"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.