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Thoughts on Enjoying Genealogy on TV

By Daniel Hubbard | March 8, 2010

Now that the fourth installment of Faces of America has aired and the American version of Who Do you Think You Are? has begun, I feel like kicking back and thinking about what I have seen and heard. Mostly I’ve been thinking about how family history and television interact.

I think to enjoy genealogy on television requires remembering that it isn’t just genealogy; it is genealogy on television. This is a new experience for family historians, seeing what we do portrayed on TV. Doctors, lawyers, policemen and many others are used to seeing portrayals of their occupations with varying degrees of realism. Family historians are not used to it. As a scientist, I can say that not all scientists wear white lab coats. I only ever saw a fellow scientist wear one once. A photographer made my thesis adviser wear one for a photo shoot. He had to drive several miles to another lab to borrow one (he knew a technician who used one to protect his clothes). So, I have some background of sympathy for people in more oft depicted occupations. With that in mind, I think the sudden burst of genealogist and archivists portrayals on television is accurate enough.

It is important to consider that neither show was, or could be expected to be, a genealogy course. Neither of these shows was directed at the die-hard genealogist, that wouldn’t give a big enough audience for prime time. There is also no way to show a thorough research endeavor in under an hour, well under an hour when commercials are involved.

Television has other constraints as well. There needs to be things to keep people entertained. There needs to be drama, suspense, emotion and humor. There also needs to be interesting visuals and that usually means interesting places, often under idealized circumstances, well prepared for the cameras. Travel catches our interest or we wouldn’t do it for enjoyment. Celebrities also draw audiences and, lets face it, they do better on camera than most people. As much as I would love to have been featured on one of these shows, Meryl Streep has me beat when it comes to being on camera. Maybe someday such shows will stand on their own well enough for noncelebrities to be the focus of a few shows but not yet.

I think a lot of what might seem odd to an experienced family historian becomes perfectly obvious when put within the constraints of television. In Who Do you Think You Are? after finding the obituary stating that Sarah Jessica Parker’s ancestor died on the way to California in 1849, there was a dramatic moment when he was found in California in the 1850 census, very much alive. Good story telling requires drama and suspense and here and we got it. There are so many questions. Was he only assumed to have died because he was never heard from again? Did he abandon his wife? Did he know she was pregnant? How long did he live? Thinking those thoughts is part of the fun of family history. Of course, the obituary of a son who apparently could never have met a father who supposedly died away from home before his son was born isn’t the most accurate source for information about the father. Nevertheless, it was an important find. It was a great pointer to further research, but 1849 versus 1850 was more dramatic than problematic at that stage. It was, of course, good story telling. That said, I had already mentally gone ahead to when they would check the 1860 census on camera. They didn’t and when they didn’t, I knew he had died.

What we saw in Who Do you Think You Are? was the initial excitement at the discovery of what can be done with family history and a few big and seemingly relatively easy discoveries. We simply have too many ancestors and too many difficult problems, requiring too much time for anything else to be shown. What can’t be shown is the joy that pursuing one’s past for years can bring, the gratification of learning new skills, the elation of finally finding an ancestor after years of searching or the feeling of connectedness that builds up from studying ancestral lives and gradually gathering and piecing together all the little details that tell us so much.

So, here are my thoughts on enjoying genealogy on TV.

  1. Remember TV needs drama and that can change the way things are presented. You might wish otherwise, but without it there wouldn’t be family history on TV.
  2. Don’t worry about the use of celebrities, they are there to draw an audience, just don’t get the idea that only celebrities have interesting ancestries.
  3. Go ahead and envy the travel budget but don’t be surprised that they have it or that they use it.
  4. Remember that only the most exciting parts of someone’s ancestry are going to make it onto your screen. There must have been more investigated but only what can be made interesting for everyone watching will be shown.
  5. Relax
  6. Gloat about it with any nearby stamp collectors (optional).

You can also play along at home. As you watch you can ask yourself-

  1. What would I investigate now?
  2. Why haven’t they shown that record?
  3. What interesting thing (e.g. the Salem Witch Trials) are they heading toward?
  4. Would I have thought to look for that?
  5. Why did they look for that record?
  6. If my nongenealogist friends asks about that, what would I tell them?

Have these shows been perfect? No, of course not. There have been some things that I would change. Nevertheless, I have to admit that putting anything on TV gives it a very different set of constraints and resources from what it would normally have and that makes a difference.

(Disclaimer: I am not a TV producer, nor have I ever played one on TV.)

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Topics: Genealogy | 1 Comment »

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One Response to “Thoughts on Enjoying Genealogy on TV”

  1. Shasta Says:
    December 6th, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    Watching these TV shows, I have often thought that I would like to “produce” one of my own. Of course I would use my family members, and would have to tell them ahead of time that they cannot have glazed eyes, that they have to actively participate, and seem interested, and have some tears at appropriate times. But still, it might be a way to get the family interested and involved.

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