click to view original photo

Genealogy and TV

An assessment of NBC's, "Who Do You Think You Are?" and the real world of genealogy research.


Content Details

Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by:
Word Count: 960 (approx.)
Labels: Vital Record 
Short URL:

Public television and the National Geographic Channel have created television shows dealing with the subject of genealogy for some time now. For the most part they are accurate, and with technical subjects such as DNA research, they keep the viewers riveted. But, public television and National Geographic attract a certain kind of viewer. Such a viewers are often curious about their environment and want more data in order to explore that environment. They are not so much interested in being entertained as they want to be informed. They are the nucleus of any study or body of research. They were not indoctrinated into the TV babysitting methods of current generations. Unfortunately, with the increased numbing effect of television, this is a dwindling group.

A new slant arrived on the scene with the advent of the NBC program, "Who do you think you are?" which just finished up its second season. From my public relations viewpoint, the show has given the subject of genealogy a shot in the arm, raising to a higher plateau, everyone connected with the subject including, writers, volunteers, genealogical groups, various websites, etc. From a pure research point of view, the program does have the imprint of Hollywood which often bears a smidgen of fairy tale. In part the show targets demographics and, due to time and budget, gives license to omit some of the real scope of genealogy research.

As a parallel example, I refer one to the hot line of mystery genre shows like the trio of CSI programs. They take huge leaps and bounds fictionalizing the real CSI investigators who, in reality, spend yawning hour after hour in a boring laboratory and don't get to brandish a firearm or kick in the occasional door. Specialization of a profession kind of kills the romantic notion of a subject. Such TV programs only have an hour to catch the bad guys, and DNA results magically appear in minutes, when in the real world it takes weeks, and only then if a police department can afford the cost. I hate to break this to the crime story lovers, but often resources, or rather the lack of them, and the county accountant have more pull over what crime is given the energy needed to be solve by forensic science. Forensics is expensive, so thank goodness many a criminal makes it easy to be caught without the use of forensics.

I give the above example to help illustrate the two most blaring out-points in the latest "Who do you think you are?" Personally, I love the show and think it can only help cast a limelight on those in the genealogical trenches, but since I am also a writer of "how-to" and informative articles on the subject of genealogy, I feel a special urge to ensure viewers do not walk away with some false impressions of the nuts and bolts of family history research. I can only imagine a newbie to the subject after watching a few episodes of this program, finding themselves quite disabused that someone from the library doesn't just hand them a manilla envelope filled with answers about their ancestors.

I am afraid that only works if you are part of a TV show, possess name recognition, or have money to spend. If you are not famous or haven't the money, you're going to have to sneeze over dusty records in dimly lit areas for days to get the same results as presented on the program.

The other false impression is the lack of continuity of research tools used from show to show. They do not take the time to explain how many resources were dead ends, but rather only show the resources which resulted in discoverable information. They do not show what resources are the mainstays of the researcher's tool kit. And often they also portray some very extraordinary and rare resources, coming up with what appears to be routine results. I can assure you, genealogical researchers made strange throat noises when a tin-type was found in a Civil War document folder, or when the obscure newspaper article from the 1800s interjected a side to history, which is rare. As anyone who has done a lot of research can tell you, for every obscure reference and piece of data that pops up, there were many hours of page-turning research executed.

The show also did not interject the tremendous skepticism needed when one links data from various sources by the spelling of a name only. Let's not confuse the audience with just how many thirty year-old John Smiths were living in the same town at the same time.

Obviously, the show will pull an additional audience that is not as much interested in genealogy as they are fans of the movie stars portrayed in the show. That's okay. Maybe one of those fans might go home and ask Mom and Dad who their grandparents were. In all my research of the many branches of my family tree, I have never considered my "personality" as somehow transferable to me. I am not my father, nor my grandfather. I am however grateful for their success which laid the path I walk, but I have never assigned my perks, eccentric behavior, nor my mysterious urges to biology and DNA. Perhaps I have a very detached viewpoint, but my future is my own, not controlled by my past ancestors. So I find that portion of the show, and perhaps even the slant of the show's name as having a mystic quality to it. However, what is true for you is true for you, and I can look past such colorful sidebars if it lifts the subject of genealogy higher in the public eye. That is what the new TV shows dose well.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

<< GenWeekly

<< Helpful Articles