The Roadshow discovers challenges of wild success

By Patricia Thomson

For viewers, it's a cross between Ken Burns and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Above, an appraiser holds back his dollar evaluation for the punchline.

When Chubb’s Antiques Roadshow rolled into New York City last month, appraiser John Hays hit the jackpot a full day before the doors even opened. This time it wasn’t a rare 18th-century tea table from someone’s dusty attic, but a glowing profile in the New York Times. The headline got it right: “Appraiser Examines a Newfound Treasure: Fame.”

Next morning, two members of the Roadshow’s roving tribe, Leigh and Leslie Keno, could be spotted on CBS Saturday Morning explaining to a national audience why a graceful little table with delicate wood inlay was a fake. The Keno twins also have gained their share of fame from the series, garnering everything from appearances on Oprah to a major book deal for Hidden Treasures: Searching for Masterpieces of American Furniture, which has raked up a resounding $100,000 in sales, five times the norm for a book on antiques.

“Once we were considered kind of freaky and geeky,” admits Roadshow regular Leila Dunbar from Sotheby’s. “Fast forward to the late ‘90s, and now you’ve got this group of people out there who are aware collecting is cool and fun! We’re not so freaky and geeky anymore.”

Much has changed since Antiques Roadshow hit the U.S. airwaves five years ago, and it’s not just the lives of the series’ appraisers. The show itself has had to adjust to new and unexpected challenges created by its legions of loyal fans.

No one predicted that Antiques Roadshow would be such a runaway success — so popular that PBS would schedule both the U.S. and U.K. versions of the show for next season. The success is a surprise even for the man who bought the rights from the BBC, which originated the series 25 years ago.

Dan Farrell, who was living in England in the 1970s and working in the film business, was a regular viewer of the BBC show. “I thought it was wonderful,” says the independent producer, now based in western Massachusetts. “I knew certain American television shows had come from English shows — such as Three’s Company — and I thought I would try my hand at it. I thought, ‘Television: how hard can it be?’”

Harder than he ever imagined. Farrell bought the U.S. rights in 1981, came back to his homeland, and shopped the show for “just about 14 years” before finding a taker. “Once I told them what I wanted to talk about, I couldn’t even get the meetings! You mention the word ‘antiques’ to anyone who held a television programming position, and you could hear their eyes glaze over. Everyone said, ‘Small, elitist market. . . . not mass-market enough.’ No one would believe me when I said, ‘Look, it’s not about antiques. It’s really about treasure-hunting. It’s about stuff, and everybody’s got stuff.’ It was a very long, hard slog.”

Farrell’s preferred target at the time was commercial television. “I must admit that, as a producer, I didn’t want to do it on PBS. I wanted it to be a bigger financial windfall for me,” he laughs. Eventually public television came to him. While Farrell was pitching the networks and commercial syndicators, Peter McGhee, WGBH v.p. of national productions, had gotten interested in creating an American version of the British series. McGhee located Farrell and signed a deal, retaining Farrell as a consulting producer who helps select and coordinate appraisers.

The show debuted in 1996, with Aida Moreno as executive producer and Chris Jessel as host, positions they held until last year. (Moreno left to join the venture capital group Net Ventures in developing the website AntiquesAmerica.com and eventually to become an independent producer, while Jessel went on to Sothebys.com.)

Initially, the public was as uninterested as programmers, and things were unnervingly quiet when the show first went on the road. Peter Cook, who started with the series as senior producer before taking Moreno’s position, recalls an early stop at the University of Maryland.

Executive Producer Peter Cook (right) with Tish Roberts of Sotheby's.

“We arrive in the morning, the set’s up, and nobody seems to be there,” he says. “We have about 25 experts rattling around in this hall. Eventually a few people trickle in. Somehow, miraculously, we manage to videotape 22 items that day, enough for an hour of television.”

But as the event moves from town to town, gathering material for its television debut that winter, word somehow spreads, and by the end of the first tour, 1,800 people show up at the gate. After the program hits the air, the numbers skyrocket. When the next road trip began in 1997, says Cook, “we had 7,000 people waiting for us. We knew then we had a success — and a different set of problems — on our hands.”

One glitch was what to do about those hundreds of people lining up for tickets the night before and camping out at convention centers with their dolls, teapots, rocking chairs, silver spoons, sports memorabilia, fringed lamps and other potential treasures. “Like crowds at a rock concert” is how producers and appraisers describe the recurring scene. But despite the good vibes and sociable atmosphere of these overnight vigils, local police were none too pleased.

