Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Genealogy As Entertainment

Television has a major impact on our lives. Today we see genealogy related media on a regular basis. The emphasis of many of these shows is on discovering our lost histories and they are often sponsored by companies such as Ancestry promoting their products to the masses. These programs have opened the door to a vast audience of people who may have never thought of their family histories before.

The first television show that I know of which focused on genealogical research and stories of individuals was Ancestors. Each half hour episode focused on a specific research technique as well as including stories from individuals on how their research had affected their lives. This series ran for 23 episodes on KBYU and also on local PBS stations starting in 1997. It was sponsored by Ancestry. The series can be seen in its entirety on the BYUTV.org website.

In 2003, PBS aired the first episode of History Detectives. This series has a team of experts who research the history of items, usually family heirlooms, that are believed to have historical significance. Even though this series wasn't specifically devoted to genealogy, it provided great examples of how family legends may have grown over generations and how the detectives are able to find evidence to prove or disprove the stories. Information about this show can be found on the PBS website.

In 2006, Reader's Digest Canada presented a series called Ancestors in the Attic. This show was part personal drama, part forensic investigation and part historical revelation. The hosts traveled around Canada and the world trying to discover the truths about a family's skeletons in the closet. The series lasted 15 episodes but ended when one of the hosts died while on the road filming an episode.

One of the pioneers in genealogy television was Henry Louis Gates, Jr. His first show, African American Lives, aired in 2006. This series consisted of four episodes featuring Quincy Jones, Mae Jamison, Chris Tucker, T. D. Jakes, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Whoopie Goldburg, Ben Carson, and Oprah Winfrey.

In 2008, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. followed up with four more episodes titled African American Lives 2. This series highlighted the family histories of Morgan Freeman, Tina Turner, Tom Joyner, Chris Rock, Don Cheadle, Peter Gomes, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Maya Angelou, Bliss Boyard, and Linda Johnson Rice.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., RootsTech 2018, keynote speaker.
Both of these series emphasized the use of DNA to trace heritage. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. spoke at RootsTech 2018, and explained how he became interested in the use of DNA to aid in ethnicity research early on. He mentioned that early DNA tests were done with blood samples and that samples had to be done in the labs. Through the use of DNA, Gates and his research associates were able to determine that more than 50% of African Americans have at least 12.5% European ancestry. That is the equivalent of the DNA contribution of one great-grandparent.

In 2010, Gates hosted Faces of America, a four part series that focused on the ancestry of Elizabeth Alexander, Mario Batali, Stephen Colbert, Louise Erdich, Malcom Gladwell, Eva Longoria, Yo-Yo Ma, Mike Nichols, Queen Noor of Jordan, Mehmet Oz, Meryl Streep, and Kristi Yamaguchi. In this series, Gates focused on how the diversity of our immigrant ancestors made America what it is today.

Gates continued his documentation of the ancestry of celebrities in 2012 with Finding Your Roots. This series is now in its fourth season. Each episode covers the life of several individuals and presents them with their very own book of life which includes a family tree and copies of photographs and records discovered through their research. Recent episodes of this series can be found on the PBS website.

Beyond what Gates has done there are several other series that focus on genealogy. One of the most well known is Who Do You Think You Are? This is actually two series, one for the BBC and the other aired in the US on NBC and then on TLC. The BBC series began in 2004 and is now in its 14th season. The US series began in 2010 and is now in its 10th season. Both series follow the same format of a one hour episode focused on the family history of one celebrity. Each episode tracks the path of research, going from place to place where important parts of their history played out. Seasons 4 through 8 can be viewed on TLC's webpage.

The Generations Project from BYU TV, began in 2010. It follows the story of an individual as they discover their family history. Each episode tells the story of one individual through their meetings with researchers and travels to important places in their family history. This program lasted three seasons, all of which can be viewed on BYU TV's website.

Heir Hunters is a BBC series that is now in its 12th season. This series traces the research of heir hunters and probate detectives looking for distant relatives of people who have died without a will. Information about this show along with episode clips can be found on BBC's website.

Long Lost Family premiered in 2016 on TLC and is now in its third season. This show focuses on reuniting biological family members, with many episodes being the search for biological parents of adoptees. The series also has versions that run in Britain and Australia. Each hour-long episode focuses on the stories of two individuals, how they became separated from their families, and the search for their families. Ancestry databases and DNA play a big role in the research. Full episodes of the TLC series can be found on TLC's website.

BYU TV is in the third season of their family history reality series Relative Race. I like to think of this show as a mix of Amazing Race and Long Lost Family. Four pairs of contestants race across the US looking for relatives they have never met or ones that they were separated from many years ago. Each pair is given the same set of equipment to start the game. This includes paper maps and a flip phone. At the beginning of each leg, the teams receive a text message telling them which city/town they are headed to. Once they arrive at that location they have to take a selfie to prove they have arrived. Then they each have to perform two challenges in order to receive the clue to their relative's home. Once they arrive at their relative's home they have to take a selfie of them with their relative. The winner of each episode is the team that has completed the trip in the least time compared to their estimated time. The losing team gets a strike. After receiving three strikes, the team is removed from the game. The winning team, after 10 days of travel, receives $50,000. This series can be viewed on BYU TV's website.

Another series that began in 2016 is Genealogy Roadshow which is now in its third season. This series focuses on ordinary people and their family histories. There are three hosts who discuss the research that was done to discover the stories behind each person's discoveries. Episodes from this series can be found on the PBS website.

PBS, BYU and TLC have lead the way in airing of these genealogy related shows and Ancestry has been a major sponsor. Some of these shows, especially Long Lost Family and  Relative Race are real tear jerkers and can leave you feeling exhausted for the individuals. If you want to see these shows and can't find them on their hosted sites you can try looking them up on Youtube.

Now that I have provided you with all of these great shows I know what you will be doing this weekend. Can you say binge watch!?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great article. I have seen many of these programs but it looks like I am going to have to invest some time in viewing the ones that I haven't seen. Your article is a great reference point to find the programs

Bette Harper