Conflicting appraisals

Minutes on Roadshow are pay enough for some

By Dru Sefton

Producer Bemko (left) and pop antiques appraiser Sohmers: Is somebody getting a bad deal on the Roadshow?

An 11-page diatribe from a former Antiques Roadshow appraiser to producing station WGBH provides a look deep inside public television’s most popular national show as Roadshow knockoffs proliferate on cable channels.

The issues raised by Gary Sohmers, a Hawaiian shirt-clad, Converse sneaker-wearing pop-culture expert, reveal in particular how intensely the program works to protect its brand. In the case of another appraiser, the Boston station stood its ground with a $900,000 copyright-infringement lawsuit.

In response to Sohmers, WGBH is conducting an internal review of his complaints about the Appraisal Event Participation Agreement that all experts sign, though they are not financially compensated for work and must pay their own travel and hotel expenses for multiday shoots nationwide.

That contract, Sohmers told Current, “has evolved to be more illogically restrictive over the past several years.” It requires appraisers to inform series Executive Producer Marsha Bemko before they appear in other media, get her written permission to appraise on other shows, limit their public remarks to their areas of expertise, and never present themselves as Roadshow appraisers or let others present themselves as such.

The agreement also states that experts need prior permission to use the Roadshow’s logo or name in any materials and must promise not to use Roadshow videos or photographs “in any manner.”

Other appraisers on the show see no problem with the restrictions, given the invaluable publicity they get from the broadcasts. “For those hours you’re on that show, you do not work for yourself or your business,” said Kathleen Bailey of Issaquah, Wash., who’s been on since the first season. “You are there to support PBS and follow the rules. The rules are going to be different from your own business. The tradeoff is advertising. The rules aren’t that hard to follow.”

“Gary Sohmers wrote to us expressing his concerns about a number of matters,” Roadshow spokesperson Judy Matthews said in a statement to Current. “We have been in touch with him to fully understand his concerns, and out of respect, will not share further comment while our communication with him is still in process.”

No pay, much exposure

The nature of the relationship between appraisers and Roadshow predates even the 1996 debut of PBS’s American version of the show. Dan Farrell had been a fan of Britain’s original in the 1970s; he bought U.S. rights in 1981 and was instrumental in getting it on PBS. Farrell remains a consulting producer — “the appraiser wrangler,” as he says, scheduling and interacting with experts on all sorts of old stuff.

As WGBH was initially developing its version, Farrell told Current, “we knew right from the very get-go” that paying battalions of appraisers would be too expensive. So the producers treated appraisers as experts in their fields, “like an expert appearing on a news show,” Farrell said. “They don’t have to join a union and be paid a minimum” to appear, as the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) typically requires for broadcast talent.

For appraisers, choosing to participate in a shoot is a calculated economic gamble. Each of a season’s six location shoots generates multiple broadcast episodes. At each location, 70 to 80 specialists and six to eight antiques generalists vie to appear in about 20 segments per episode.

“The money and time I spent on the show was a good value when you consider the free advertising,” said Gordon Converse, a clock expert who called it quits after a decade on Roadshow. “But when someone makes the commitment we made, and does a professional job, and gets on air because they’re good, they deserve to make money.”

According to their agreement, experts do receive “a DVD copy of the episode in which you appear,” though it is solely for “personal use.”

For the original U.K. program, BBC Antiques Roadshow, still on the air, specialists receive travel expenses, accommodations, and are paid a “nominal fee to compensate them for their time away from their business,” said Olwen Gillespie, a BBC spokesperson.

What U.S. appraisers get is publicity. Aleya Lehmann Bench, executive director of the 500-member Appraisers Association of America, said being seen on Roadshow is a “huge, prestigious thing” for an appraiser. “It’s a tremendous amount of visibility, and that means clients” who typically pay appraisers between $200 and $500 an hour for their services.

The Roadshow appraisers may hope to get screen time, but it’s not guaranteed. According to the appraiser agreement, WGBH has “the right, but not the obligation, to identify you with an on-screen credit.” Episode credits do not list experts, though the scroll does list many crew members — even the green room supervisor.

