the relationship with TruTV is hugely important. … Those shows have to remain the central focus for our company.”

But can these characters translate into lucrative overseas rights and format deals? Hardcore Pawn falls into the unscripted gray area: the show itself thrives in foreign countries but is a format version also possible when the personalities are the show’s centerpiece?

Gamson notes the show has been sold to 120 territories including Norway, Australia, Canada, Italy and South Korea, and that its cast has even done spots for Spanish-language networks. Yet, Gamson does not view the show as a truly exportable format because of how unique the Gold family is.

“There are pawn shops everywhere, but at the heart of the show are Les, Seth and Ashley,” he says. “You could replicate it — it’s been made in Chicago. But at the end of the day, it’s about the characters at the heart of the piece. It would never have gained the success it has achieved without them.”

Detroit booster, family referee

Les Gold is the partiarch of the family behind American Jewelry & Loan in Detroit. He’s the guiding force behind the deals and steps in like a blustery Solomon to resolve disputes between his kids, Ashley and Seth, who also work at the shop and sometimes knock heads. “There was never any doubt about Ashley coming into the family business. She wrote her first loan at 7. I made my first sale at 7.” But there was doubt about Seth. “Seth fought it and Seth had the same perception (of pawn shops) as everyone else when he was growing up. We proved to him the importance of pawn shops to the community and he bought into it” his senior year in college.

The Origins Of The Show
“Once (the producers) came in, they saw the dynamics between Ashley, Seth and I and they said, ‘Wow, this would make a great TV show.’ And then they saw the 40,000 items back there in the shop and said, ‘Wow, that’s an even better show with 40,000 stories.’ ”

Age Of Enlightenment
“I have been a pawnbroker all my life. The stigma of a pawn shop is that they’re dark, dirty and have a criminal element, but what people never understood is that we’re a well-lit shop… a legitimate business that caters to the needs of the city. We knew the customers had stories, and the Gold family has some issues — that’s the drama…when you have a family business, it’s not about the business — it’s about the family.”

Detroit Impact
“At first, we had a concern (the show) would make Detroit look sleazy but it actually shows the people
of Detroit as resilient. Detroit is coming back. People are still frequenting pawn shops, though. When
the economy was sinking, people still needed birthday presents, engagement rings… we’ve shown that it’s cool to come to the pawn shop. Now people come from the suburbs. They understand why people come to a pawn shop.”

Father Figure
“I find a lot that people come up to me and say, ‘Les, my kids are just like yours. I understand what you’re going through.’ People come up to Ashley and say, ‘We love you, you’re such a great example of what we want to be,’ and because of her strength, women say she’s their favorite character on the show. Or the young guys who come up to Seth and talk about the business. Every age bracket has a favorite character.”

Femme touch in a man’s world

Ashley Broad has been working with her father, Les Gold, at American Jewelry and Loan since she was a little girl. “I was always the child who came to store with my Dad,” she says. She graduated from Michigan State U. and immediately joined the business full time. Because she is a successful female in what’s traditionally been a man’s world, Ashley brings in lots of femme viewers and her presence gives the series a twist. “I bring something different to the show,” she says.

Stay Calm. Stay Focused
“I have stay calm and have to stay as businesslike and professional as I can” when customers get belligerent and yell. “I want the customers to come back but it’s my business. It comes with the territory.”

Bringing In The Female Demo
“I am in a male-dominated industry. You don’t see many — or basically any — female owners of a pawn shop. You have to be hard-nosed… and know what you’re doing. I get a lot of customers saying, ‘Let me talk to the boss. Let my talk to your father.’ And I say, ‘I’m the boss. You can talk to me. Just because I’m a female doesn’t mean that I am going to give you a different answer than my father or brother.’

Knowledge Is Power
“You have to know the items in the shop. I gotta know about jackhammers, TVs, jewelry, I have to know about cars, HDTVs — all kinds of stuff. I started out in the warehouse, schlepping TVs, rotating the merchandise, carrying out stuff to the customers. This is something I always wanted to do!”

Sibling Rivalry
“I was there way before Seth. He always wanted to be a doctor. When I found out Seth wanted into the family business I was like, oh my God, why is he here? We both want the business to succeed but in our own ways. That’s where our heads bump.”


Passion for pawn shops

Seth Gold joined the business after college, and after he shook off the stigma he had associated with pawn shops. He had intended to be a doctor. To his parents’ credit,  they didn’t shove the irony in his face: “Growing up, all my friends’ parents were doctors and lawyers and I got caught up in the negative stigma of  ‘pawnbroker.’ It wasn’t until my senior year that I realized I had no passion for medicine, and called my parents and said I wanted to join the family business. They were floored.”

Heritage Site

“There’s something to be said about longevity inside the business. I’m fourth generation in this business. Nobody has your back like family but nobody can get under your skin like family.
There’s lots of pressure in this place and you throw in the elements of 1,000 costumers inside and making deals, there’s going to be drama.”

Ground-Up Education
“I came in and started from the bottom.  I kept my mouth shut for two years, learned the business. Being the boss’ son you get a certain amount of respect but it wears thin if you don’t prove yourself. When my sister left the shop to start her family, that’s where I grew into myself.”

Another P.O.V.
“I think I help more people in my business than by being a doctor. Twenty-five million people in this country don’t have bank accounts. We provide money for our customers to feed their families, get their car repaired. If we didn’t exist there wouldn’t be anything for them.”

Sibling Rivalry
“Maybe you have some history with pawn shops or you have a dad like me or sister like me and you can relate. I have a saying at the shop: If you want something done quickly ask Ashley. If you want something done correctly, ask me. But the show it doesn’t show every aspect of our relationship!”

Giving Back

While Hardcore Pawn has put Detroit back on the TV map, the show’s stars use their fame for the Heat and Warmth Fund (Thaw). They recently held a benefit in their store to raise money for the fund, which helps local families pay their heat and electricity bills.

“That’s going right back to my customer base. Anytime we can link up to a charity that gives back to the community, we try to get involved,” says Seth Gold. Other Thaw events may follow. The event raised more
than $40,000 for the org, he says. — Carole Horst