Wednesday, October 1, 2008

What Will You Think You Saw On "Who Do You Think You Are?"

Latest update: the new version of Wall to Wall's BBC hit Who Do You Think You Are? is due to air on NBC in January according to a recent article in the, a British online newspaper.

The date has shifted around a bit. I spoke with a source inside the production team last month and they were ramping up and anticipating a Spring release. Some of the fluidity of the launch date can likely be attributed to producers desire to ensure that the family trees uncovered are tantilizing enough to meet their previously stated desire to bring stories of "heroism, tragedy, love and betrayal."

The British producer of this new series (in conjunction with U.S. firm Is or Isn't Entertainment) is Wall to Wall. Interestingly, Wall to Wall was the UK producer of PBS's Texas Ranch House in 2006 in which my family and I were featured. While the historical experience itself was wonderful, the final television product was far less than factual. The producers desire to create a particular outcome dominated the editing, naration, and music, etc.

This concept is concisely and eloquently discussed by Dominic Lawson in his article The camera always lies. So why deny it? in the Independent (31 July 2007 ) As a fellow "reality TV" participant, I can tell you that he really hits the nail on the head. In the article he describes the contrived scenes that the Who Do You Think You Are? producers put forward. Sometimes he went along, sometimes he didn't.

He writes: "What happens in such situations is that you begin to see things from the point of view of the programme maker - who wants drama - and so fall in with his script."

As a participant, you truly don't think you will go along, but in the end you often do. You start to understand how the fish in the fishbowl feels. After a while you just do what you need to in order to get fed. (And for us on Texas Ranch House, that was literally the case!)

Lawson continues..."At one stage she (his sister) and I were meant to have looked up our ancestry on some public record office website and we were filmed apparently making this discovery together. We had done no such thing. The programme makers had stuck the whole document on my computer - and told us what buttons to press: we then pretended to be doing the work ourselves - and also to be startled to find out the truth (which of course we already knew)."

Malcolm Muggeridge, a great print journalist who became a regular television performer in his old age, said: "Not only can the camera lie; it always lies." So if that's a well known fact, what's the harm? Lawson sums up what I have thought for the last two years: "The problem is that a large section of the population seems increasingly to believe that what is on television is reality."

I have experienced this for a fact. Countless people have said to me after watching Texas Ranch House "But I know what I saw!" It's difficult to explain unless you've been on both sides of the camera. But I can give you just one example. In one vital scene of our show one of the cowboys is shown listening intently, when in fact he left the set that week to attend a friend's wedding!

So this poses the question: In January will we "know what we saw?" As genealogists, my hope is that we will keep our cool, watch with a skeptical and logical eye, and still manage to be entertained. If we remember it's entertainment, we'll be AOK. If not, shame on us.

My insider also confirmed that the folks at Ancestry are doing much of the research for the show. I can fully appreciate the desire to be part of the production. I had the same optimistic, "let's further the genealogy cause" attitude back in 2005 when applying for TRH. But knowing what I know now...


Pharmer said...

I am a member of the Your Family Tree Forum and as most of the members are UK based we have had several series of WDYTYA.
Each series we discuss the merits of the various shows including what we would like to see on the shows.
However the reviewers in the TV listings don't always agree with the views of the audience especially those in the genealogy community. This last series said that the programme of David Suchet's ancestry was boring but it went down very well with the genealogists.
I wonder who the programme makers will listen to the audience or the critics!

doug said...

Is this the program of the name put out by I didn't notice any of the problems you mentioned in the Australian version.