Popular Culture's Claim of the Antiques Roadshow


By Stephen P. Sweeting

Originally published in the American Society of Appraisers' 

Personal Property Journal

Spring/Summer, 2007.  Volume 17, Number 1 & 2.

Edited for Internet publication.
 



Abstract


          Descended directly from the original British Antiques Roadshow, the American version of the program has the unique status of being PBS’s most successful and popular series with over 10 million viewers each week.  Americanized for local consumption and articulated with capitalist ideology, it retains many of the elitist notions contained in the original British series.  These can be viewed as a remnant of the elitist Culture and Civilization tradition with its goal of educating the masses and raising the standard of public taste.

          Using a structuralist overview, this paper argues that the key to the Antiques Roadshow’s popularity resides in its ambiguous, polysemic quality – a quality caused by semiotic excesses “leaking” from and to the text, and allowing the program to be understood and consumed in a negotiated way without completely abandoning the preferred Culture and Civilization reading.   Read as both a type of game show and a knowledge-based form of treasure hunting, these alternative readings serve to lay some degree of popular claim to a program defined by an elitist paradigm.

 

  Popular Culture's Claim of the Antiques Roadshow
By Stephen P. Sweeting

         When I began attending fine art and antiques auctions many years ago, popular culture was only beginning to infiltrate the closed and almost proudly old-fashioned world of the auction salesroom.  Existing as a subculture populated by acquisitive collectors, knowledgeable specialists, and a range of savvy, but not entirely trustworthy pickers, it was a domain explicitly critical of “the barrenness of culture of the ‘new’ masses” (Turner 2003: 34).  Dependant upon a “whole critical practice…devoted to detailing and praising those elements that differentiate one particular work of art from others,” and hinged on precedent and provenance, this subculture world echoed the Culture and Civilization tradition that emerged from Britain in the 19th century (Fiske 1987: 110.)

In 1979, BBC television introduced British viewers to a taste of this world through a new program called the Antiques Roadshow.  Modeled on the “appraisal clinic” format used by auction houses to attract consignments, and staffed with an array of experts, the Roadshow invited participants to have their antiques identified, authenticated, and valued on camera.  The program was a runaway success and in time syndicated to Canada and the United States, where strong niche markets developed.  American public broadcaster PBS introduced its own version of the unusual show in 1997, and by 2000 the Antiques Roadshow had become their top program attracting some 10 million viewers a week (Bishop 2001: 195.)

Identified disparagingly as a product of “that wellspring of American Anglophilia and upper-middle class pretension, WGBH-Boston” (Hall, D. 1999: 1,) PBS’s Antiques Roadshow mixes American appraisers and antiques into the formula, but remains infused with the highbrow Culture and Civilization tradition of its British predecessor.  In spite of this elitist character, the American version developed into a television mainstay – popular, widely known, and aired many times a week through syndication to commercial networks.  And, when the Antiques Roadshow arrives in a town to shoot an episode, a major local event unfolds with many of the better known appraisers accorded star treatment by the mass media.   What then, is the reason behind the huge popularity of this essentially highbrow program?  And how can a throwback to a dated British cultural paradigm be so successful in the United States?

This paper advances the argument that a key aspect of the Antiques Roadshow’s success and integration into popular culture is the semiotic excess “leaking” from and into the text.  This semiotic excess allows a more mainstream, playful and pointedly materialistic enjoyment of the program than the preferred Culture and Civilization reading constructed by the program’s producers.  More negotiated than oppositional, this reading co-exists with the dominant reading and reflects a perspective embedded in popular conceptions rather than elitist tastes.  In essence, popular culture claims partial ownership of the Antiques Roadshow, successfully countering the cultural hegemony of the elite classes.

Theoretical foundations

The perspective I adopt in this paper fits into a structuralist model.  Structuralism posits that culture and meaning are defined by “determining, controlling structures [as well as by] the specific, partly ‘free’ individualized instance” (Turner 2003: 13.)  The tools I use in this approach are a combination of semiotic analysis, a review of ethnographic data, and a reflexive consideration of personal experience as a fine art and antiques appraiser. 