Roadshow used to be the only TV game in town for appraisers. Now, with cable networks trying variants — History TV’s Pawn Stars and American Pickers, HGTV’s Cash in the Attic, A&E’s Storage Wars and Auction Kings on Discovery — experts have more opportunities to get a paycheck as well as publicity. Joining the rush are Roadshow’s rock-star twins, Leigh and Leslie Keno, who left PBS to unearth their own Buried Treasure on Fox.

Even Bemko’s long-awaited Roadshow spinoff, Market Wars, set to premiere on PBS in spring 2012, will pay appraisers AFTRA scale, $838 per episode, according to an online casting notice and several Roadshow experts who were approached to participate.

Unauthorized appearance

Sohmers, an independent appraiser in Hudson, Mass., has done lots of media work since 1977, he said. His Calling All Collectors airs weekly on WCAP-AM in Lowell, Mass.; he travels widely to radio stations with his “Psychic Appraisals,” during which callers describe items and Sohmers tells them what they have. Last year, Sohmers said, he did around 50 spots, informing Roadshow before each.

Sohmers ran into trouble in June 2010. “One of the stations I regularly appear on in Miami contacted me to appear in person while in town for a Roadshow taping, and do my usual listener call-in appearance,” he wrote in his complaint. He notified Judy Matthews. The request was denied, “because I’d be in town for Roadshow,” he told Current. “But I wasn’t going to be talking about Roadshow at all.”

He went ahead with the radio appearance. “My interpretation of the agreement,” Sohmers said in his complaint, “did not limit me from appearing on radio at any time, only my need to notify” Bemko.

Several weeks later, Sohmers said, he got an email from Bemko telling him that “under no circumstances may you pitch yourself to media in a city where we’re producing an event” and that if he did so again, he could no longer do the program.

“The ‘broadcast schedule’ is 52 weeks a year,” Sohmers said in his complaint. “Essentially, Bemko is threatening that if I try to act as the independent contractor I am supposed to be to make a living, I will ‘no longer be able to work with Antiques Roadshow.’”

Matthews declined to respond to questions about the show’s contractual relationship with appraisers. “While we don’t discuss the specifics, which are proprietary,” she said in a statement, “the contracts are designed to ensure that Antiques Roadshow stays true to its mission of providing viewers with honest and informed appraisals and protects the public against brand confusion and false endorsements.”

“Trying to herd cats”

Antiques Roadshow lists 256 appraisers on its website — “a community of more quirky and idiosyncratic people you’d be hard-pressed to assemble,” as Farrell described them. His relationship with the appraisers, he told Current, “has been wonderful and enriched my life beyond measure.”

Their decision to participate in the show “clearly is an economic question for them to ask of themselves or their firms,” Farrell said.

“Appraisers come and go,” said Kathleen Bailey, who generally works four to six shows per year. “I’m not naïve, I’ve been in this business for 35 years. There’s grumbling, no matter where you go. But never have I been treated unfairly at Roadshow.”

Mike Flanigan, a Roadshow furniture expert since the first season, said that appraisers generally “would like less restrictions, and would like to get paid. but they’re all pragmatic, successful people who’ve figured out they can live with the rules.”

“Besides, the entire antiques business operates on the same principle that Roadshow does,” he said. “For a big antiques show, I might spent thousands of dollars in booth rental and not make a dime.”

For some, it pays to quit

A few appraisers have quit over the noncompete clause.

Tim Luke owns Treasure Quest Appraisal Group in Hobe Sound, Fla. He’s an expert appraiser on Cash in the Attic and does the weekly Appraise This! on pubradio WHDD in Sharon, Conn. He was with Roadshow for its first nine seasons, electing not to return in 2005 after his attorney advised him against agreeing to the clause because it was too restrictive.

Luke said he told Bemko back then that he shouldn’t need WGBH’s clearance to do interviews, because he was “saying nothing derogatory or embarrassing about myself or Roadshow.” He also noted that because he wasn’t being paid, a noncompete clause didn’t apply.

“Marsha told me, ‘I’m putting you in front of 11 million people,’ and I said, ‘Good, that’s paying your bills, not mine.’”

Luke has no regrets; he remembers Roadshow as “a great opportunity to showcase my personality and talents.” When he signed with HGTV, he made sure his contract let him identify himself as “Tim Luke of HGTV’s Cash in the Attic” in perpetuity.

