Since 1997, Americans have been hauling their heirlooms and knickknacks to Antiques Roadshow to hear expert appraisers illuminate the items’ history and, crucially, assess their value. Adapted from the British original, the U.S. show is now airing its 20th season on PBS, where it is the network’s most-watched continuing series. Antiques Roadshow is one of those blue-chip fixtures of TV, a reliably entertaining pastime that seems like it has always been around and will never go away. From the outside, it would appear to be a low-maintenance enterprise.
In fact, Roadshow is a complex logistical machine that its creators continually adjust to fit the needs of their production, network, and audience. A.V. Club readers got a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes operation in our 2014 interview with “Nicho” Lowry, one of the program’s most colorful appraisers. We got back in touch with the Roadshow crew—specifically, executive producer Marsha Bemko—after noticing small yet significant changes that were made for the series’ 20th year. To wit: There’s a new logo, title sequence, and set; host Mark L. Walberg now participates only by way of brief top-of-show voice-overs; and the mid-show field segments have been axed in favor of quick-hit “snapshot” appraisals peppered throughout the hour. Bemko talked about the thinking behind these changes, the desire to remain relevant to a new generation of viewers, and producers’ tendency to ruthlessly “shred” early cuts of each episode.
The A.V. Club: To a lot of viewers, Antiques Roadshow might seem like a classic case of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But you overhauled the show’s look and tweaked the format in a number of ways for its 20th season. What prompted these revisions?
Marsha Bemko: I’ll be very candid with you. Some of it was a very practical need, when it came to the set. We redid the set, and we redid our graphics package, and we also did—as you have noticed—make some changes to the interior of the show. For a very practical reason, the set—we actually have to get approved by the fire department when we get there. Everything has to be fire-retardant. The set was literally beginning to fall apart [to the point] where we weren’t going to meet the standards we needed to meet with our fireproofing, et cetera. We were at the end of that set’s life. And that set had been with us since season nine. It had traveled around for quite a bit with us. It was time for a refresh.
When we went to Trollbäck, the graphics company and set design company we worked with, we wanted [a set] that would integrate with our on-air look. I remember when I first started working, we used to make graphics in something called a Toaster. Any person who looks at Toaster-generated graphics these days, they’ll think, “Oh my God, that looks like a dinosaur.” As the technology has improved, the graphics have improved, and the ability to do tricks with your graphics have improved. Our graphics package was very old—same season, season nine. We needed a huge refresh.
So when we went to Trollbäck, we said, “We want our set to integrate with our graphics.” The behind-the-scenes challenge here for us was that we needed the set before our graphics because we shoot before we produce the show. It was hairy, but we made it! We had to test everything to make sure it looked good. And the overall goal for doing this was—because we had to get something done, it was time for a refresh, time for a new look, time for the practical reasons of making sure we were safe on our set—we really want to refreshen the look for what we call our next generation of viewers.
And we also know we have about 9 million viewers a week who love the show just as it is. We wanted to make sure we didn’t alienate any of our old viewers but that we cleaned things up for that next generation of viewer. I think we’ve achieved that. We stuck with a similar colorscape, but we went bolder. When you look at that set—and frankly, when we came back in, we posted the shows, it was a relief to see it all went together. That was the overall goal. Let’s refresh this and get it ready for the next generation of viewers. Entice them into the show. I do know about Roadshow that once you start to watch it, we can make you addicted. [Laughs.] I want to make sure that when you’re cruising by, we cause you to stop—if you’re still cruising that way, you’re not using your IPG [interactive program guide] or any other ways of watching—that we’ve got your attention. And I think we achieved that.
The other biggie—the big difference when you watch the show now—we have those sequences that we call “snapshots” behind the scenes here. In every hour, you’ll see about four of those snapshot sequences, where in each sequence we have, generally, three items. You hear a little bit, and you find out what that item is. Each of those snapshot sequences tends to end on a single-camera appraisal. What we call our over-the-shoulder appraisals. You’ve written about our show, so you know.