Within this theoretical paradigm, I have relied on Stuart Hall’s conception that “the production and consumption of message[s] are overdetermined by a range of influences, including discourses of the medium used…, the discursive context in which the composition takes place…and the technologies used to carry the message[s]…(Turner 2003: 73.)  Hall identifies the polysemy of messages, but stresses that they are not pluralistic and that an alternative or oppositional meaning is always in relation to the “preferred” reading (Turner 2003: 74-75; Mukerji & Schudson 1991: 41.)

Pivotal to my hypothesis is Hartley’s assessment of “television’s special quality” and “its ability to ‘produce more meaning than can be policed.’” He suggests that “ambiguity ‘leaks’ into and out of the text, a result of “semiotic excess, a proliferation of possible readings, an excess of meaning” (Hartley qtd. in Turner 2003: 97.)  As well, I place great stock in Fiske’s idea that popular culture exists in a “relatively autonomous, if subordinated” way capable of “making over…dominant meanings” (Turner 2003: 98.) 

Literature Review

As this paper is situated within a structuralist model, I have relied heavily on theoretical guideposts provided by cultural studies scholars working in this paradigm.  In particular, I looked to the work of John Fiske, inclusive of Television Culture (1987,) Introduction to Communication Studies (1982,) and Understanding Popular Culture (1989.)  As well, I considered work by one of Fiske’s great influences, Stuart Hall.  General works on the cultural studies discipline including Mukerji & Schudson (1991) and Turner (2003) were also utilized.

There is not a great deal of reliable literature dealing specifically with the Antiques Roadshow phenomenon.  Two ethnographic articles by Ronald Bishop (1999, 2001) provide the best analysis of the show, centering on a textual analysis of interactions between appraisers and participants, and participant interviews. An article by Dennis Hall (1999) provides an interesting reading of the program as a ritualistic process used as an indicator of the social construction of value.  As well, Hall’s study provides some colourful and barbed comments on the baser levels of meaning evidenced in the Antiques Roadshow. Finally, popular and trade publications provided useful information on the show, some statistical data, and some trade-insider impressions I believe to be worthy of consideration.

Biases and Professional Perspective

As a fine art and antiques appraiser, there is a reflexive aspect to this paper’s subject for me.  Both biases and an insider’s perspective were generated.  First, although I find the Roadshow to be an entertaining concept, I have professional problems with the way it simplifies and devalues the work appraisers do.  The idea of appraisals being done as entertainment – and for free – challenges anyone who makes a living in the business.  Additionally, I take issue with the idea of calling the value estimates provided on the program bona fide appraisals.  Professional appraisers are bound by generally accepted principles of valuation and must produce documents adhering to strict guidelines.  These reflect industry standards, due diligence, and ethical practices.  As a result, I do have a bias against the Antiques Roadshow concept; I have endeavored to keep this bias in check.  The flip side of this bias is the professional familiarity with the appraisal process I bring to my topic.  I have participated in “appraisal clinics” similar in format to the Antiques Roadshow, understand the interactions involved, and have a specialist’s familiarity with the types of property people ask to have appraised.  This knowledge provides me with an insider’s perspective and will allow me to consider levels of meaning that may not be apparent to outsiders.

Methods

This paper analyzes a single episode of the Antiques Roadshow taped in Phoenix eight years ago (1998 Antiques Roadshow) and will first consider evidence of a preferred reading conforming with the Culture and Civilization tradition.  Following this framing of the dominant reading, I will consider the ambiguities permitting polysemic interpretations of the text and discuss some of the semiotic excesses indicative of a negotiated, more popular perspective.  Interwoven into this analysis, I consider relevant data taken from Bishop’s ethnographic and textual studies of the Roadshow, information gleaned from personal experiences with the appraisal process, and additional data drawn from a variety of non-scholarly sources, inclusive of intertextual television programs, commercials and cartoons.

Culture and Civilization "On the Air"

As indicated in the introduction, the American version of the Antiques Roadshow did not emerge from a vacuum.  For a number of years prior to its introduction, the original British version aired on PBS and was well known to viewers.  Almost quaintly British, the original series is filled with eccentric experts, participants clearly identifiable in terms of social class, and of course, the cultural content and context of the British Isles.  However, as well as displaying a definite British sensibility, the program also reveals a deep enmeshment with the Culture and Civilization tradition.  Denotative and connotative signifiers such as the Baroque trumpet solo introduction to the program, the modulated public school accents many of the appraisers have, and the historically significant taping locations point directly to Britain’s Culture and Civilization tradition and away from popular culture.[1]  Signification of this type is not subtle and American viewers of the British program, initially characterized by producers as people with “monocles and pipes and tweed coats,” would have picked up the connection (Schinto 2006:1.)

