Saturday, March 6, 2010

What I Think About - Who Do You Think You Are?

"A young man with so much old information."

~ Sarah Jessica Parker to New England Genealogist Josh Taylor ~

The long awaited night of the premier of "Who Do You Think You Are?" has come and gone. I could not be more pleased. Family historians and genealogists, we of the "can't get no respect" avocation, are actually portrayed as wise and winning. Knowledgeable keepers of the history of our families; family history as it twists and turns through the much respected discipline of mainstream history.

Was it perfect? Foolish question. Nothing is perfect. Was it as close as a television program can come? Yes, I think it was. Producing a television program is no easy feat. Producing one that will be picked up by a major network in prime-time is even more difficult. Producing one that will be picked up by a major network in prime-time about family history; 1,000 times more difficult. Producing one that will be picked up by a major network in prime-time about family history that has staying power? How difficult that will be remains to be seen.

Yes, it is populated by celebrities. Many of us would also love to see the stories of those having no name or face recognition. Real people as it were. Is that realistic when we are talking about a major network in prime-time looking for advertisers? I don't think it is. A genealogical reality program can be found on the BYU network in its Generations Project.

So, how did Lisa Kudrow do? The program was produced by a well-liked celebrity who hung her hat on a proven product. WDYTYA has been a successful program in the UK for six years. It's drum has been beaten by WDYTYA magazine. (The magazine will be including the US version of the program). It has a track record.

Celebrities were the draw for those new to genealogy in the UK and Canadian versions and will be here in the US. We who live it and love it would have been satisfied with anyone's story. Are there enough of us to warrant an hour in prime-time on a major network? I think the viewer numbers show we aren't enough. The show needs converts. In my opinion, celebrities will be the key to converts.

A one-hour television program has only about 40 minutes of content, according to Tom Jicha the TV columnist for the Sun Sentinel. And I believe him, as I once conducted my own experiment. That was years ago and my count was 42 minutes of content.

How do you show the minutes, hours, weeks, months, and years of searching in 40 minutes? You don't. You hit the highlights. Which highlights you hit are the purvue of the producer, director, and film editor. If they have made the wrong decisions their audience and their numbers will reflect their success or failure.

This is television. A visual medium. Scenes walking in the gold fields of El Dorado are far more compelling to the viewer unfamiliar with family history research than depicting hours spent waiting for a microfilm viewer, copy machine, or the reference librarian.

My only objection to what I saw last night occurred with the original warrant for Sarah Jessica Parker's ancestor. No gloves? Bad form. And that pencil looming in Sarah's hand over the document? In all my forays into on-site research I have been asked to wear gloves and writing implements of any kind were not allowed in the room.

The blame can not be laid at the feet of Sarah Jessica Parker or Lisa Kudrow. They are family history neophytes. It is the responsibility of the show's expert consultants to advise as to best practices. In this case, best practices were visual and required no explanation. Done correctly, the novice would know what to expect when handling historic documents. It would have taken little effort and gone a long way to establishing the show's credibility.

Sarah Jessica Parker is charming, engaging, and appropriately interested and excited. Her comment about wanting to "fix it" should she find her ancestor was on the wrong side of the Salem Witch Trials was spontaneous and the remark of someone very new to the discoveries of the lives of their ancestors. To all those new to family history, I caution:

It is the wise Family Historian who understands that we can no more
take credit for the accomplishments of our ancestors, than we can
take blame for their failures.

Our knowledge of them is merely insight into ourselves.
You can not change history, take care not to misrepresent it.

Yes, I was pleased. The clear winner here is the genealogy community. We have an embarrassment of riches today with Who Do You Think You Are?, Faces of America, and The Generations Project. This is a first for our community. I want this to last. Support the programs by watching and support the advertisers and those who make the programs possible through grants. We will all benefit.

Thank you NBC, Lisa Kudrow, Sarah Jessica Parker, Who Do You Think You Are? and the advertisers who made it possible. Television hasn't looked this good in a long time.


Blogger Janine Smith said...

I agree on all counts! I also cringed at the glove and pencil moment - spoke to the TV harshly about it, in fact! At one point I thought Sarah Jessica Parker was getting a bit melodramatic, but then I stepped back and tried to remember my first discoveries when beginning my personal family history journey - I daresay I was pretty excited myself! Still am, sometimes! All-in-all, I think it's a keeper and can't wait for next week!

March 6, 2010 at 12:56 PM  
Blogger Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

I totally agree with you. You cannot condense a family history into forty minutes so you pick highlights that make it interesting. I was pleased that they started with having her go to her mother's to ask what was already known and that they worked back from there. I was also pleased that they showed her actually looking up a record herself.

March 6, 2010 at 1:07 PM  
Blogger Tonia Kendrick said...

Hear, hear! A beautiful analysis of the show and the challenges it faced in coming to fruition in prime-time. I can't wait for more.

March 6, 2010 at 1:11 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...

This is why I like you fM, we think a like!! Sorry, you might not want that made public! *lol* WDYTYA is a television show on the topic of genealogy. It wasn't intended to be an educational documentary on how to perform genealogy research. The pace was hurried, but as you stated, they only had 40 minutes of actual "show" time. I felt the show was well done and I sure hope the genealogy community will rally around it!

