“Who Do You Think You Are?” (What Do You Think This Is?)

This post is going to show some of my cynicism about the mainstream media, so forgive me.

Last night, I got to watch the fourth episode in this season of the American version of “Who Do You Think You Are?” about Kim Cattrall. I, for one, really enjoyed it.

This season, I’ve been paying more attention to what my fellow genealogists think about the series, mainly through listening to the BlogTalkRadio discussions after the show, but also by reading the blogs too.

Some of the comments about last night’s episode, and the show in general, don’t sit well with me. But I see that it’s all a matter of perspective. Here’s mine:

This is entertainment, folks, pure and simple. It is not a special-interest show on a special-interest channel. This is a prime-time television show on one of the major broadcast networks, televised at 8 p.m. on a Friday night. This means it is catering to the masses.

In journalism school, shortly after learning the basics about writing the 5Ws (Who, What, When, Where and Why), you learn what sells in the news:

1) Sex
2) Things on fire or things exploding
3) Fuzzy animals
4) Kids
5) Some combination of two or more of the above

The same goes for primetime TV. If there is a salacious story in a celebrity’s family trees (example: Kim Cattrall) and the show can televise it, they will.

Also, in journalism school, you are told to write to the 8th-grade level of reading comprehension, because that will work for the masses. Given the TV series  “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” perhaps the standard has been lowered.

Therefore, if a celebrity has George Washington somehow connected to his family history (example: Tim McGraw), of course the show is going to jump umpteen generations back in order to tell that story. Everybody knows who George Washington is!

My point is, that it’s okay. It’s a prime-time, major network entertainment show. It’s not a how-to genealogy show on the BYU channel. In fact, the word ‘genealogy’ doesn’t even appear in the description of the show on the NBC web site.

I bring this up after a comment about the Kim Cattrall episode that struck me. Folks said that the episode wasn’t about genealogy, it was about sleuthing. She didn’t move backwards through her family tree. She picked a generation and moved forward.


Well, to me, genealogy is sleuthing. And if you have a mystery in your family tree, you move forward to find out the answers. I think most people, at some point, have a mystery ancestor that disappeared. Let’s say you manage to find him or her. Aren’t you going to want to see what became of them?

For all the criticism that the Tim McGraw episode received for jumping back too many generations, the Kim Cattrall episode is generating comments about spending so much time on a more recent one. I liked the fact that they stayed with the one storyline. Anyways, aren’t we supposed to start with the most recent generation and move backward once we’ve filled in the blanks?

This episode traced some collateral lines to help solve a mystery. I’ve posted about checking on the neighbors in census records. Well, Cattrall knocked on the neighbor’s door in real life! She stopped in a pub as part of her quest for answers (that’s brilliant!). In tracing the most recent generations, it’s important to talk to real, live people with memories while you still can. It’s not all about newspaper clippings and census records on Ancestry.com.

One other complaint that I heard was that this was an apparent re-hashing of an episode aired in the UK as part of the British series a few years ago. Well, of course it is. That’s basically a free episode in the can for NBC. Perhaps they could have admitted as much up front though.

I do admit that I too watch this series with a genealogist’s/archivist’s eye — I’ve clucked a few times when I see old documents not receiving the white-glove treatment. But I don’t let that stand in the way of my enjoying the show. I come to be entertained, and I am. Every week.

I do understand the qualms of some of my fellow genealogists. I really do. This is our craft! We want it portrayed accurately. We’re afraid that when a fledgling family historian sees the show and how easily the celebrities can skip back several generations, that it’s painting the wrong picture.

It’s akin to the “CSI factor.” The DNA tests on crime shows during prime-time TV take hours, not weeks or months, like they do in real life. This drives those in law enforcement nuts. When they try to assemble a jury, they need to re-educate them as to investigative principles and techniques because what’s portrayed on TV isn’t the real deal. I’m not saying it’s right, but it’s what sells. It’s a lot harder to write a CSI episode if you have to work in a months-long gap for the DNA results to be returned.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you’re watching this show expecting real-life genealogy, you’ve come to the wrong place. But if you’re willing to sit back, relax and hear a good yarn about the celebrity being featured, then you’re going to be entertained. That’s the point. (Edited to add: Well, that and selling some Ancestry.com subscriptions).


23 thoughts on ““Who Do You Think You Are?” (What Do You Think This Is?)

  1. Great post! I haven’t engaged in the many discussions among genealogists about WDYTYA and now I see why. I’ve been waiting for you to write this post. You’ve captured my thoughts on the show perfectly!