The way it comes in now is, if you were counting how many items you got to see quote-unquote “appraised,” evaluated, in our old format versus our new, we’ve added a lot of items. So for those who are out there who just can’t—we can’t air enough objects, we can’t tell you enough stories. The hour’s the only thing that limits us, that makes us stop talking. The show is over at [a running time of] 56:40, and when you’re done, you’re done. Because otherwise, we know we can’t give our audience enough of those kinds of stories.
So we’ve taken it, and we’ve added a minimum of a dozen more appraisals when you add up those snapshots. Are there more over-the-shoulders now than there were before? It depends. But there’s a minimum of four in every hour and before, there wasn’t a minimum of four. And I’m not counting the “Hidden Treasures” because that’s after the show body. That doesn’t even count.
AVC: Right. Or the Feedback Booth [an end-of-show segment where bubbly guests briefly share their Roadshow experience].
MB: Right. You could come work here. You really do know the show.
AVC: I just love picking apart TV production, and I think that Antiques Roadshow is beautifully produced, but I am going to quibble with one change. I miss Mark. Where’s Mark? He still shows up in the credits, credited as “host.” But he’s not hosting anything!
MB: All right. So, we miss Mark too. He’s not out there hosting those field pieces anymore—those little segments that we would produce. We learned that our audience would rather see other things. Although there are some people who like those field segments, we know that for the most part, our audience would rather see more appraisals. We’ve made an effort to satisfy that hunger.
We’ve kept Mark as our host. You still hear him. You still hear his voice. He’s still on our title sequence credits. He’s still very much associated with the show. But he’s not on set anymore.
AVC: And that’s a permanent change?
MB: I think so. I’ve learned this in television: Never say never. And that’s true of life, right? But it’s definitely true of TV. I adore Mark. We all adore Mark. Our audience likes Mark. But I think that from what we can see in our ratings, et cetera, the folks really do like the snapshot sequences.
AVC: I do mourn the field pieces. I liked that they broke up the show with something where the dollar amount wasn’t necessarily the climactic moment—we were just concentrating on some local history or craft. But I was talking to a colleague of mine, Marah Eakin, who’s also a fan of the show. She said, “Oh, I always fast-forwarded through those field trips.” And I thought, in that case, maybe people who don’t have a DVR are just changing the channel when they get to that part of the show. Is that part of the decision-making here?
MB: That’s part of it. You know, we hear things. When you tell me that story, I’m not surprised to hear it—that somebody would fast-forward through those pieces that, frankly, took an enormous amount of our efforts and resources to make. But we would hear, “This is where I go to get my second cookie.” “This is where I fast-forward.” People love—we can’t give you enough appraisals. We can’t record enough of them. We can’t air enough of them. Wherever I go, on a personal note, people want to hear stories about our appraisals. People love learning about what other people own. And the nice little secret about this series is, while you’re doing that, you’re actually learning history—very often it’s American, but worldwide history. You don’t watch Roadshow and not find out when the Civil War happened. It’s not possible.
AVC: When you’re deciding to put an item on, how much of a consideration is the dollar amount? Or would you rather put something on if it’s an interesting story, even if it’s not worth that much?
MB: You do put a balance in there. I will tell you, when I’ve been out there picking [items to include in the broadcast], I have turned down a quarter-million-dollar [object]. Do you want to see another Dragonfly Tiffany lamp? Or have you seen enough?
AVC: If I die without ever seeing another Tiffany lamp, I’d be fine with that.
MB: Now, different Tiffany lamps could teach you different things. But I think we’ve pretty much—although someone may show me a Dragonfly Tiffany lamp that has a new secret in it, but probably not. And we would turn it down. So it’s not about the value. I could tell you countless stories of objects where we’ve turned them down because we had a lack of confidence around the object, or we’ve seen many of that kind of thing on Roadshow before.
