PBS-flavored reality TV

Shows sate ‘appetite for a real-world experience’

By Barry Garron

Fred Willard, host of Market Warriors.

Know something about antiques? Prove it,” screamed the ad seeking “pickers” for Market Warriors, the long-awaited companion series to PBS’s most popular primetime program, Antiques Roadshow.

Though PBS pioneered the concept of reality television with American Family and other cinema verité documentary series, it refrained from adding more reality TV as the genre became a staple of commercial television. But with the coming summer season and beyond, PBS is dipping into the reality game. A trio of unscripted programs — each coproduced by Boston’s WGBH— will premiere within the next year. And each bears at least some resemblance to the formats that have been popularized by commercial television.

The advertised casting call for Market Warriors, for example, was placed by Doron Ofir Casting, the same Hollywood agency that cast Jersey Shore and RuPaul’s Drag Race. Ofir invites visitors to its website to register on the agency database. “You may become the next famous personality!!” it reads.

For Market Warriors, the agency said it was seeking people who “aren’t your amateur-weekend-flea-market hobbyists. They are pros, competing against each other. . .to uncover hidden gems and rusty gold.” Producers aim to announce the names of the pickers on May 16 during the PBS Annual Meeting in Denver.

PBS program execs insist that each reality show in their pipeline has been developed to public TV’s unique standards for informing and inspiring viewers.

  • Market Warriors, debuting on July 16, will put its pickers on a budget and challenge them to find items that have a story to tell about history;
  • Broadway or Bust, planned for a fall or early-winter debut, will feature a real-life talent competition among aspiring young performers;
  • Chefs of State, tentatively slated for next winter, takes viewers into kitchens where food is prepared for top world leaders.
Appetite for “buying and selling”

The expectations and stakes for Market Warriors, to air Monday nights at 9, are quite high. As part of its primetime strategy to hold on to viewers of Antiques Roadshow, PBS provided full-production funding to launch the new show.

Instead of seeking appraisals for collectibles or antiques, the pickers of Market Warriors will have to stay within budgets as they shop for items within specific categories, such as Bakelite. The material, created in 1907, was one of the first plastics used in manufacturing, and was turned into kitchenware, jewelry and other items.

The pickers of Market Warriors will compete to buy their items, resell them at an auction and earn the highest total profit on the transactions. Comic actor Fred Willard will narrate the action.

“We noticed this appetite for a real-world experience where people are out there buying and selling,” said Marsha Bemko, executive producer of Warriors and Roadshow.

Buying and selling fad gadgets and collectibles of yesteryear is central to cable TV shows, including History Channel’s Pawn Stars and Discovery’s Auction Kings. But neither features buyers with fixed budgets in competition with each other.

“We haven’t forgotten that we’re a public television product, so, as they go along, we’re going to learn something about Bakelite, for example, as they shop for it,” Bemko said.

“I think that distinguishes the show as smart reality television with the tension of a race,” Bemko said.

Broadway or Bust looks to the real world to find the youthful ambition and talent that’s dramatized in Fox’s Glee. It follows competitors in the National High School Musical Theater Awards from regional competitions to the one-week national contest, held in June in New York.

In the final episode of the four-part series, vocalists are evaluated for solos performed within a full group number. The judges are Broadway professionals — actors, producers, casting directors and others — and they select a male and a female to receive the Jimmy Award, named in honor of legendary Broadway theater owner and producer James M. Nederlander, Winners of the Jimmy receive scholarships of $10,000.

“What they’re looking for is not just kids who can sing,” said Laurie Donnelly, e.p. and head of WGBH’s lifestyle programming unit. “It’s really kids who can do it all, who have a stage presence, who can dance, who can work as part of an ensemble.”

PBS has broadcast music performance contests before, including the “Van Cliburn International Piano Competition” and the “Metropolitan National Opera Competition” for aspiring opera stars. The competition featured in Broadway or Bust is relatively new — the series documents its fourth annual contest — and, given the popular interest in Broadway and Glee, is likely to have broad appeal.