  2. Greta Koehl says:

    I agree. I like the idea of having additional scenes/extra information online that flesh out the story and show more of the research/additional information. That way, the main show retains its mass appeal and geeks like us are happy, too.

    • baysideresearch says:

      That’s a great idea, Greta, and I think Thomas hinted at having Mark Lowe call in to the radio show next week to talk about his involvement in the next episode. He and Megan S. and the other researchers who participate have a lot to contribute to the conversation after the show for those who want to know more about the research involved.

  3. Jenna Mills says:

    Well said! It actually makes me sad that many of “us” have spent so much time pointing out the flaws they find in the show. Just sit back and enjoy it, there are plenty of other issues in this world to complain about.

  4. JenS says:

    Thank you for this post. While it would be nice in some cases to see a bit more of the nitty-gritty detail, it is a tv show and designed primarily for entertainment not education. The average viewer would not find a show on ‘how’ the work is done anywhere near as entertaining as a show on ‘what and who’ was found. I agree with Greta above, though, that some additional online material could be interesting.

  5. I could not agree with you more. I made the comment in the radio chatroom Friday night that it’s interesting the biggest complaint in the gen-community about this show has been going back too far too fast yet when they concentrate on one generation now it’s “not genealogy.”

    Since the person being researched was Kim’s grandfather, I can’t understand why anyone thinks that’s not genealogy. If it had been her gg-grandfather with this story would they consider that genealogy?

    • baysideresearch says:

      Linda, I watched the show and listened to the radio broadcast last night because I don’t have TV service and couldn’t watch the show live on Friday. I really was wishing I could have had a chance to call in. I was dying to ask the same questions!

  6. I thought this episode was great for showing how to do collateral research and how information doesn’t just come from your direct line ancestors. Also, even though they only went back “one generation,” they viewed a lot of records that folks would look at when they are just starting out.

    And going back to this being a re-showing of a previous episode: that’s my only complaint on this episode. There are so few episodes each season and I just hope they don’t start doing this every year. I’m sure it saves them a lot of time and money and most folks will not have seen it before, but to me it feels like I’m being cheated when they’re not up-front about it (and that’s just my gut reaction, which isn’t always “logical”). They could have presented it as a “special BBC episode” or some such and I’d probably feel different about it.

    • baysideresearch says:

      Valerie, they totally should have been more up-front about repackaging the British episode. Personally, I’m all for them using those episodes here, since I haven’t seen them yet, but they need to be transparent about that.

  7. Mavis Jones says:

    I agree with all of your comments. There are things I cringe at but most of the time I just seat back and watch the show. I use to think that the episodes I didn’t like (there haven’t been many in this category) were because I couldn’t relate to that particular research but the more I think about it, I just didn’t find those particular episodes interesting.

  8. I agree that the reaction to the show of many genealogists is more like, “Who Do You Think You Are Talking To?” As you say, it’s to the masses, and there’s a valid place for that.

  9. Missy, You can find at least some of the BBC episodes on YouTube. They are in small segments – about 6 or 7 for one show. I haven’t watched them all but have seen several.

  10. Kerry Scott says:

    I could not agree more. This isn’t NGSQ-TV…it’s entertainment. Be entertained or turn it off. Sheesh.

  11. Leslie Ann says:

    I totally agree Missy — let’s be entertained! Besides, I thought it was great that they showed Kim visiting the neighbor and the pub. Sometimes that’s what you got to do. You can’t forget about the collateral lines and moving forward. In some cases that is the only place you may find the key to what or who you are looking for.

  12. I agree! I am not a professional genealogist but I enjoy doing genealogy! I have been tracing my husband’s family in Italy for many years by teaching myself and learning as I go. I particularly enjoyed hearing Rosie’s comment that it’s not as easy as it looks on TV. Sure I would love all the glorious details on my inlaws but the sad fact is that there aren’t alot to be found when the family are poor farmers. THat’s it – they didn’t make the history books or royalty lists and there aren’t land deeds and will to find. So I content myself with at least finding some names and dates — and then the bonus happens! Finding current living relatives who are thrilled to find us too! So it isn’t merely just a backwards romp – it’s a jump from here to there and then over there and back here again! So when we masses watch this, maybe like gourmet chefs who hate cooking shows — we however enjoy seeing others have fun like us! For the pros it work – for us it is joy! It’s all part of family and that’s not a bad thing!

  13. Kim Hites says:

    Bravo! Very well said.

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