Former Antiques Roadshow Appraiser Blows Whistle on Practices
By Kenneth Corbin
A longtime appraiser with PBS's "Antiques Roadshow" is speaking out against one of the show's producers, claiming, among other charges, that she threatened him with legal action concerning media appearances he made on other radio and television programs.
In a letter dated Aug. 1, 2011 sent to executives at PBS's corporate office and the WGBH affiliate in Boston, Gary Sohmers details a litany of grievances with Executive Producer Marsha Bemko's treatment of appraisers for the show.
He claims that Bemko sought to enforce an overly broad interpretation of the agreement that all "Antiques Roadshow" appraisers must sign. The "Appraisal Event Participation Agreement" stipulates the conditions under which "Roadshow" appraisers may appear on other media programs, barring them from describing themselves as representing the show without written permission from their executive producer.
At the time of his clash with Bemko, Sohmers, an expert in pop culture collectibles, said he had been appearing as an appraiser on "Roadshow" for 13 years, during which he regularly appeared on radio programs around the country, in addition to hosting his own program, "Calling All Collectors." (Disclosure: David and Ina Steiner, the president and editor of EcommerceBytes, respectively, have both made frequent appearances on Sohmers's radio program in the past, and Sohmers has been featured on AuctionBytes.TV.)
Prior to his "Roadshow" appearances, Sohmers said he had been appearing on radio and television programs as an appraiser for more than a decade.
The situation with Bemko came to a head at a "Roadshow" taping in Miami, where a radio station invited Sohmers to appear on a call-in show. He notified Judy Matthews, a senior publicist for "Roadshow" at WGBH, who, he alleges, responded in no uncertain terms that the interview was not authorized by the show's producer and he "may NOT talk about "Antiques Roadshow.""
Sohmers did the appearance anyway, explaining that his "interpretation of the agreement did not limit me from appearing on radio at any time, only my need to notify them." Just the same, he said he was careful not to portray himself as a representative of PBS, WGBH or "Antiques Roadshow," though the hosts of the radio program plugged the show.
Back at the "Roadshow" taping later that day, Sohmers claims Bemko confronted him, angry over his appearance on the radio program, and followed up three weeks later with an email threatening to terminate his relationship with "Antiques Roadshow" should he pitch himself to other media outlets in cities where the PBS show would be holding an event.
For Sohmers, that directive ran counter to the longstanding arrangement he had had with "Roadshow." Appraisers for the program are not compensated for their appearances, and pay their own travel and other expenses to attend "Roadshow" events. Instead, they willingly do so for the free publicity the show affords, though there is no guarantee that their appraisals of items at a "Roadshow" event will air on television.
Sohmers interprets the "Roadshow" agreement to allow for appearances with other media outlets, so long as the appraisers do not portray themselves as representing the PBS show, for which they are considered independent contractors.
"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,"" Sohmers wrote in his letter to PBS and WGBH.
Other appraisers contacted for this story agreed that "Roadshow" keeps its talent on a short leash by insisting that outside media appearances are cleared by the show's brass in an effort to protect the "Roadshow" brand.
One long-time appraiser, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of an ongoing association with the show, said that "Roadshow" indeed maintains a "fairly tight policy" concerning media opportunities, adding, "certainly over the years it's become tighter."
But the appraiser described the agreement as fair, and, in contrast to Sohmers's account, said that WGBH has been consistent in enforcing it. Even though "Roadshow," unlike some other shows centered around collectibles, does not compensate its appraisers, the exposure the show offers for the guests' primary businesses can make it a worthwhile endeavor.
"There's always grumbling," the appraiser said. "I think for many of the participants there's been some very good business reasons for continued participation."
But the show's insistence that appraisers obtain approval for every outside appearance can make "Roadshow" seem like an either/or proposition. For those who aspire to broader media exposure - or those who consider it integral to their careers - the "Roadshow" policies can be stifling.
"I chose to walk away from "Roadshow," as I have to earn a living, and if I can no longer do appraisal events, or TV segments on the world of collecting, that would be a problem for me," Reyne Haines, a former "Roadshow" appraiser, said in an email. "I didn't feel like I had to choose - I was told I had to."
Matthews, the "Roadshow" publicist at WGBH, acknowledged receipt of Sohmers' complaints, but declined to address them specifically as the station is still reviewing the matter.
"Gary Sohmers wrote to us expressing his concerns about a number of matters," she said in an emailed statement. "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."
"While we don't discuss the specifics, which are proprietary, the (appraiser) contracts are designed to ensure that "Antiques Roadshow" stays true to its mission of providing viewers with honest and informed appraisals and protect the public against brand confusion and false endorsements," she added. Through Matthews, Bemko declined to be interviewed for this story.
Margaret Drain, WGBH's vice president of national programming, responded to Sohmers' complaints in a letter dated Aug. 16, 2011, declining to "engage in a point-by-point response" to his letter, but reiterating the station's support for Bemko and her interpretation of the restrictions of the appraisal agreement regarding outside media appearances.
"As with any longstanding relationship, differences in opinion are bound to arise and WGBH's understanding of the events you describe (both the facts and the law) is very different from yours," Drain wrote.
In his 11-page letter, Sohmers detailed a number of other complaints apart from the clash over the appearance agreement, including charges of mismanagement, favoritism and, pointedly, the removal of his name from the credits of "Roadshow" appraisers.
Sohmers claims that sometime around May 5, 2011, his contact information was removed from "Roadshow's" online list of appraisers, as Bemko had allegedly threatened to do at a meeting the previous October.
He also said that his attorney had received a letter from Bemko threatening legal action over a New York Times story and a show guide for a Red Cross event in which Sohmers had been described as having "appeared as an appraiser on "Antiques Roadshow.""
"The inherent promise of working on a "Roadshow" episode is the professional credit given for the service and the opportunity to get on TV," Sohmers wrote to WGBH and PBS. "If we don't get on TV, we still have the professional credit of having appeared."
In her letter addressing Sohmers's complaint, Drain of WGBH cited the show's policy of listing on its website only those appraisers who have worked with the show in the previous two years and "remain in good standing."
"Although you have worked with us within the last two years, it is my understanding that you are no longer in good standing," Drain wrote, referencing Sohmers' alleged failure "to obtain approval for your uses of the "Antiques Roadshow" trademark ... for a business purpose as required by your participation agreement."
Reached by email, Sohmers, who describes himself as a "whistleblower," explained that he is not currently considering legal action, but continues to urge WGBH and PBS to address the situation, which he says would ideally result in Bemko's replacement.
"The program would be better if Bemko was terminated and I would not go back to volunteer and pay my own way to work for her," he said. "I would like my contact info put back on the Roadshow website and be allowed to have credit for the work I did for Roadshow without constant legal cease and desist notices from the WGBH legal department."
Comment on the EcommerceBytes Blog.
About the author:
Kenneth Corbin is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He has written on politics, technology and other subjects since 2007, most recently as the Washington correspondent for InternetNews.com, covering Congress, the White House, the FCC and other regulatory affairs. He can be found on LinkedIn here.
You may quote up to 50 words of any article on the condition that you attribute the article to EcommerceBytes.com and either link to the original article or to www.EcommerceBytes.com.
All other use is prohibited.