Programs dealing with the arts and performance have a special place on PBS, Donnelly said. “It’s exciting television and it’s aspirational television.” Anything that promotes the dreams of kids and encourages others to follow their dreams “is a good thing. It’s life-changing television in the nicest way.”

Whether producers add suspense into the broadcast by keeping the names of Jimmy Award winners out of the news is another question.

“We’re going to work to keep a lid on it,” Donnelly promised.

For Chefs of State, the show featuring chefs who cook for world leaders, WGBH teamed up with reality TV giant Mark Burnett. His hits for commercial TV include Survivor, The Apprentice and The Voice.

For PBS, Burnett takes viewers behind the scenes with chefs who prepare meals for some of the most powerful government leaders on the planet, said Lance Schultz, e.p.

Producers teamed up with Chefs de la Chefs, a Paris-based organization made up entirely of current chefs of government executives, to create the series. Former White House chef Walter Scheib hosts the six-
parter, introducing viewers to the top chefs of the United States, United Kingdom, France, Italy, South Africa and Finland.

Donnelly, WGBH’s e.p. on the show, was surprised when Mark Burnett Productions pitched Chefs of State to her. It’s unusual for producers with their track record to show interest in working with public television. But, as they talked through the deal, it came together naturally, she said.

“We talked about how public television works and how you have to fundraise, and they said, ‘We got it,’ and they were with us,” Donnelly said. “They took to it like ducks to water.”

Others reality TV producers have found it’s not so easy to jump into the pond of public TV production. Lauren Lexton’s company, Authentic Entertainment, has been in business for 11 years, producing reality series for cable channels including Bravo, TLC, History, Discovery and Food Network. She’s tried to research and pitch shows to public TV but has been stymied.

“There are a ton of shows we haven’t sold that I think would be perfect for PBS because they have that combination of science and human interest,” Lexton said. Every time she’s pursued a public TV deal, she’s encountered too many barriers and decided “it would just be easier to go to Discovery or History or a place like that.”

“I would love more than anything to figure out a way to take those pitches to PBS and [find] something we could work together on,” Lexton said. “We just don’t know who to go to anymore.”

Donnelly, who both takes and makes pitches for WGBH’s Lifestyle unit, said herdoor is always open. “I’m interested in talking to anybody who has a really interesting idea that they think a public television audience would be interested in.”

“Constructive reality”

PBS’s top programmers make a point of describing the qualities they look for in reality-based programs, and how they compare to the unscripted shows on commercial TV.

“We do constructive reality,” said Beth Hoppe, the programming v.p. who handles most of PBS’s fact-based series. Early in her career, Hoppe helped popularize history-based reality shows on PBS with Colonial House (2004) and Frontier House (2002), among the top titles for this strand. For its debut broadcast, Frontier House drew the highest rating for a limited-run PBS series in five years, a 5.4.

The central concept behind the various House series was “modern-day time travel” — transporting carefully chosen individuals or families to settings where they lived like pioneers, colonial Americans or Texas ranchers — while producers recorded their day-to-day lives. Producers focused on re-creating the historical time period with authenticity, and gave their participants specific goals, such as growing food.

“We threw our families together, but not so they could fight with each other,” Hoppe said. “We threw them together to learn something about history.”

Commercial TV reality shows, on the other hand, lean more toward “manipulated reality, produced reality, where [producers] create events . . . and create drama. We don’t do that,” said Hoppe.

Still, Hoppe takes some pride in public TV’s influential role in creating a whole new genre of television. She pointed to ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, and the WGBH show that whetted TV audience’s appetite for it: Championship Ballroom Dancing, which began airing annually on PBS in 1980, and was recast as America’s Ballroom Challenge in 2006.

“We did it before anyone,” she said of competitive dancing’s big breakthrough to commercial TV popularity. “We just didn’t have the genius of matching up a star with our dancers, but we had the best dancers in the country competing every year for dancing crowns.”

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