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?