As a matter of fact, I like to think of our experts who are on the front line—they are the ones who are going to pick, for starters, what to pitch to be shot. They’re the ones who see it. I say this in the most affectionate of ways: They are geeks. Total geeks. They love the stuff, the stories, because of what it is. Very often, rare things that are worth a lot of money have a lot of intrigue, so they’re tickled by that. But they’re just as well tickled by a $200 object they’ve never seen before. Not all rare things are worth a lot of money.
Most of [the Roadshow appraisers] started out doing this as a hobby. There are the children of dealers, collectors, or auctioneers, but for most of them, it’s a passion. And they like a lot of the “j-u-n-q-u-e.” They’re just total geeks! You have to admire them. When Saturday night dinner comes, which is the most delightful time to be together, and the appraisers will talk about what they shot, what they didn’t shoot, what they saw—they are enthused. If I’m sitting at that table and the other people are all pottery people, I’ll have to ask, “What was that worth?” because everybody else knows. Nobody else needs to ask. It’s not about that. The story’s not about that for them.
AVC: This season, there was a quick snapshot appraisal by Noel Barrett—he was appraising a couple of Mickey Mouse clocks and watches. I thought, “He must get Mickey Mouse stuff all day.” Do you ever worry about running out of different kinds of items to feature?
MB: Not yet, given the record of the BBC, who we licensed the show from, and they’re getting ready for season 39. When you put this call out—and right now, people are registering for tickets for where we’ll be this summer—we will give out those 3,000 pairs of tickets [in each city] to the public. In every city so far, we have way more than that, as far as people who are registering to come. So the 10,000 objects we’ll see in every city we visit, most of it will be items that are not interesting to share with the nation. Most of us don’t own those kinds of things. But in every city, we will have more than enough to record. And in every city, we’ll make choices about what not to record because we’ll have more stories than camera time. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
AVC: Getting back to the season 20 changes. Presumably, when you went to your design contractor to talk about this revised look, they said, “What are some key concepts you want to get across?” What did you tell them?
MB: I’ll tell you what I said to them, and then you tell me whether we succeeded.
MB: I said I wanted a sense of travel and a sense of discovery. I wanted it to feel like we were going on a fun journey, but I also knew enough about television these days that it needed to be short. You don’t want to do a 30-second title sequence anymore. That was what I had asked for. Do you think we made it?
AVC: That’s pretty close to what I was going to say. It’s effective in getting across this “roadshow” feel. It’s always been a roadshow in name, but the show can feel static. The old intro was about the objects, and the new intro does give this sense of movement—we’re traveling through America with the show.
MB: That was the goal. We went through many renditions before what you see airing there. It’s not an inexpensive thing to overhaul a brand like this. Everything gets changed. Everything—your website, your stationery. You name it, it gets changed. You want to make sure it’s going to be evergreen enough that you’re not going to change it again in two years.
AVC: You mentioned that the snapshots allow you to fit in a higher quantity of appraisals, but another thing that was lacking in the past is a feel for the hubbub and the community of the actual event, which these snapshots also achieve. Was that a goal, too?
MB: Absolutely. I’ve got to give credit to Adam Monahan, who’s a segment producer here at Roadshow. The snapshots were his idea. He’s the person who shoots them when we’re on the road. Getting a sense of the event—and also, isn’t it nice to know that you can actually see some interesting items that are worth 10 to 20 dollars? Because that’s a lot of what we see. So you do get a sense of playfulness—and frankly, because you’re a faithful viewer and really do get TV—you can see as you watch all of season 20, we get better at it as we go. I love the snapshots in Charleston and in Little Rock, which you’ve just seen air, more than I like them in Spokane. I like them in Spokane, but you could see us getting our muscle.
AVC: How are they getting better?
