CNBC Gets Into the Reality Show Game

Slate's Culture Blog
March 5 2013 9:19 AM

CNBC Gets Into the Reality Show Game

treasuredetectives
Curtis Dowling in the trailer for Treasure Detectives.

CNBC.

Morning and daytime TV can be lucrative, at least for powerhouses like the Today show. And it can be addictive—soap operas may be fading, but syndicated scolds like Judge Judy draw millions of viewers every day. But it is rarely glamorous. Watching CNBC during daylight hours, with its focus on high finance, feels comparatively glitzy.

But come 8 p.m., when the other broadcasters air their prime-time programming, CNBC turns into a bit of a backwater. Jim Ackerman, the network’s senior vice president for prime-time alternative programming, is hoping to change that.

Beginning tonight, CNBC will start to roll out a slate of new original reality shows, and the first two—Treasure Detectives and The Car Chasers—feature charismatic experts cooing over desirable objects. In Treasure Detectives, Curtis Dowling, a British antiques dealer with a special interests in fakes and forgeries, uses technology to determine if art, antiques, and collectables are what their owners hope they are. The Car Chasers, with Texas-based dealers Jeff Allen and Perry Barndt, focuses on finding and flipping cool automobiles.

Ackerman, whose résumé is long on off-peak television, including a stint at Today, told me that the usually specialist network is hoping the new nighttime shows will appeal to a wide slice of population. “It’s a very specific audience that’s watching CNBC in the day,” he told me by phone. “We speak to institutional traders, people involved in high finance, people that are engaged in the stock market. At night we’re going to go a lot broader.” Or to put it another way, “CNBC during the day is money with a great many zeroes. At night it’s fewer zeroes, and it’s more relatable.”

Perhaps because the only time I spend a lot of time with daytime programming is when I’m visiting my mom in England, and, I’m sure, because Dowling is a Brit, American prime-time shows like Treasure Detectives remind me of the shows U.K. networks air during daylight hours. Indeed Dowling has worked on several British antiques and auction programs. Treasure Detectives is more techy than any of those British shows—a contested Honus Wagner baseball card is sent through an MRI machine, for example—partly he says, because the Brits operate on very limited budgets and partly because they like to create the impression that their experts are so knowledgeable, they have no need for scientific tools.  Besides, the stakes are higher in the United States. Some of the items Dowling investigates on the new show carry million-dollar price tags. “Opinion is one thing, provenance is another, but that’s not enough when you’re looking someone in the eye and telling them their thing is fake or real. These tests are a way of doing that,” he told me.

Here in the United States, there are something like 15 auction shows on prime-time, so if a British vibe makes Treasure Detectives stand out from the crowd, that’s probably a good thing. When I told Ackerman that his new shows evoked late afternoons on the BBC for me, he didn’t seem fazed by the observation: “The British TV I’m most familiar with is Downton Abbey,” he told me. “I think if Lord Grantham were alive and had to find a new way to run Downton Abbey, that would be a great reality show for CNBC.”

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. Follow her on Twitter.