Rather than alienate the host communities, Roadshow organizers came up with another scheme, instituted last year: stop issuing tickets at the gate, and instead send all comers through Ticketmaster. The tickets are still first-come, first-serve and still free, but now they become available six weeks in advance. But takers still must start early to beat the demand. For the Roadshow’s Manhattan appearance, all 6,000 tickets were distributed in 40 minutes.

That’s one measure of the show’s success. Another is its legions of viewers — as many as 15 million a week or 8.4 million per average minute. Numbers like those not only put Antiques Roadshow way ahead of every other ongoing PBS series (the runner-up is American Experience with an average audience of 4.4 million viewers), the ratings also glow by commercial standards. “It used to be that the most successful show on TV was Cosby at 30-35 million,” says Farrell. “The Super Bowl pulls in 60 million. We’re doing a quarter of the Super Bowl on PBS. Sounds pretty good to me!”

What’s more, there has been a rising tide of interest in collectibles over the past few years. Whether the Roadshow was a catalyst for this or just a well-timed beneficiary is like sorting out the old chicken-and-egg head-scratcher. But without a doubt, people are more cognizant of their “stuff,” Farrell calls it, whether inherited or acquired.

“Sales of valuables insurance has more than doubled over the past five years,” states Mary Ann Avnet, v.p. of marketing at Chubb, the world’s largest insurer of fine arts and collectibles and a major underwriter whose name adorns the traveling event but is not used in the title of the PBS series.

So why this interest now? For years Farrell’s pitch only got guffaws or yawns. What finally clicked into place?

There are plenty of theories. According to Sotheby’s Dunbar, collecting is now cool because it’s easy (think eBay) and because the Internet gives people access to all kinds of information about objects and their histories. She also points to the nostalgia craze that came with the end of the millennium. Leslie Keno, in turn, talks specifically about a nostalgia for the homemade and handcrafted in this age of mass production. Karen Keane, c.e.o. of the Boston auction house Skinner, credits changing demographics. Baby Boomers are now 40 to 60 years old, which is statistically the peak age bracket for collecting. Chubb’s Avnet adds that the strong economy in recent years has given baby boomers plenty of investible assets, and antiques are one place where they’re putting their money.

Traveling caravan

‘If there’s ever any doubt about public interest in collectibles, there’s proof positive at ground zero–the Roadshow itself, where thousands of visitors gather with their possessions and their stories. The process of handling these crowds, then making a television show out of the controlled chaos, is a formidable enterprise. Every stop involves 70 or more experts, a 30-member crew, a staff of 15 to 18, and hundreds of volunteers, many from the local public television station. Each stop lasts a single long day, during which the experts combined see approximately 700 people and 1,400 objects per hour.

All 6,000 tickets to the Roadshow's New York City event were distributed in 40 minutes. Above: participants check in.

To get three hour-long shows out of this, the producers pick about 50 items to tape in three-minute appraisals, plus a dozen or two more to shoot on the fly. “If 50 are taped,” says Cook, “45 are used. So we have high expectations of everybody.” In other words, much of the editing is done before taping, rather than in the editing room. The sorting starts at the triage table. Staffers assess an item, then give its owner a ticket to cue up at designated tables — Silver, Toys, Paintings and so on.

Well over two-thirds of the items prove to have little or no value beyond the sentimental. “Everyday stuff,” as Ginny Farrell, who heads the triage table, politely calls it. But the Roadshow shines with its diamonds in the rough. When an expert comes across something he thinks is worthy of videotaping, he’ll grab a crew member, who in turn locates Cook or Senior Producer Marsha Bemko. The expert meanwhile must remain mum about the value of the item to preserve the punch line.

The irony of success

“This whole show is predicated on the fact that people don’t know how easy it is to get an appraisal,” says Nicolas Lowry of Swann Galleries. “That’s what we do all day long.”

But even if they did know, it probably wouldn’t matter, because part of the program’s appeal is that it’s live TV (or more precisely, live-to-tape). For viewers, it’s an educational game show, a cross between Ken Burns and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. For visitors, the program offers the chance to luck out in front of millions of viewers, to be told that their garage-sale trinket is really a museum-quality treasure. To have this happen on TV is like winning the lottery live.

Some Roadshow visitors are determined to get in front of the cameras and tell the world all about their prized possession and its history. Others are happy to get on the air without embarrassing themselves by bringing a fake or an item they’ve ruined by refinishing. In either case, more and more people are coming to the show better informed, armed with reams of research and schooled by years of watching the Roadshow.

