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Elesha Coffman

Old Stuff

Why Antiques Roadshow is PBS's highest-rated prime-time program.

Accustomed as we are to instant gratification, Americans will only stand in a really long line for one of two reasons. Some lines are necessary, like those leading to the counter at the DMV or crawling through customs at the airport. Others lead to something so exciting it's worth the wait, like a roller coaster, a traveling art exhibit, or a twelve-hour sale. Barring either of those conditions, lines in this country tend to match the attention spans and tempers of the people in them.

So I was surprised when I arrived in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, on a Saturday morning last summer. I had trekked six hours from home the night before with one goal in mind: to participate in a taping session for Antiques Roadshow. I knew the event would be popular—the show is PBS's highest-rated prime-time program, after all—and I had read on the Web site that 6,000 free tickets would be handed out to optimistic antique-toters. Even so, I figured there was no reason to head downtown right at 7:30, when ticket distribution began. "It's not like there's going to be a line around the block," I reasoned.

When I arrived at 8:00, there wasn't just a line around the block. The line wound around every block in downtown Des Moines. Well over 6,000 people were waiting to get into the convention center where the taping would take place. Some had come from as far away as Florida and Hawaii. Of the hopefuls, 2,000 had picked up their tickets the day before. The rest of us had to just hope we'd make it in.

Here's how the show works: A team of antiques appraisers sets up in an arena somewhere in the United States. Members of the public are invited to bring their heirlooms, flea-market finds, and other articles of interest to be evaluated. A camera crew catches the highlights, and producers edit the day's work down to a one-hour TV show. Sometimes a ten-hour day of taping will yield two hours of programming, but often each venue turns up only about 15 broadcast-worthy items.

The people standing ...

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