Can genealogy make it in mainstream America?

By Editor, 2 March 2010 - 10:35am

US genealogist Kimberly Powell wonders if Who Do You Think You Are? will make genealogy as popular a hobby in the US as it is in Britain

Tuesday 2 March 2010
Kimberly Powell, professional genealogist and author
Read more about the new US series

I have been involved in researching family history for over 25 years, and writing about genealogy online for About.com for the past 10. During that decade, interest in family history research has increased dramatically here in America, yet it is still not even close to matching the nationwide pastime of genealogy in Britain.

I get as many, if not more, comments and questions from readers in the UK, Australia and even South Africa, than I do from here in the United States, despite the fact that my blog has a primary American focus. That’s why NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? following in the footsteps of Faces of America with Henry Louis Gates Jr. on PBS and National Geographic Channel's The Genographic Project has U.S. genealogy blogs, mailing lists and all of my genealogy Facebook friends buzzing with excitement. Maybe we can finally replicate the genealogy success of our British neighbors across the pond!

For now, the feedback from fellow family history bloggers, genealogical society members, librarians and archivists can most generally be classified as “cautiously optimistic.” Everyone I’ve talked to is hoping for a repeat of the interest in genealogy generated by the television mini-series Roots back in 1977, but most are not yet making special plans to accommodate dramatic increased attendance or excitement – except, perhaps, Ancestry.com which sponsors the US show and is featured prominently throughout the episodes.

The biggest public response outside of the genealogical community so far appears to be in the hometowns of the various featured celebrities. In Cincinnati, Ohio, for example, the local paper has already published an article on the roots of hometown girl Sarah Jessica Parker, while Channel 5 in Cincinnati has filmed a piece on beginning genealogy at the Cincinnati Public Library for airing the morning of the series premiere.

Executive producer and former Friends star Lisa Kudrow, who was captivated by the British version of Who Do You Think You Are? while working in Ireland a few years ago, says that the US version will follow the history, genealogy and interview format of the popular BBC show, but will also be a bit faster-paced due to the commercials, recaps and driving music that is a part of US network television. It is also designed to focus even more on the emotional journey of each celebrity in an attempt to draw in an ever skeptical American audience. The entertainment factor is, unfortunately, what’s going to make or break this show here in the US.

The unique combination of television styles – historical documentary, mystery movie, celebrity biography and reality TV – combined with the international appeal of celebrities Sarah Jessica Parker, Emmitt Smith, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Broderick, Brooke Shields, Susan Sarandon and Spike Lee, will hopefully resonate with a broad audience.

There are quite a few genealogists lamenting publicly on Facebook and in blog comments that they wish the new show would focus on “everyday” ancestors rather than celebrities, but to be honest celebrities are what will bring in the national audience for genealogy that we all are craving. What’s important to remember is that while the family histories do belong to the stars, the histories being featured are almost entirely about regular folks. Even the parents of most celebrities are relative unknowns.

Can genealogy make it in mainstream America? Will there ever be a point where “everyday genealogies” are considered fascinating enough that we don’t need the celebrity draw? Hopefully Who Do You Think You Are? will begin to provide some answers.

 

Take it further

 

Who Do You Think You Are? will air on Fridays in the US on NBC beginning March 5 with Sex in the City star, Sarah Jessica Parker.

Kimberly Powell is a professional genealogist and the author of The Everything Guide to Online Genealogy (Adams Media, 2008) and The Everything Family Tree Book, 2nd edition (Adams Media, 2006). She writes about genealogy online for About.com and resides near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

 

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