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How Antiques Roadshow works behind the scenes, and what’s changing

Antiques Roadshow—a suspense thriller wrapped around a history lesson and starring a parade of Americans and their frequently demure, sometimes flabbergasted reactions to the value of their things—has been a reliable, low-key reality show for more than two decades now.

Tonight it begins its twenty-third season (PBS, Mondays at 8), having been on the air longer than Survivor and aired more seasons than Big Brother. And Antiques Roadshow has made a major change: instead of unremarkable convention centers and bland hotel ballrooms, the show has taken its show into historic spaces across the country.

The show first premiered the year I was born, 1977, as a one-off special on BBC. It became a series in 1979, and the U.S. version began in 1997, produced by Boston’s PBS affiliate, WGBH.

WGBH is now taking the show in the same direction that its U.K. counterpart went about 10 years ago: into more visually spectacular, historically rich locations.

Ratings prompted this change: As television ratings have dropped across the board, Antiques Roadshow’s ratings have also dropped: 21 percent since 2012-2013, as Current’s Barry Garron reported.

For this new season, the show visited Sarasota, Florida; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Louisville, Kentucky; San Diego, California; and Rochester, Michigan, and appraisals at each venue will be spread across multiple episodes.

The first stop is Meadow Brook Hall, a National Historic Landmark in Michigan that says it is “one of the finest examples of Tudor-revival architecture in America.”

Leading this change—and the series itself—is executive producer Marsha Bemko. Her WGBH bio says that she “began her WGBH career as a clerk typist and has since held almost every position within television production,” and now “picks what cities the Roadshow visits, supervises event preparations, structures the shows, and ultimately decides what makes it to air.”

Marsha Bemko, Antiques Roadshow
Marsha Bemko, executive producer of Antiques Roadshow (Photo by PBS)

Antiques Roadshow is her show, and I sat down with her last summer to dive deep into what goes into producing a television show and a massive event where thousands of people get thousands of items appraised in just one day.

How Antiques Roadshow chose its new venues

Switching locations meant Antiques Roadshow had to start over again.

“We have a database full of convention centers, but we don’t have a database full of distinctive, historic venues,” Bemko told me. “But we’re building it. We are learning about where we can go.”

Antiques Roadshow starts with a map, and works down from there. “Location does matter,” Bemko told me, noting that Antiques Roadshow won’t go back to the same place the following year.

Size matters: “We need a pretty-good size space,” she said, because thousands of people will pass through it in just one day.

The change presented some challenges. “We’ve had a couple venues say, We’d like to see what the shows look like …  before we let you in our house,” Bemko told me.

But she’s confident that, in future years, those who said they’d wait are “going to let us in. We do a good job, we don’t cause damage, we highlight their place, we teach about their place.”

“I want to brag this big time,” she added. “The folks at one of the venues—I don’t want to get anybody in trouble—said that they once had the FBI working there. Who was more organized? Antiques Roadshow. And she was serious! So word will get out.”

How Antiques Roadshow is filmed—and how that changed

In convention centers, Antiques Roadshow had a central location where people could be interviewed and show off their objects.

“We would set up our interview area so we could spin cameras around and never stop recording,” executive producer Marsha Bemko told me.

Switching to historic venues meant that “no venue has that kind of space, so it presented a challenge, but a challenge that ends up being a good thing—because it’s not all the same, it is different.”

This season, the cameras roam around the properties. In an episode I previewed—filmed in Sarasota, Florida, at the Ca’ d’Zan, the mansion owned by circus founder John Ringling—there were different backdrops and settings for each appraisal.

There will be more of that for Antiques Roadshow season 24 in 2020.

“After every show, we sat down and we met and talked about stuff that we could do a better job with, that we could fix, that we could make better,” Bemko said.

“Even for next year, I want to have more cameras out there in more areas, so you’re going to see more change coming—just because I think we have the opportunity in these venues to exploit them even more, because we’re learning how to do that.”

How many people get things appraised

In previous seasons, about 5,000 people received free tickets to attend an Antiques Roadshow taping.

This season, it was far less: about 2,500 per city. However, that number that will increase in 2019.

Each ticket-holder can bring two objects, which still means that there are potentially 5,000 appraisals occurring in each city—in just one day.

Why were there fewer tickets given out this year?

Because of the change in venues, Bemko said, “We took a very conservative approach. We didn’t want to overwhelm whatever location we were in a stampede of people. We wanted to make sure everybody had a really good experience.”

With convention centers, “it took us a few years to get that number right,” and she said “next year we will give out more tickets than we gave out this year—that’s an honest lesson learned.”

How to be on Antiques Roadshow and get your things appraised

Bemko repeatedly called the ticket-holders “guests,” and repeatedly mentioned making sure they had a good “experience”—even though most of them will never be on camera.

Every person who attends the Antiques Roadshow event gets a free appraisal.

Most of the appraisals won’t be filmed for TV, but the show promises all ticket-holders “a free, verbal approximation of value for each item, regardless of whether or not they are selected by the producers to be recorded for television.”

Antiques Roadshow has already set dates for its 2019 tour:

  • April 16, Phoenix
  • April 27, San Antonio
  • May 13, Sacramento
  • June 1, Fargo
  • June 18, Winterthur, Delaware

For free tickets, you have to enter a random drawing. The deadline is Feb. 11, 2019.

By the way: Some local PBS affiliates may offer tickets as part of fundraisers for their stations, but otherwise, you shouldn’t be paying for tickets.

How much the appraisers are paid

To appraise around 5,000 objects in a day—two objects for each of the 2,500 ticket holders—the show used “about 70” appraisers, Bemko told me.