MB: I think they’re getting looser as the season progresses. I like them looser. I think they work better. There’s a little bit more nat sound [naturally occurring on-camera sound] in them than we had in Spokane, which was the first city that we edited. Anybody who’s ever edited a television show knows this to be true: Even when you’re editing a show like Antiques Roadshow—where here we are on season 20, and God knows how many episodes, but a lot of television—every episode you cut teaches you something.
AVC: Really? Still?
MB: I learn something from every episode about the craft of making something. And I learn something from every episode watching it air. Not as much as I did when I was younger in my career, frankly, but all the decisions that you’ve made—when you’re making a TV show, you can rewind and decide and talk about it. When you’re watching it air, occasionally you might stop the button to rewind because you want to change something. But you can’t. The whole world’s watching it, just like that! So there are lessons as you watch a show air, and that’s one of the things I love about making television. You never stop learning how to make it better. I like to think with every show that I’m learning how to make it better.
What’s so interesting—just as a little behind-the-scenes observation of my own behavior—is because I live-tweet our new episodes at 8 p.m., I find I don’t have the same watching experience as I used to have. I kind of miss it. I love the tweeting, too—you can’t do everything—and I love what people are saying, asking us questions. I love all of that. But I do sort of miss the old-fashioned—just absorbing the show.
AVC: How is the experience different?
MB: That multi-platform experience—don’t forget, I’m watching and tweeting it a way most people aren’t. I’m answering a lot of people, so I find I miss a lot. It’s a good thing I’ve seen that show like 50 times before it aired! [Laughs.] Because otherwise, I’m like, “What’s going on?” But I wonder if our audience feels that way. I don’t know. I imagine not, because they only tweet a little bit.
AVC: One more technical detail. Coming out of the over-the-shoulder appraisals this year, you’ll often have a behind-the-scenes shot. Maybe we’ll get a shot of the camera monitors before we focus in on the table where the appraisal happens. I believe that’s new this season.
MB: It is.
AVC: Can you talk about the philosophy behind that? The framing in the past has been prim and staid. I say that not as an insult, really, but it’s been pretty conservative. And this is a break from that.
MB: Over time, we have progressed. When I first started producing Roadshow, the producer before me did not want any cameras in the shot. I changed that when I came.
When you’re building a show, and you’ve got to deliver it exactly to time, all of a sudden your show’s too long, and you’ve got to pull stuff out. In order to make sure you get all those appraisals in, and you’ve got to deliver it exactly 56 minutes and 40 seconds—not a frame over—you make sacrifices. One of the sacrifices that has been made over time, something that has happened not even wittingly, is that the B-roll would go. What you’re referring to is B-roll. No matter how you want to call it, it’s still B-roll. So, when you’ve got to trim out some seconds, where do you go? The B-roll.
What we’ve done with this new format is we’ve loosened it up. You have that chance for a sense of the event, and I think that is what our next-generation viewer wants. I think that just moving from appraisal to appraisal, it’ll get tired. Because we have a large audience, we’ll keep them, but I like the idea of keeping our large audience and adding new people. What we’ve done is loosen things up so that there is time for you, the viewer, to see what happens at Roadshow beyond those appraisals we’ve highlighted. And we don’t take a lot of time to do it! It happens in those sequences with a little bit of B-roll. It happens with the snapshot sequences. You don’t need an enormous amount of time to do it. Just a little bit of that seasoning here and there, and suddenly it’s the secret sauce for a more energetic show.
AVC: Reading between the lines, it seems that losing the field segment—maybe losing that chunk of time freed up the opportunity to do these smaller touches? Is that accurate?
MB: That’s exactly what it was. And that’s done by design. When we were taking a look way back—and PBS was involved in this conversation with us—at the field segments and the viewer behavior around those, [we asked] “What could we do instead?” We had a huge list of things we could do instead, and snapshots was the one that won out. Because we know that—our viewer email on Tuesday mornings after we air a show is very busy—people want more appraisals. So we had approximately three minutes to fill.
