Fred Willard to Narrate PBS 'Antiques Roadshow' Spinoff 'Market Warriors'

"Market Warriors" kicks off a PBS summer slate that also includes new installments of Kenneth Branagh in "Wallander" and the "Inspector Morse" prequel "Endeavour."

PBS’ Antiques Roadshow – the grey-haired forefather of pawnshop reality genre – gets a homegrown spinoff with Market Warriors. Premiering July 16 at 9 p.m., each episode of Warriors will follow four expert antique shoppers, each with a set amount of money, scouring flea markets across the country with the goal of reselling the items for maximum profit at auction.

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The original BBC production of Antiques Roadshow has been airing since 1979. And the American version, produced by Boston’s WGBH, is PBS’ highest-rated show, pulling in 10 million viewers a week. Actor-comedian Fred Willard (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind) will narrate Warriors, offering wry commentary on the competition.

“We are sometimes criticized for not having a sense of humor,” concedes PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger. “And I think Fred will enable us to counter that a little bit.”

In fact, Willard – who has done considerable voice-over work – was the producers’ first choice as the voice of Market Warriors. Then they found out that he’s also an avid collector of sports memorabilia.  

“When thinking about who we wanted in this role, we knew we needed someone smart with intergenerational appeal,” says Marsha Bemko, executive producer of Roadshow and Warriors. “As a savvy observer, Fred uses his improv talent to give viewers a few laughs while supplying them with keen observations [and] essential insights into the antiques marketplace and the competition as it unfolds.”

Market Warriors is part of robust summer programming offering from PBS that also includes a second edition of Arts Festival that first debuted last fall. Playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith will host the festival, which kicks off June 29 with Mariachi High, about a year in the life of competitive high school mariachi musicians from the tiny border town of Zapata, Texas. PBS Summer Arts Festival runs through Aug. 10, when it concludes with a Great Performances installment of the 75th anniversary of Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

PBS also will piggyback on this summer’s biggest event – the Summer Olympics in London – and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, which may be somewhat less anticipated, at least by American audiences. Queen & Country, July 1-22, will have newsman Sir Trevor McDonald, examining the traditions and institutions surrounding the country’s second-longest monarchy. And Michael Wood’s Story of England, July 3-17, will have the well-known historian charting British history through the eyes of the people, not their rulers. The series was a big bit in the U.K., where it aired in six parts. PBS will condense it to four-parts by eliminating some of the hyper-local segments.

There also will be new installments of Independent Lens, POV and WGBH’s Frontline will again examine the presidential candidates with new installments of The Choice about Barack Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

Kenneth Branagh will return as melancholy Swedish gumshoe Kurt Wallander in four new episodes of the Masterpiece Mystery! series beginning Sunday, July 1. Wallander will lead into Endeavour (July 22), the ITV-produced prequel film to the Inspector Morse series. British actor Shaun Evans has taken on the role of the young Morse, who was played by John Thaw, and he’s taken a bollixing among some British fans blindly loyal to the original show. “Inspector Morse was such a beloved figure,” says Kerger. “It’s always a challenge for an actor is to step into the role of someone who has such notoriety.”

Of course, PBS has had much success catering to stateside anglophiles. A third season of Downtown Abbey is currently filming in England with Shirley MacLaine joining the cast as Martha Levinson, the mother of Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern). It's likely to bow in 2013 on PBS. Meanwhile, the second and final season of Upstairs Downstairs will premiere on PBS later this year. BBC executives this week decided not to go forward with a third season. The second season saw a drop in ratings when it aired in the U.K. while also earning brickbats from critics for what some characterized as over-the-top storylines including a lesbian affair.

“Would I have liked another season [of Upstairs Downstairs]? Sure,” says Kerger. “But if it’s not going to go forward, I’m glad that we had a chance to revisit some of the characters [for two seasons]. I think what we had on the air was good. And season two is solid.”

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