They are not paid.

“No compensation. Zero,” Bemko told me. “They are volunteers. If we had to pay them, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you, because that’s a lot more to raise in our budget—a lot more. A stunning a lot more!”

She said they “donate their time, their services, and their expertise,” and even “pay their own way.”

The only thing they get for free is food: “We give them breakfast and lunch on shoot day.”

While the appraisers don’t get paid, and hopefully benefit from the exposure to a national audience, “there’s no buying and selling” of objects at the Antiques Roadshow events, Bemko said. “That would feel wrong.”

How the appraisal process works

Antiques Roadshow guests show up at an appointed time on the day of taping, and after they check in, go stand in line for an appraiser who’s an expert in the type of object they have.

Unlike other reality shows, there aren’t hordes of producers interviewing people and looking for stories to tell on television. Instead, there are just three producers: Bemko and two others.

That means the appraisers themselves are the ones who identify objects as potential material for television.

“They are the ones who pitch us, and so they pitch me and two other producers,” Bemko told me. They are “trying to convince us that it’s worthy of sharing with the nation.”

She said the appraisers are excellent salespeople, “so they’re going to pitch it like a mad bunny.”

There’s a good reason for that: They need a return on their investment, and that means airtime for themselves. “They want to at least be taped—they’ve spent four figures being there, between airline, the hotel,” Bemko said. (Again, they’re not paid, and that means their expenses aren’t covered, either.)

“They want to at least tape, because we’re not going to use everything we tape. It’s going to get cut. So they will try to pitch things they know about, but maybe it’s not the thing they love,” she said. Of course, “they really want to pitch something that makes their head spin around.”

Even if not every object causes head-spinning, “with all that coming through the door, there’s something worth looking at. There really is. It doesn’t have to really valuable. It really is the story, and they have learned that,” Bemko said. “They’ve learned how to do Roadshow, like we all have.”

Most people will get a quick bit of information and a value, and then go on their way.

However, if the appraiser thinks an object is worth pitching to producers, Bemko said, “What they’ll do is say to the person, Do you mind waiting? Because you’re plate’s really special. We have chairs set up all around the set for waiting guests to be interviewed. They will wait hopefully under a half an hour. But yes, in the heart of the day, guests can wait longer, and I go over and beg their forgiveness—but they’re so happy to be there.”

“Then I interview them, and decide from there whether or not to tape it,” she said.

In the meantime, the appraisers have a tiny bit of time to do some additional research to help tell the story of the object on camera.

Appraiser Brian Witherell told TV critics during a press conference that “it depends on the object, but I would think anywhere from five minutes to 30 minutes is about the maximum amount of time we have to prepare for it. It’s something we know and we deliver on the spot, basically. That’s what makes it reality TV.”

Appraiser Leila Dunbar told critics, “When I’m looking at objects, even if I don’t know everything about it at that moment, you can be sure by the time I get on camera, I’m going to know chapter and verse, because we’re going to do the darndest we can.”

“There is a lag time,” Dunbar added. “Often we can have an hour or two hours before we go on and, because we have other people at our tables, they can help us out. But we will spend time researching, because at the end of the day, if you’ve got a great object with a great story, you want to be able to talk about it.”

How many appraisals are filmed

“Most everything is interesting, most everything could be taped, but we don’t have camera time for that,” Bemko told me.

She estimates that, with a maximum of about 5,000 pieces coming through in one day, about 150 make it in front of cameras.

And of those, about 30 make it into each episode.

Those that are filmed but don’t make the main episodes might find a home in Antiques Roadshow’s spin-off “Junk in the Trunk.”

How people react

People whose objects are worth a surprising amount of money sometimes react in fun ways—and sometimes they’re surprisingly quiet.

Marsha Bemko attributes that to the fact that “certain people are nervous and they don’t want to look silly. I don’t want to say ‘Wow!’. You hear that on our show: I swear I wouldn’t say ‘Wow!’ I wouldn’t jump up and down!. But oh my god, the thing’s worth a hundred thousand dollars, jump up and down!”

She told me that “if somebody starts kicking their legs and swearing, I want you to see it. Are you kidding? That’s great TV!” (Swearing would be bleeped, of course.)

“When I interview a guest—they’re so cute, you just want to have to hug them and take them home for breakfast or something, they’re so adorable!—they’re nervous,” Bemko said. “But even though they tend to loosen up “by the time I’m done talking to them,” she said people will sometimes still say, I don’t want to be on TV. I’m nervous! But I say, I just did an audition and you were fine.”

Why host Mark L. Walberg’s segments disappeared

Mark L. Wahlberg, Antiques Roadshow, Temptation Island host
Mark L. Walberg, host of Antiques Roadshow, is returning as host of Temptation Island. (Photo by Jeff Dunn/WGBH)

This is the third season of Antiques Roadshow where host Mark L. Walberg only appears via voice-over narration.

Segments with Walhberg—who’s returning to TV next week as the on-camera host of the revived Temptation Island—were dropped because some viewers stopped watching during those segments, in which he interviewed people and talked about the history of places.

“I know a lot of people liked them, but I also know a lot of people went to the bathroom then, because you could see it in our ratings,” Bemko told me. “I’m not interested in making TV that people think it’s time for a bio break.”

“We replaced that two to three minutes of time with four sequences of snapshots—you get some quick hits like that, and you know what the ratings curve does now? It just goes up.”

Bemko said this is an example of Antiques Roadshow listening to its audience.

“We know what you like,” she said. “That’s why we don’t do that any more; we know what our audience likes, and we want to give you what you want. You want more appraisals than we can jam in there.”

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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