And there’s the latest rub. The smarter people get about their antiques, the more difficult it is for the Roadshow to make interesting TV. If a guest already knows everything about his object, then there’s no suspense, no spontaneous reaction, no elated outburst or burst bubble. Part of Peter Cook’s job as executive producer is to ensure a string of mini-dramas by filtering out folks who know too much. “What I do now is ask them, ‘What do you not know about this piece?,’ ” he says. “It takes some of them aback a little bit.”

Another critical part of his job is making sure the show’s experts keep the requirements of television in mind. Storytelling is Cook’s mantra. “We can always do better at storytelling, at dragging out the extra fact,” he coached the 90 experts gathered in the Jacob Javits Center for words of encouragement and critique before the New York taping.

The second most important ingredient is pacing. “Don’t tip your hand. Don’t’ say, ‘What can you tell us about this wonderful table?’ Don’t gush. Nothing is more compelling than something that starts out deadpan, then has a place to go.” Rule No. 3 focuses on the necessity of interaction. “What happens is an exchange of conversation between two people,” Cook instructs. “That offers interesting possibilities. Give the guests a chance. Listen, then react. Let them tell the story. I understand that you’re on camera and you feel the seconds ticking.”

Which brings up another ongoing challenge for Cook: making sure all the experts get sufficient airtime, for that’s all the currency he has to offer. No appraiser gets paid a fee or even reimbursed for travel and hotel expenses. What they do get is visibility, which can lead to other opportunities that put money in the bank, from consignments to book deals.

“A lot of these experts are not only experts in their own field; they’ve figured out our game pretty well,” Cook says with a laugh. “They’re learned how to be on camera, they’ve learned how to make the stories happen in a reasonable amount of time, which for us is a heartbeat.”

But some experts have bent the rules to get their moment in the sun. One notorious incident involved a Civil War sword, appraised by military antiques dealer George Juno during the show’s first season. The weapon was authentic, but the set-up wasn’t. In reality, the sword was planted and was already on consignment to the dealer and his partner, Russ Pritchard III. WGBH dismissed the dealers from the show, and in March they were indicted for fraud and lying under oath by a federal grand jury in Pennsylvania.

After this public relations fiasco, the producers formalized their agreements with experts. “It says you may not solicit business, you may not ‘salt’ or cause something to be brought in to be appraised by you or a colleague,” says Cook. The appraisers are even forbidden to give anyone their business card at the event. Instead, everyone’s cards sit together on a table at the set’s periphery. “Since we don’t pay these people, the only hammer we have is the threat of excommunication, but that’s pretty powerful,” says Cook.

Being on public TV

So is the credibility everyone receives from being on PBS. Public TV “keeps the show pure,” says Keane. “This would be a commercial nightmare without that voice of reason. For instance, what would happen to the property? Imagine if this were ABC, and we were all paid appraisers and were also very interested in selling that $10,000 tea table. We’d all be ‘eeek.’” She raises an invisible dagger and starts stabbing. “It’s a very competitive business. There’s not a lot of stuff around, so we’re often fighting over the same items.” Under the WGBH umbrella, experts are encouraged to cooperate, even pass along items to another appraiser who might have more expertise in that area. As Cook notes, “Although all of these guys are highly competitive, they’ve understood over time that there’s a tremendous payoff to being collegial. They share information and material, they refer people to each other in ways that would have been inconceivable five years ago.”

Farrell envisions a slightly different nightmare if he had gotten the show on commercial TV. “The unions would climb all over us to make the experts join performing unions, which would mean the show’s costs would go up,” he says. “The commercial networks would insist that the experts the public has learned to recognize would dominate the show.” In Farrell’s mind, the Roadshow’s strength lies in its wide gamut of experts. “Being on commercial television would inhibit us from using so many people. We’d have to dance to a little different tune.” What’s more, he says, “PBS gives us astoundingly good credibility with the public–and we’re talking about a field where a lot of people are very suspicious about what they’re told. Without PBS and that sort of context, I don’t think the show could have been as successful.”

Cook agrees. “If it were commercial, we would be an informative entertainment project. As a public television enterprise, we can be an entertaining information program,” he explains. “I like to think that we are in our own way a journalistic enterprise. Our experts are the reporters out there getting those stories, and we are the editors and publishers who mold them into something that can go out as a television show that has some punch, interest and reach.” That balance between information and entertainment, history lesson and lottery would be weighed much differently elsewhere.

“I’m a lifer at public TV — I’ve been at WGBH for 30 years,” Cook says. Though he himself is immune to the collecting bug, this show has him hooked. “This is one of those projects that has unlimited potential — for improving the quality of the information we deliver, for making sure that the storytelling is punchy as well as accurate, for improving the general interest in the whole business of looking at objects and enticing the history out of them. In our business, you couldn’t ask for a better challenge.”

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