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Reality TV's new stars: Small businesses

Thursday - 5/9/2013, 12:00am  ET

In this Wednesday, April 3, 2013, photo, visitors to the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop take a closer look at various college and professional sports championship rings on display, in Las Vegas. Pawn sales at the shop, which is featured in the television reality show Pawn Stars, bring in about $20 million a year, up from the $4 million a year it made before the show aired.Turning small business owners into stars has become a winning formula for television producers, but the businesses featured in the shows are cashing in, too. Sales explode after just a few episodes have aired, transforming nearly unknown small businesses into household names. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

JOSEPH PISANI
AP Business Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- There's no business like small business.

Mix the high stakes of running a small business with a dash of family drama and throw in a camera crew and you get hit reality television shows such as "Pawn Stars," ''Welcome to Sweetie Pie's" and "Duck Dynasty."

Turning small business owners into stars has become a winning formula for television producers, but some businesses featured in them are cashing in, too. Sales explode after just a few episodes air, transforming these nearly unknown small businesses into household names. In addition to earning a salary from starring in the shows, some small business owners are benefiting financially from opening gift shops that sell souvenirs or getting involved in other ventures that spawn from their new-found fame.

Sales at Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas are five times higher than they were before "Pawn Stars" first aired in 2009. More people are pouring into the St. Louis restaurant featured in "Welcome to Sweetie Pie's" to eat its jumbo-sized fried chicken wings and six-cheese macaroni and cheese. And Duck Commander, seen in "Duck Dynasty," is having trouble controlling the crowds in front of its headquarters in the small city of West Monroe, La.

"Sometimes it's hard getting from the truck to the front door," says Willie Robertson, who owns Duck Commander with his father and stars in the A&E series with his extended family.

It's a big change for a company that sells duck calls out of a part-brick, part-cinder block warehouse on a dry, dead-end country road. Duck hunters use the whistles, which mimic duck sounds, to attract their prey.

Since "Duck Dynasty" began airing in March 2012, Robertson finds at least 70 people waiting in front of the warehouse every morning asking for autographs and photos. Neighbors have complained about the mobs and the police have been called.

Despite the trouble, the show has been good for the family business. Sales of the company's duck calls, which range from $20 to $175, have skyrocketed. In 2011, the company sold 60,000 duck calls. In 2012, the year the show began airing, the company sold 300,000. "We saw a big difference as the Nielsen ratings went up," says Robertson.

Their income from doing the show may be going up along with the ratings. "Duck Dynasty" is the most watched documentary-style reality series on TV right now, according to Nielsen, which provides information and insight into what consumers watch and buy. April's one-hour season three finale was watched by 9.6 million people, making it the most watched program in A&E's 29-year history. The Hollywood Reporter reported that the cast of the show is demanding a raise to $200,000 an episode to do a fourth season. Both the network and Robertson had no comment on the report.

Cameras follow Robertson and his family as they make duck calls, hunt or go camping. One episode showed Robertson trying to prove to his dad, brother and uncle that he could spend a night in a tent during a camping trip. (Robertson ends up bringing a big recreational vehicle and is ridiculed for it. "Once you bring something with wheels that's enclosed, you're no longer camping. You're parking," says Robertson's brother, Jace Robertson, in the episode.)

Duck Commander hired five more people to keep up with rising sales. Every duck call has to be put together by hand. "It's like a musical instrument," says Robertson. "Each one needs to be blown into it to make sure it works."

To stop the crowds from disrupting business, and to make extra cash, Robertson opened a gift shop inside the Duck Commander warehouse. "It keeps the people out of my lobby," says Robertson. The shop sells duck calls, Duck Commander T-shirts and bobblehead dolls that look like Robertson, his dad, uncle and brother, complete with their long beards.

Rick Harrison, the star of "Pawn Stars," opened a gift shop, too. He sells mugs, T-shirts, bobbleheads and refrigerator magnets, in the back of his Las Vegas pawn store.

Harrison says the souvenirs bring in about $5 million in revenue a year. The pawn business brings in about $20 million a year, up from the $4 million before "Pawn Stars" aired.

The show, which follows people as try to sell or pawn items ranging from gold coins to classic cars, also stars Harrison's son, his father and an employee named Austin "Chumlee" Russell.

People have been lining up outside the pawn shop since the reality show began airing on History in 2009. The store installed misters above the line to keep fans cool under the hot, Las Vegas sun.

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