March 6, 2010 at 1:27 PM  
Anonymous Lisa Rex said...

I am generally pleased with the US version of WDYTYA too. It follows the same format of the UK version.

Yes, they had to edit out all the 'mundane' but crucial research. The general public wouldn't watch that, and the show would flop.

For what it's worth, I've handled over a hundred original documents when I was genealogist in England and it's very rare to be wearing gloves. And pencils are allowed in the document rooms. They just ask you to be careful.

Clean hands with their full dexterity are less of a danger than fumbling, cloth-covered fingers trying to turn the pages of a very old document.

March 6, 2010 at 1:46 PM  
Blogger Greta Koehl said...

I was also won over. And the interesting thing was that the celebrity - Sarah Jessica Parker - for all that she had a lot of expert assistance at her disposal that an "ordinary" person would not so easily have had, did not really come across as a celebrity, but just another ordinary person who is amazed at what she finds out about her family. Perhaps an occasional indication that it does take time and patience and we do encounter some dead ends would be nice, but I do agree that a prime-time TV show has to focus more on the story than the details.

March 6, 2010 at 1:54 PM  
Blogger Sharondipity Designs said...

Very excellent observations Miss Maven and thank you for bringing up the Pencil. That had me sitting on the edge of my seat, gasping!

March 6, 2010 at 2:00 PM  
Blogger Mavis said...

Excellent observations and comments.

March 6, 2010 at 2:29 PM  
Blogger Heather Wilkinson Rojo said...

In ALL your forays you've ALWAYS been asked to wear gloves? Goodness, you haven't been to many archives, have you? If one visits many counties, many different states and regions of the USA, and other countries one will find all sorts of conditions for looking at old documents. Sometimes one can only look at a photocopy, sometimes gloves are de rigueur, often an archivist watches carefully, and then sometimes they throw the 16th century manuscript on the table and leave the room! Variety is the spice of life!

March 6, 2010 at 2:43 PM  
Blogger footnoteMaven said...

Thank you everyone for some great comments and observations. There was much to like and I'm looking forward to more.

And a special thank you to Heather Rojo for "sometimes they throw the 16th century manuscript on the table and leave the room!"

Now I know why some of those family history documents I've been searching for have gone missing!


March 6, 2010 at 3:34 PM  
Blogger Heather Wilkinson Rojo said...

Yes, but beware- in the state of Connecticut you must show "proof" of being a genealogist to look at some documents. A card showing membership to a genealogical society is sometimes enough "proof" as well as a photo ID. They had several instances of folks actually snipping their ancestor's signature out of deeds and other nasty cases of vandalism and hooliganism!

March 6, 2010 at 3:41 PM  
Blogger footnoteMaven said...

That settles it! Make them wear gloves.

It's much more difficult to operate a pair of scissors while wearing gloves.

Wait! Make that mittens.

March 6, 2010 at 7:35 PM  
Blogger Karen Packard Rhodes said...

You are correct in saying that the pencil in such close proximity to the document was a "gasp!" moment. However, gloves are a debatable subject in the archival community.

I spent the month of May 2008 researching at the General Archive of the Indies in Seville, Spain, reading 16th and 17th century Spanish documents, and at no time, really, were we required to wear gloves when handling the documents. The one time I did wear the white cotton gloves I had carried with me was in handling two old ledger books from the Papeles de Cuba, which were very dirty from having at one time had mold on them, though they had been treated. I was glad I wore the gloves then, because as soon as I started examining the documents, the gloves turned black from the dirt! So wearing the gloves, in that instance, was not to protect the documents, but to protect my hands. I also wore a disposable surgical mask.

March 6, 2010 at 10:35 PM  
Blogger last2cu said...

Great article, as usual..with respect to whomever was unhappy with all of the "celebrities" and wished that the show spotlighted "no names"...IT DOES..only one person is a "celebrity" everyone of their ancestors is a 'No name" to them and to us.

March 12, 2010 at 8:36 PM  
Anonymous Kristine said...

Who Do You Think You Are?
Thought the show has been wonderful and just saw the one with Lisa today.
So far my favorite one was with Sarah.

I agree about the gloves and pencil in the archive room being misleading. Seems like the producers would have caught that.

We were only allowed in DE Hall of Records room with an archivist who had on white gloves on to handle the old documents and photographs.

I do think it will inspire viewers
to go explore their own ancestral history. Looking forward to the next episode.

March 23, 2010 at 4:33 PM  
Anonymous Alexis said...

Saw the one on Brooke Shields Friday night. That one made me wonder with some of my own ancestry being French which castle could be oe of my actual ancestral homes???

April 4, 2010 at 4:03 PM  
Blogger Sherry - Family Tree Writer said...

Loved your comments, Maven! You are right on! No one would watch if they showed hours of tedious research. I've talked to many, some in my own family who have been watching the show, and the consensus is that they love it! (Hmm, did I spell consensus right?)

I've also been visiting with some new 'converts' to genealogy. What fun!

April 17, 2010 at 1:11 AM  

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