When Marsha Bemko was offered a job at ANTIQUES ROADSHOW 24 years ago, she almost turned it down.
“I was afraid that I wouldn’t like it,” she said. “I was working on documentary films at GBH, and I didn’t think of myself as a reality television kind of person.”
To her delight—and ours—she is exactly that kind of person.
Her first road trip as senior producer was to Austin, Tex., and she immediately fell in love with the program. Four years later, and 20 years ago, she became executive producer.
ANTIQUES ROADSHOW is PBS’s most-watched ongoing series, seen by about 6 million viewers each week. During Bemko’s tenure, it has been nominated 20 times for an Emmy Award and been recognized with multiple Telly Awards, CINE Golden Eagle Awards, NY Festivals International Television Broadcast Awards and nominated for a Critics’ Choice Award. Bemko has also spearheaded ANTIQUES ROADSHOW’s expansion across digital and social platforms. In each episode, specialists offer free appraisals of antiques and collectibles, and guests reveal tales of family heirlooms, flea market finds and items saved from attics and basements—hoping they are something special.
“And here’s the thing,” says Bemko. “Most of them aren’t. But that doesn’t dampen the warmth and humanity of the experience. The stories are king. They are priceless,” she said.
“I love the reality of what we capture. I love the humanity of the show. Everybody coming to ROADSHOW has the same questions: Help me understand what I own and what it’s worth. That’s a very bonding thing, and I think that’s why people love to watch the show.”
Over the decades, that connection has been a constant. But the kinds of items brought in for appraisal have changed, and the country has changed.
“We’ve become more fractured as a country,” said Bemko. “But we’re not fractured on the ANTIQUES ROADSHOW set—you can feel the bond between everyone there. The collective joy and excitement are palpable.”
The 50-plus member crew has just finished filming for the 2024 season in five locations, including Sturbridge, Mass. Each site drew around 3,000 people whose items were assessed at a rate of about 500 per hour.
The program has reinvented itself in recent years, adapting to COVID-19 and striving to elevate diversity and inclusion.
“I think we’ve always done this, but now we have a heightened awareness of a more inclusive history when we talk about objects,” said Bemko. “If we’re talking about items from the Civil War, for example, we give all perspectives on what we’re looking at, not just the winners’. If we’re talking about Native materials, we want to be respectful of the cultures that they originated in,” she said.
The necessary precautions against COVID-19 struck at the very heart of ROADSHOW, she said.
“The essence of ROADSHOW is in-person discovery of America’s hidden treasures, with wonderful moments of serendipity,” she said. That “secret sauce” of ROADSHOW was hard to give up.
To work around COVID-19 in 2021, the team eliminated in-person interactions at events, turning instead to pre- screening items via email and phone and then filming with strict distance and masking regulations. They also created a popular celebrity series in 2020, visiting with actors, chefs and athletes, including comedian Jay Leno.
“I was in Jay’s mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, and loved it,” said Bemko. “But as much as I enjoyed being there, give me Old Sturbridge Village anytime, with capital-E Everyman bringing their most precious things.”
On set, Bemko is all in. “I get very wrapped up in the stories. People are very emotional about what they’re learning. I have cried with our guests, real tears, real hugs.”
ROADSHOW hasn’t only provided irresistible entertainment.
“I think we’ve changed the face of antiques and collectibles,” said Bemko. “Before we came along, most people had no idea that something like a simple bureau could sell for six figures,” she said.
“In the old days, ‘pickers’ bought low and sold high, most likely taking advantage of somebody else’s ignorance. That’s harder to do now, thanks to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW,” said Bemko.
“This has been the fastest 20 years ever. I feel blessed to be here.”