Friday, March 5, 2010

Genealogy Is Prime Time!

Genealogy has come to television. There's already been a lot of talk in the genealogy community about the recent PBS series Faces of America and the built up to NBC's Who Do You Think You Are? has been crazy. I wanted to see both programs before offering my opinions.

I was somewhat disappointed in Faces of America and was hoping the same thing wouldn't happen with WDYTYA. I had actually expected that the PBS show would be better than network television's version but it wasn't.

Faces tried to cram too much information and way too many people into four episodes. About the time a story got interesting, they switched to someone else and each person's story was told in so many disconnected segments that I'm not sure I remember anything they learned. The participants weren't involved in the process at all - they just sat around waiting for Dr. Gates to hand them their genealogy. One particular exchange made me cringe. After learning that she had ancestors in this country back to the 1600's, Meryl Streep commented that she could join the DAR if she wanted and Dr. Gates' responded that she could own the DAR. Shouldn't someone in the production/editing end of this series have checked the requirements for DAR membership and found that they are related to participation in the Revolutionary War not early immigration to the Colonies? All the DNA talk in the final episode was complete information overload and I doubt that many people came away with any kind of accurate understanding of that process.

WDYTYA succeeded in several of the areas that disappointed me in Faces. An entire episode devoted to one person makes for a much more cohesive story. Having the participant at least go to the places where their ancestors lived and at least see actual records was nice even if they had professionals actually finding the records. I hope newbies jumping into genealogy because of the show don't think all they have to do is visit a library and the staff will hand them a stack of records for their ancestors. The constant re-capping after every commercial got on my nerves and wasted time that could have been spent on the story. Network television doesn't re-cap dramas after every commercial. Do they think this subject is so complicated people wouldn't be able to remember what they'd just seen 3 minutes ago?

There's been much discussion recently about why these shows feature celebrities instead of real people. The answer to that question is because normal people non-genealogists wouldn't watch a show about you or me. They needed the hook of celebrity to bring in an audience so I don't have a problem with that. However, that brings up another show that seems to get overlooked in all the hype for Faces and WDYTYA. BYU-TV's The Generations Project actually does feature real people and their latest episode is available online. It's similar to the format of WDYTYA but has the added feature of the participant sitting in a studio discussing the experience with the moderator.

While I enjoyed WDYTYA much more than Faces, I think the bottom line is anything that brings more attention to genealogy has to be a good thing in the long run. I hope this trend continues.

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