In view of this, when the American version of Antiques Roadshow aired in 1997, viewers were subject to a type of interpellation “hailing” them as a discerning, educated audience familiar with the program’s concept, as well as with history, collecting, and the types of objects valued by museums and the antiques trade.  Moreover, given the style and content of the original program, the subject position proposed by the interpellation assumed viewers to be of European ancestry[2], affluent (collecting requires disposable income), and interested in furthering their knowledge of art and antiques.

This interpellation is reinforced contextually.  The American version of Antiques Roadshow is broadcast on PBS, the public television network best known for its sophisticated entertainment and its commitment to programming like opera, historical dramas, and symphony orchestra performances – all elitist forms of entertainment connected to the Culture and Civilization tradition.  Contextually situated within a “highbrow” network, the Roadshow addresses viewers as a select, educated minority.

In addition to being known for its highbrow entertainment, PBS focuses on the educational component of its programming.  Explicitly noting that the network’s mandate is to “enrich the lives of all Americans through quality programs and education services that inform, inspire and delight,” this didactic framework echoes the Culture and Civilization tradition’s interests in elevating public taste (About PBS, n.d.)  The Antiques Roadshow willingly picks up on this instructional role.  Leigh Keno, one of the production’s best-known appraisers, states that “[a] program like the Roadshow is wonderful for educating young people about their past, about American history” (Cole 2002: 3.)  Bruce Cole goes on to state “[a] show like the Antiques Roadshow … I call the public university.  They have this wonderful educational value to them” (sic.) (Cole 2002: 4.)

This didactic aspect of the program goes beyond educating viewers about the past.  Articulated into this education are a series of underlying assumptions reflective of the ideological apparatuses of the American version of capitalism.  Viewers are “instructed” that the past has monetary as well as cultural and aesthetic value, thereby commodifying history.  Participants in the show are congratulated when they have acquired an item for a price much lower than its appraised value, emphasizing the importance of making a profit.  Inheritances are privileged and celebrated through the emphasis on provenance and documentation.  And, viewers are reminded that they need to protect their valuable personal property through a prominent insurance company’s sponsorship of the series.  By unifying political ideology and the Culture and Civilization tradition, the articulation is naturalized and stripped of any degree of apparent contingency (Hall qtd. in Slack 2003: 115.)

The intent of this interpellation and articulation is reinforced in the program’s text, and begins with the introduction – a montage of various people and antiques from previous episodes.  Predictably, antiques have the centre stage and include a 17th century landscape painting reminiscent of Claude Lorraine and framed in a elaborate giltwood molding, antique Delft plates, the complex jeweled movement of an antique gold pocket watch, and an unusual early automaton comprised of tweeting bird emerging from a jeweled box – all items signifying taste and discernment to the initiated.  Utilizing a narrowcast code reliant on the body of knowledge generated by “a common educational or intellectual experience,” the viewer in the audience learns that she or he is about to be “enriched by the communication” (Fiske 1982: 81.)  Understanding this code, however, requires tools of taste and discrimination that are the “products of a specific class and education system” (Fiske 1982: 266.) 

The opening appraisal segment carries through with this message when a specialist from Sotheby’s begins his inspection of what appears to be a fine pair of lady’s shoes owned and displayed by a well-dressed woman wearing a broad-brimmed hat that would not look out of place at Ascot.  Addressing her with his precise English public school accent, he points out the unusual Wedgwood heels on the shoes and notes that the manufactory was "by appointment to Her Majesty the Queen.”  The segment is an almost a textbook connection back to the original British Roadshow with each element functioning as second order signifiers.  The Sotheby’s mystique, the public school accent, the lady’s very English hat, and even the shoes themselves with their Wedgwood blue heels, are all connotative of elite English tastes and social decorum.  Indeed, the heavily signified segment strays about as far from popular culture as one can get. 

