Why “Who Do You Think You Are” Being Easy is a Good Thing

Season 2 of NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are premiered last Friday night. Facebook statuses and Twitter feeds were ablaze with updates (much to the chagrin of some on the west coast). Episode 1 featured Vanessa Williams and her search for her father’s side of her family.

The feedback that I saw from genealogists, librarians, and archivists was positive. The format was an improvement over Season 1’s constant recaps after every commercial break. (Did they think the audience would forget *everything* in those 2 minutes?) Williams also took notes throughout the episode, making her at least appear to be a more active participant than some in Season 1.

The episode had good drama. Williams discovered an ancestor who fought in the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War and another who was a state legislator in Tennessee during Reconstruction. It was moving without being melodramatic. It showed good resources without being pedantic.

Yet, there are complaints that WDYTYA makes genealogy look “too easy.” “People are going to expect that they can just walk into a library or courthouse and get everything handed to them.” “What about the hours of research that went into what we saw?” “What about the female lines? We didn’t hear anything about them.” The list goes on.

There’s a saying in writing: “Know your audience.” WDYTYA’s audience isn’t the die-hard genealogist who can code a surname’s Soundex code by hand. Its audience is the person who enjoys learning about celebrities and who might also be interested in some form of family heritage activity.

Let’s be honest — sitting and watching someone search for names in a database isn’t very exciting. (It can be exciting for the person doing the searching, but not for a passive viewer.) It’s also isn’t very riveting to watch someone at the courthouse dig out the Grantee’s Index, find all the entries for Mr. Such-And-So, and then dig out all the books with those references. (Again, it can be exciting for the person doing the searching, but not for the person watching.)

That’s where WDYTYA knows its audience. They want to see the results. And WDYTYA does genealogy a HUGE favor, in my opinion: It shows enough of the research to make it look exciting to do. Would people get excited about climbing their own families trees if WDYTYA showed all of the frustration that can come with research?

WDYTYA isn’t supposed to be about the best research methodologies. It isn’t supposed to be about proper documentation. It isn’t supposed to be about how to tackle those brick wall problems. It is supposed to be about the excitement of the chase and the thrill of connecting with generations past.

The challenge — the opportunity — for those of us in the profession is to keep that excitement alive for people, while at the same time introducing them to some of the less-thrilling aspects of research. I’m thankful that WDYTYA keeps the emphasis on excitement. It’s that spark that might ignite in some people a desire to start their own quest. We can teach them about methodology after they get here.

What are your thoughts?

Posted: February 8, 2011.

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  • I think you are write on track with this posting. Hardcores will pick at the details, but the audience will not even notice those issues. I’m thankful for the show however long it lasts.
    Thanks for your comments.

  • Amy, great blog! I agree with you to an extent. I think there could be a little more of comments such as the researcher at the National Archives who said that she has never seen a photo in a Civil War penion in her __ years of research. Those kinds of comments help ground the show in reality. Perhaps if each person at each repository made some comment like that, even off hand, it would alleviate my concern about making the process seem so easy.

  • Liz, something from the archivist or librarian such as, “Welcome, Vanessa. After searching for eight hours, we found this entry for you.”

    • But would such a comment (“After searching for eight hours…”) negate the excitement factor? I don’t know.

      One thing I do know is that people have expected to be able to walk into the library and have their “complete” genealogy handed to them long before WDYTYA came along. At least WDYTYA shows that there is a process of some sort involved.

      • WDYTYA has done a great job to create interest in all of the age groups. To have some one famous and have them actually find some information is much more compelling than if a story were done on me or one of my neighbors and nothing was found. How would that show do in the ratings?

        Even though the research is in a very condensed “Reader’s Digest” version, WDYTYA shows results and it is important for the audience to see success. When someone witnesses success they might be more encouraged to try it for themselves! They would then find out that life is never like the movies, but the spark has been lit and could take them on a whole new journey that I’m sure they would enjoy.

  • Yes, I’m one of those left coasters who had to wait to see the show but it was well worth it. Can you believe they found a tintype in a pension file?! I knew the show hit the mark last season when my 21 year-old-son said he owed me an apology for “all those years of making fun of genealogy.” He had stayed up half the night watching the shows on Tivo and declared “It makes history come alive.” The show isn’t for us – it’s for them.

  • I agree with you totally and especially love how you said it in the next-to-last paragraph! I say that to myself every time I hear a criticism. It’s a great program and reaches a lot of people with a wonderful message—discovering our ancestors is exciting and rewarding and emotional. Thank you for a great post on the subject, Amy!