Sunday, March 7, 2010

If I don't say this I think my head will explode

I've been reading the blogs and Facebook postings about Who Do You Think You Are? and there's an odd theme that keeps rearing it's head that IMHO is off the mark.  I'm surprised that this particular criticism of the show continues to surface because I think NBC, Ancestry and the producers have been pretty straight forward about what the goal of the show is.  They probably didn't think they had to say what the goal is not.

The goal of the show is entertain and captivate the audience by taking someone that most folks know and can identify with (a celeb) and have them share their personal journey of discovering a line of their family history; sharing the excitement of uncovering clues, facts and insights, and their new found connection with American History. (If NBC succeeds, they make money and the show gets a second season.  For Ancestry, their goal is that viewers will head to and try a search.  If they succeed, they make money, and they stay in business.)

The goal is not to provide a how to class on conducting genealogy research.  

In fact, I say "thank goodness!" that teaching the research process is not their goal.  If is were, you'd see the show replaced by re-runs of The Jay Leno Show faster than you can say "peacock." 

And I have to ask the genealogists out there who are bemoaning the lack of detail about how and where documents were found in the making of the show:  Would you really want that?  Would NBC really be the most qualified entity to provide such instruction?  In fact, dare I say it, would Ancestry really be?  (They have GREAT online documents, but instruction on the research process doesn't appear to be one of their goals either!)

My answer is, No, of course not.  

Let's drift back to the hey day of genealogy entering America's consciousness - the debut of Roots.  Hands down, Roots did more for genealogy than anything else in recent memory.  I don't recall seeing a single document, courthouse, or National Archives employee in that series.  And if we had seen that it would have diluted from the incredible impact it had on all of us.  

Alex Haley and the TV network showed us what was possible - showed us our connection to history - showed us the stories just begging to be uncovered in our own family tree!  We did not walk, we RAN to books, classes, Family History Centers and other resources to learn more about how to do what Alex did.  His aim was true and he nailed it:  He INSPIRED us to want to know more.  

Inspiration is what it is all about. I think that perhaps the genealogist out there, many of whom teach classes on the subject, have perhaps just forgotten for a moment that inspiring your students is goal #1. If you can't do that, all of the technical information in the world will go in one ear and out the other. 

So I count my lucky stars that Who Do You Think You Are? doesn't try to be a classroom for research.  I am very confident that all of the talented and experienced genealogists out there are primed to step in and take on that role for the thousands of newbies who catch the bug after watching the show.

By the way, Kudos to Lisa Kudrow and NBC for including as much history, documents and archive visits as they do in the series.  If you listen carefully to Lisa's interview, (on Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 81 , Genealogy Gems Premium Episode 41, and in the video interview below) you will hear her comment on how they had to fight to include what they did.  Don't underestimate her words.  She says it in passing, but I'm sure that bringing as much history as they did to network TV was a HUGE uphill battle.  There are lots of TV types out there who think Americans can only handle 15 second sound bites.  TV is big business and all about the money.  

So I'm giving NBC and Lisa Kudrow high marks for believing in the American viewing audience.  And we as genealogists will take it from there!

If you'd like to learn more about how to research your family history, I invite you to listen to the Family History: Genealogy Made Easy podcast.  It's free and will walk you through the research process step-by-step.


Miriam said...

Right on, Lisa! The theme I'm hearing consistently from my non-genealogy friends is, "Cool show...I'm interested in finding out more about MY family!" And that's exactly what this show is about.

It's not primarily for us who are already involved in's for those who are not.

Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith said...

Yes, Lisa has it right! Miriam, too!

Thanks for getting this statement out there!!


Daphne Garrison said...

Thank you for saying this! Exactly what I was thinking.

Suzanne Strickland said...

I am excited about the show because many people are becoming interested in genealogy. Last weekend (in fact the night after the first show aired), I attended a local genealogy society meeting in my parents home town ...I was visiting my folks for the weekend. It was standing room only and at least 10 people joined the club - including myself!

So kudos to both Lisas for what you have done to raise the excitement for genealogy!

(Oh and in case anyone does not have cable TV at home - like myself - or misses a show, they can watch the full episodes online on NBC's website)

Russ said...


Thank you for putting this out there. My question is, are we, those already interested in Family Research, ready to help others.

This was driven home to me last night, when one of my daughters called me, to ask about her research. She had started a number of years ago, but "got bored". We spent an hour on the phone, sharing some tips and tricks.

She is on FB and see's what I may post there, but I think it was Who Do You Think You Are? that got her back to doing some research.

So, there is at least one researcher that was impacted by the show, and hopefully I can help her (and others) find her ancestors.

Thanks again,


Anonymous said...

I have been trying for decades to get my husband interested in genealogy. These shows may just do the trick. If so, I may owe a LOT to Lisa Kudrow, because if he doesn't find a hobby soon, his retirement will be the end of our marriage! The same rationale - presenting the story of our ancestors and not the rocky path to get there - has given us those popular non-fiction books like Angela's Ashes that inspire so many modern genealogists to search for their ancestors as people, not just names and dates and "descent from royalty." We are at last using genealogy to find out who we are, as it should be.