Although the Phoenix taping reaches its apogee of Culture and Civilization signification in the early portion of the program, the highbrow tone continues to a lesser degree in subsequent segments.  All the items valued are handled respectfully, with the camera coming in for close-up shots to conventionally emphasize importance and preciousness (Fiske 1982: 59-60.)  As details pertaining to identification, marks, and quality are knowledgeably discussed during these close-ups, it becomes apparent that the Roadshow uses an elaborated language code to communicate.  Defined by the nature of the code rather than the social relationship, this type of coding is closely associated with highbrow artforms (Fiske 1982: 77-8.)  As well, the didactic aspect of the Roadshow is clearly denoted in the instructional phrasing and handling of the various objects by the appraisers.  In one case, during a display of Japanese netsuke and inro favourite collectibles of late 19th century English aesthetes – the appraiser pointedly identifies the objects as “perfect teaching tools.”  Learning the details of connoisseurship fits neatly into preferred Culture and Civilization reading of the program.

Ambiguities and semiotic excesses

The idea that culture has polysemic qualities has been accepted since Barthes’ early work in semiotics (Gottdiener 1985: 990.)  Indeed, the “multiplicity of meanings” is perhaps essential for a text to be popular amongst a variety of viewers (Fiske 1992: 15-16.)  In the Antiques Roadshow, polysemy is “allowed” through ambiguities in the text created by semiotic “leakage.”  Ambiguities and semiotic leakage occur because the text in the program is producerly.

A producerly text is essentially a popular writerly text – one that can be read comfortably within the dominant ideology or be open to uncontrolled writerly activity.  Unlike writerly text, however, producerly text is “an indiscipline of everyday life…, familiar because it is an inescapable element of popular experience in a hierarchical, power-structured society (Fiske 1989: 104.)  This can open up vulnerabilities and limitations in the preferred meaning (Fiske 1989: 103-104.)  The format of the Antiques Roadshow and its participatory framework allows this producerly side to flourish.  Although the program is didactic and tied to the Culture and Civilization tradition, it is also game-like, with both participants and viewers acting as “players.”  As well, the game-playing yields winners and losers – the winners being “rewarded” with the potential of economic gain.  The possibility of remolding a PBS educational experience into a game show or a treasure hunt – all without overtly challenging the Culture and Civilization paradigm – stems from the Roadshow’s producerly character.   This gives the program an ambiguous and open quality allowing negotiated readings of the text.

The undercurrent game show aspect of the program provides examples of semiotic excess leaking from the production.  In the Phoenix episode, this possibility begins with the introduction by host Chris Jussell – a slick, grey-haired former antiques dealer who Dennis Hall characterizes as “an upscale Monty Hall”[3] (1999: 1.)  Distinctly different from hosts like the late Alistair Cooke, host of PBS’s Masterpiece Theater from 1971-1993, Jussell’s presence and demeanor incongruously informs viewers that the Roadshow is perhaps not quite the same as more elitist network offerings.  Conforming to a presentational code connected to a game or quiz show format, viewers are “hailed” as potential contestants or players, rather than as students of art and antiques.  The paradigm continues into the appraisals.  Seated around the object being considered, appraiser and participant go through the ritualized process of identification and historic and personal contextualization.  Finally – after the appraiser has explained what the object is and pointed out its elements of quality – the participant is gamely asked if he or she knows the value.  This question brings both viewer and participant to a central moment in the Antiques Roadshow experience – the opportunity to guess at the value.  This is the point determining who is a winner and who is a loser.  One subject interviewed during Bishop’s ethnographic study characterized the moment as “…an antique Jeopardy” – the allusion being to the well-known quiz show hosted by Alex Trebek (2001: 206.)  Another of Bishop’s subjects, making a more generalized comment, suggested that “it’s a wonderful game show – who’s the winner, who’s the loser…” (Bishop 2001: 201.)  Intertextual references of this nature reflect the existence of an alternative reading quite different from the Culture and Civilization tradition.