Reyne Haines, a expert on 20th-century decorative arts, was with Roadshow for 13 seasons; she now blogs about collecting for the Huffington Post, does a segment for Houston’s NBC station, and is developing a program “with one of the top reality production companies,” she said.

Because Roadshow isn’t paying the experts, she objects to the producers restricting the appraisers’ other activities. “We’re appraisers for a living. I have my own gallery and I work for an auction house, so I’m called upon on a regular basis for interviews.”

She understands the producers’ need for brand protection. “But my take is, you’ve had us on [Roadshow] for a long time, so obviously we shed pretty good light, or you wouldn’t ask us back.”

Besides, “you’d think they’d want Roadshow appraisers in the press, and not Mike Wolfe from American Pickers.”

An offense appraised at $900,000

One of the show’s best-known segments was caught in the show’s biggest dustup over an appraiser’s use of its brand.

In June 2001 in Tucson, Ariz., Donald Ellis, an Ontario-based specialist on North American Indian art, proclaimed an extremely rare Navajo blanket, circa 1840-1860, as “a national treasure” and estimated its value between $350,000 and $500,000. The segment quickly became a Roadshow favorite, and PBS featured it in a national “Be More” network branding spot in 2004.

“You, sir, have here a national treasure,” appraiser Donald Ellis told the owner of a Navajo blanket that he appraised at $350,000 or more. WGBH appraised the Roadshow videos on his website at $900,000. (Image: YouTube.)

Ellis put the video, along with several other clips of his Roadshow appearances, on his website. Roadshow producers responded in March 2008 by suing him in federal court for $900,000, claiming copyright infringement, even though the clip could also be watched on other sites. (It’s still on YouTube and AntiquesTV.com.)

The appraiser had been with the show more than a decade since its inception and also participated in the original BBC as well as Canadian and Australian versions. In summer 2007, three years after he left the show, WGBH asked him to remove six videos from DonaldEllisGallery.com. He did not comply, the suit said. WGBH asked for $150,000 compensation for each clip Ellis used on his site, plus court costs. The producing station estimated that it spent some $280,000 annually promoting and advertising the show.

By the time the lawsuit was filed, Ellis said, “I had become aware that the show had made several hundred thousand dollars or more selling the blanket spot” for use on several TV shows, for which he had given his permission. Around that time he also received a phone call from a Roadshow producer who wanted him to sign off on its use in a documentary. Ellis said he’d agree, if Roadshow would let him use the blanket video on his site. The filmmaker then contacted Ellis directly. The young Navajo documentarian said Roadshow was charging him $30,000 to use the segment.

“That’s when it got contentious,” Ellis said. “I called Roadshow and said, ‘I’ll sign off if you give it to him for free.’” Ellis said he never heard how WGBH finally responded to the filmmaker’s request.

In May 2010, Ellis and the station settled the dispute. The court ordered Ellis to pay WGBH $45,000 and stop using Roadshow material on his site.

As for Sohmers, he wasn’t invited back to participate this season. He said his contact information was removed from Roadshow’s website in May, although his agreement with the show did not expire until the end of June. He’d like that information restored. “If not,” he mused, “maybe I’ll publish my own book of what behind the scenes at Antiques Roadshow is really like.”

EARLIER STORIES

An appraising scandal hit Antiques Roadshow in 2000, when WGBH acknowledged that the dramatic “watermelon sword” appraisal of a Civil War-era artifact taped in 1996 was faked without its knowledge. The station severed ties with the experts involved, Russ Pritchard III and George Juno, former partners in an antique weaponry dealership. The two later were convicted of fraud, and in 2002 Pritchard was sentenced to one year in prison and ordered to repay $830,000 for staging several phony appraisals and defrauding collectors; Juno got six months.

Current explored Roadshow’s popularity in August 2001. “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.”

Advance info on the forthcoming Roadshow spinoff, Market Wars.

RELATED LINKS

Antiques Roadshow’s website and list of appraisers

Website of Gary Sohmers, former Roadshow pop-artifacts appraiser and his bio

Donald Ellis’s “national treasure” Navajo blanket appraisal video, on the AntiquesTV.com site.

BBC Antiques Roadshow, the inspiration for PBS’s show.

Comments, questions, tips? sefton@current.org

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