Genealogy Gaining Fans Through Television

On Friday night I was glued to the TV to enjoy the first episode of the latest season of “Who Do You Think You Are” on NBC.  Martin Sheen (also known as Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez) was the featured celebrity and we learned that his Spanish and Irish ancestors shared Martin’s political activism.  As I watched the show I joined many genealogists on Twitter as we commented and joked about the WDYTYA drinking game potential for the show.  Regardless of your reason to watch the show, it is truly wonderful to see so many start to think about their own family’s history and wondering how to find out more.

As I have learned more about genealogy over the past few years I have heard over and over that “Roots” by Alex Haley was so influential in getting people interested in their family history.  The mini-series premiered in 1977 and spurred a generation to begin asking their grandparents about where they came from.  I was too young to watch the show originally, but did eventually watch the mini-series when it re-aired in the 80’s and even read the book.  I could certainly see how so many African Americans were inspired to try and discover their roots.

For some reason there was a big gap in the amount of television programming on the subject until roughly 2006.  Perhaps it was a reaction to the growing interest on the internet for connections to others throughout the world or perhaps the ease of accessing information.  Either way, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. presented some compelling stories on PBS’ “African American Lives” which began in February 2006.  His series included celebrities Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, Quincy Jones, and Chris Tucker, as well as lesser known notables with fascinating stories.   

December 2007 brought the BBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are” series.  Though I have not gotten to see any of the series episodes I learned on the Genealogy Gems Podcast that Lisa Kudrow watched it and decided that this show needed to be brought to America.  Thank goodness she did!   2008 yielded yet another PBS series with “African American Lives 2” and then in 2010 “Faces of America”.  These shows are wonderful and have a great combination of storytelling and some of the genealogical research necessary to unearth their history. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. uses genetic genealogy to further expand where standard research came up short.   (Edit:  Look for the newest season of “Faces of America” coming to PBS starting March 25th, 2012)

Finally in March 2010 the first season of “Who Do You Think You Are” came to America.  Thanks to such memorable celebrities as Sarah Jessica Parker, Emmitt Smith, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Broderick, Brooke Shields, Susan Sarandon, and Spike Lee, the series was a big success for a Friday night show.  

While so many of these shows focus on celebrities, it is good to see that there are a few shows that are more about “regular” people.   The Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) shared the stories of Pam Slaton, professional genealogist, on her own show “Searching For…” in February 2011.  This show follows average Americans as they try to find birth mothers, children given up for adoption, and others lost through family estrangements and so forth.  

There are other series out there that I’ve not been able to watch like “The Generations Project”, “The Genealogy Roadshow”, and “Find My Family”.  In the meantime, I will enjoy Season 3 of WDYTYA with such stars as Marisa Tomei, Rob Lowe, Paula Deen, Rashida Jones, Jerome Bettis, Reba McEntire, Helen Hunt, Edie Falco, Rita Wilson, Jason Sudeikis, and Blair Underwood.  I hope you will join me and encouraging others to get interested in family history by supporting all of these great shows.

3 thoughts on “Genealogy Gaining Fans Through Television

  1. I have not seen any of the shows yet, but have recorded the first episode of Who Do You Think You Are later this week. Sounds good and I had no idea that there were previous seasons of this either. Nor was I aware of the number of genealogical shows that have aired. Interesting. PS I haven’t received any tweets or anything about our classes. Did I miss them or are we just finishing them up on our own?


  2. I’m sure there are more shows out there that I missed too! labbie1- I’ve been out of the look on our class– too busy at work and home! I’ll have to check in with scrappygen and see what’s up!


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