The coding indicative of this game show aspect is both representational and presentational, flowing from communication and social interaction (Fiske 1982: 70.)  In presentational terms, indexical information is conveyed through the non-verbal communication between appraiser and participant.  In the Phoenix episode, one woman is clearly disappointed when informed that her Sèvres cup and saucer are 20th century reproductions worth only about $150, allowing a look of utter dejection and near humiliation to cross her face.  “Winners,” on the other hand, are elated.  “On the American show, the owners repress nothing – they exclaim, they laugh, they cry, they jump up and down, and in general they show a lively appreciation of the degree of good luck which has befallen them” (Sutton 2005: 1.)  In one memorable episode when an appraiser identified a rare, first phase Navajo Chief’s blanket from the mid 19th century worth over USD $350,000, the owner was moved to tears.  And, in a neatly dovetailed match, the Roadshow appraiser was clearly excited at his find (Antiques Roadshow, Roadshow’s 10th anniversary n.d.) Together, participant and appraiser convey an excitement level that would not be out of place on a network game or quiz show.

The game show paradigm additionally is expressed in representational terms, most particularly in the interrogative language used by the appraisers in the build-up to the central moment of revealing the value.  Connotative of  “factual” or “academic” type game or quiz shows (Fiske 1987: 267,) with the appraiser functioning as the metaphorical quizmaster and asking questions like “what do you know about this item?” and “ do you have any idea what this object is worth?”, this framework stimulates a high degree of participation by television viewers.  The audience is drawn into a familiar format defined by an interrogative leading to the potential of winning something.  Ironically, although the Antiques Roadshow is a knowledge-based endeavor, in the end, it is not about what you know but rather what you own.  This conclusion inevitably leads back to the capitalist ideology that so neatly attaches itself to the Culture and Civilization tradition to form the dominant reading.  Even in the realm of semiotic excess, it is difficult to evade.

In addition to being understood within a game show paradigm, viewers read Antiques Roadshow in an avaricious way with a strong element of the treasure-hunt running through its range of meanings. Given that the concept of the series centers on the valuation of property, this is not surprising.  And in the end, a high value will always trump even the most interesting story in the Antiques Roadshow world.  That said, this aspect is somewhat deemphasized in the preferred reading with its focus on history and connoisseurship.  Interestingly, in his ethnographic study of Roadshow participants, Bishop places the treasure-hunting motivation in a secondary position behind what he identifies as “pure curiosity” (2001: 199-202.)  As an appraiser who fields many questions about the value of personal property, I do not to see this category as separate -- or as a primary motivator.  In my experience, expressions of so-called curiosity about an object tend to be a way of skirting around the value question.  With careful questioning, I generally find that people who are “just curious” about their property are in fact more interested in extracting an offer to purchase.  Bishop’s role as an ethnographer might not have exposed him to this very common ulterior motive.  

I believe that the treasure-hunting motivation should not be downplayed when looking for meaning in the Antiques Roadshow.  In Shenk’s article on the Roadshow for Harper’s, he comments that “…almost everyone I spoke to insisted that they did not care about the price, though they also spoke excitedly about possible sums.  Others trembled with anticipation but could not explain why they had come” (2001: 7.)  One of Bishop’s interviewees comments “[e]verybody’s looking for that hidden Picasso, that hidden Michelangelo, that hidden copy of the Declaration of Independence,” and suggested “the taping had the feel of a lottery” (Bishop 2001: 201.)  And, avariciousness is not confined to participants.  Two Roadshow appraisers of Civil War artifacts were ejected from the program in 2000 after staging phony appraisals and allegedly swindling clients (Bedford 2000.)

Semiotic excess associated with treasure-hunting leaks both out of and in to the Antiques Roadshow.  The most pointed signification leaking out of the program are the denotative signifiers of the appraisals themselves.  These are obvious in meaning and relate directly, in the minds of most people, to the potential of an antique or collectible object to be turned into ready cash. 

The Phoenix program, like all other programs in the series, yielded a wide range of appraised values, with some less than a few hundred dollars and several over USD $30,000.  Most, however, fall in USD $2,000 - $10,000 – a range substantial enough to capture the attention of most people thinking about rooting through basements and attics for hidden treasures.  In common with the custom used in auction houses, ranges rather than precise figures are provided to participants.  And as the appraisers use several different types of value, including “auction value” and “insurance replacement value,” audiences are subject to some degree of confusion.  Invariably however, as I have found in my own appraisal practice, most people tend to think the value mentioned is what they would be able to sell the property for in the open market.  This is often far from the truth.