When you add up those snapshot sequences, it doesn’t all add up to three minutes. But with the over-the-shoulders—and, frankly, some of the shows, to keep that loose feeling, we might pull out one of the formal multicam appraisals, to make sure there’s room and the show has that flow. It’s a nicer show to watch. I know we all like watching it better, and we’re really fussy here. When there’s a Roadshow screening, on our first pass, which we do all together, we shred the show! We absolutely shred. Everybody picks and picks and picks. It’s a very lively screening.
AVC: What do you shred?
MB: You name it, we shred it. We go through and we talk about [for instance] the fact-checking. First of all, the fact-checking here, we spend so much time on it. Because it’s hard. Some of the facts are not documented anywhere. It’s a hard task.
AVC: Because the appraisers are speaking off the cuff. They’ve done research, but they’re not hitting pre-vetted talking points.
MB: Exactly. So you want to make sure when they say it’s “King George the third,” it’s the third and not the fourth, or some viewer out there will tell you you’ve got it wrong. We’re teaching. We want to make sure it’s correct. We will talk about the facts, and we may even start to argue about them to the point where I’ll joke, “Let’s first look it up, and we can argue afterward.”
Even the shots we’re using [come up for discussion]. “Is that the best shot?” “I can’t see this, and if I can’t see this, I don’t want to talk about this.” “That’s not flattering of the guest. Let’s see what else we can do.” You name it, we talk about it. “Are we looking at the appraisal from the camera that’s on the jib? I’d rather not see it like that.” “Can we see any more of the guest’s reaction?” “No, the appraiser interrupts.” Can we do this, can we do that. It’s that kind of shredding that happens at that very first pass. Then we come back and watch a second pass without stopping. And then we shred it again. We’re brutal! Because we know that anybody watching our show—if they find something they didn’t like, it won’t be because we didn’t notice it, hopefully.
AVC: You mentioned PBS giving you feedback about viewer behavior. How granular is their data, and how much do they push you? Or is it more of a collaborative relationship?
MB: It’s a collaborative relationship. Ultimately, WGBH is the producer of the show and responsible for its content. [PBS gets] very granular research, as does WGBH. We get our Nielsens—every Tuesday morning I get them. Then once every few weeks or so, we get our minute-by-minute ratings. And one set of that is overnight, and the next set is who watched that whole show over seven days [after airing] because of the way people watch TV now.
In the minute-by-minutes, you can see exactly what people like. And frankly, I will tell you, our show builds, like most shows do, from the first minute to the last. No surprise there. You know, it may even be something like people racing to the TV at 8 o’clock.
AVC: Can’t you drive yourself crazy looking too closely at this stuff? Is there a limit to it?
MB: Thank gosh we have our director of research here, Cory Allen, who gobbles up and deciphers the Nielsens in a way that you need a degree for. I ask him questions—so, I’ll say, “What’s this little dip? What’s this little spike? What’s going on there?” And sometimes he’ll say to me, “It’s nothing.”
AVC: That’s nice.
MB: And sometimes he’ll say, “Let’s see what it is next week.” When you’ll see a pattern of that stuff. And frankly, people who do that kind of work, who decipher Nielsens and all—I need their help with interpreting what they present to me. So it doesn’t drive me crazy because I have someone else I can ask questions to drive crazy. [Laughs.] And I don’t think it drives him crazy. He comes up on Tuesday mornings to talk ratings with me because he knows I like talking about it. He’s fabulous at helping me understand what I see. And pretty much, he says we’re doing good, which is really what I like to hear—he’s also my therapist.
AVC: Well, it’s the most popular permanent series on PBS, isn’t it?
MB: It’s a good place to be, yup. We get about 9 million viewers a week, and wherever you are, that’s a lot of viewers. It’s a very satisfying thing. I know we’re teaching, and I know with all these other shows in the genre that may be out there—or not out there anymore; a lot came and went—we’re the only one that’s pure information. People trust us because of that. We work very hard to earn that trust and to keep it.