Regardless of this fact, the wide spectrum of appraised values for items ranging from the ordinary to the spectacular makes the program highly accessible and alluring to a great many people.  One woman in the Phoenix program, upon hearing that her early 19th century painted child’s rocking chair would fetch anywhere between USD $5,000 - $10,000 at auction replied “it’s a wonder I didn’t put it out for a garage sale or something.”  Comments like these serve to fuel the treasure-hunting impulse.

In addition to outgoing semiotic leakage stoking the imagination about the possibility of striking it rich, semiotic excess also reflects back into the Antiques Roadshow from other forms of media and discourse.  Fiske suggests that intertextuality of this type occurs when texts are impoverished, the result of ephemerality and repetitiveness (1989: 123, 125.)  Certainly, both of these circumstances apply to the Roadshow.  There is plenty of evidence of the circulation of the Roadshow’s treasure-hunting aspect in secondary and tertiary forms.  The program has been the subject of parody in several television shows including Frasier and The Simpsons (Antiques Roadshow 2006, December 11), spoofed in at least one television commercial (Checker’s Drive-In,) and used as the inspiration for numerous editorial and other cartoons (CSL CartoonStock n.d.)  Finally, within the art and antiques trade and the appraisal business, the Roadshow has been the subject of numerous discussions and debates, all of which qualify as tertiary forms of intertextuality.  Although this form of intertextuality goes beyond the scope of the treasure hunt, the secondary forms mentioned above have almost all been generated around the topic.   In this respect, the treasure-hunting aspect of the Roadshow’s semiotic excess has been circulated widely – and very probably back onto the originating program.  Regrettably, the effect of this interesting circularity is beyond the scope of this paper.

Conclusions

            Dennis Hall suggests that a “good case” can be made for reading Antiques Roadshow as “a trivial pursuit, a conspicuous display of greed clothed in connoisseurship and so made palatable to the middle-class tastes of the PBS audience” (1999: 5.)  Although he argues another level of meaning that I will not go into here, his comment contains a seed of truth that perhaps reflects the polysemy of texts associated with the program.  His mention of “connoisseurship” and the “middle-class taste of the PBS audience” can be viewed as a negative perspective of the preferred meaning associated with the Culture and Civilization tradition.  Directly descended from the British program, this aspect of the Roadshow is the product of the format, the subject matter, and the long-reaching influence of elitist taste articulated with capitalist ideological apparatuses.  His reference to a “conspicuous display of greed” similarly can be viewed as the aspect of treasure-hunting leaking out of and in to the program’s text.  Driven by the desire to capitalize on knowledge and the value of property, there is little doubt that this avariciousness forms an important part of the popular meaning both viewers and participants give to the Roadshow.  And his mention of a “trivial pursuit” can likewise be understood as the playful, game-like quality that also leaks from the text.  Viewers seek and find pleasure in the quizzical, knowledge-based nature of appraising on the Antiques Roadshow.

            What Dennis Hall does not explore, however, is the possibility that both the treasure-hunting and the game-like levels of meaning inscribed into the Antiques Roadshow are popular responses to dominant elitist conceptions of cultural importance and value.  Existing in relation to the preferred meaning, negotiated (or oppositional) levels of meaning such as these are characteristic of popular culture.  As John Fiske states, “a text that is to be made into popular culture, must, then, contain both the forces of domination and the opportunities to speak against them, the opportunities to oppose or evade them from subordinated, but not totally disempowered, position.”  In this regard, the alternative forms of meaning inscribed on the Antiques Roadshow reflect “popular culture [that] is made by the people [and] not imposed on them…(Fiske 1989: 25.)  As a result, popular culture successfully "claims" a share of the meaning of the Antiques Roadshow.

References

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[1] Locations like Gloucester Cathedral, Hughenden Manor and the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum – a few of the upcoming locations noted on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow website – refer directly to Britain’s rich material culture.

[2] In Ronald Bishop’s ethnographic study of participants in the Antiques Roadshow present at a taping in Baltimore, Maryland, he notes that there was only a handful of African-Americans in the line waiting to have antiques appraised (2001: 200).

[3] Monty Hall was the longtime host of one of television’s most successful game shows, Let’s Make a Deal.