Television brings genealogy into our homes.
The BBC hit show "Who Do You Think You are?" created an entire industry, websites, books, a family history fair in London attracting 15,000 attendees. Over the years, each series has resulted in a major increase in masses of people whose interest in family history came about as a result of watching those episodes.
The new US version has also been a demonstrable hit as it has received excellent viewer numbers and has resulted in many queries received by genealogy societies, libraries and archives. In fact, the NBC network announced just a few days ago that the series has been renewed for a second season.
While most of us in the field believed without doubt that the new show would result in major traffic from beginners who had never thought much about family history, why it was important, or how to start, it appears that even experienced genealogists are finding useful tips from the new show.
In northern California, a longtime consummate genealogist - Rosanne Leeson - was able to solve her own Civil War history mystery after watching the recent Matthew Broderick episode, and shared this with me.
Wow! I am sitting here with tears in my eyes!
I have just had my first benefit from watching the "Who Do You Think You Are?" show!
During the Broderick episode, where the actor found his great-great-grandfather's grave in the Marietta (Georgia) National Cemetery, Rosanne learned about that cemetery and that dead soldiers had been moved there from Atlanta.
Rosanne had been trying for decades to find out what had happened to her great-grandmother's youngest brother who came to the US from Bavaria in the early 1860s. She had already discovered an archival record and knew when, where and how he had died. But she couldn't find out what happened to his body. At one point, she was told that his remains had probably been buried in a common or pauper's grave.
Once she heard about the Marietta cemetery, however, she went online, read its history and saw the list of the buried, which included her great-grand-uncle.
She picked up the phone and called the cemetery. The staff were going to send someone out to look and see if there was a stone and photograph it for her. They indicated that it was their duty and pleasure to provide closure to the family after some 150 years.
Although the genealogy community knew the show would be a hit, television networks rely on numbers. As we had all expected, the numbers indicated that there was great interest in the show.
Who Do You Think You Are? was BBC's entry into the field of genealogy shows.
Today, there are WDYTYA programs licensed in Australia, Canada, Germany, Singapore and Poland, with other deals in progress; Israel and the US (NBC is the latest) are now on the list. The BBC show's fourth season premiere scored the highest rating ever, as some 6.8 million viewers watched it.
The show has sparked an interest in genealogy among many viewers; an annual May genealogy fair is now held in London, attracting thousands of attendees (this year the dates are May 2-4). Additionally, BBC Magazines began publishing the monthly Who Do You Think You Are? magazine about tracing family trees. A website offers detailed help from expert Dr. Nick Barratt.
Family history researchers believe that any program providing insight into the mysteries of family history is an excellent idea.
Each one-hour episode takes a celebrity through their tree, providing historical context and uncovering secrets and surprising details. The BBC version has uncovered tales of bigamy, wartime heroism and even attempted murder, and traced families from the UK to Poland, Germany, Jamaica, India and other locations. The celebrities are often deeply emotional as they learn about ancestors' hardships. And, of course, they are always depicted as finding convenient parking places outside busy archives - which rarely happens in real life!
The NBC effort is headed by executive producer Lisa Kudrow (who was Phoebe in "Friends"). She grew up in Los Angeles, and her father - a genealogist - is a physician specializing in migraine treatments. Our families share roots in Mogilev, Belarus and I have met Dr. Kudrow. It is obvious that his daughter has developed an interest in family history as well.
Her webpage indicates an interest in research, and her background in biology may also see DNA genetic genealogy worked into the series.
The new BBC fifth series this summer presents celebrities from the world of politics, television, design, acting and fashion. They will embark on emotional, personal and surprising journeys crossing centuries and continents to uncover compelling family and social histories:
--Television host Jerry Springer's Jewish parents had escaped to London from Nazi Germany just three days before the outbreak of the Second World War. Jerry sets out on a poignant and painful journey that take him from New York and back to Germany.
--Actor Patsy Kensit's late father was an associate of the Kray Twins. Apprehensively, Patsy embarks on an investigation into her father's murky past; wanting to understand the roots of his criminality and to discover how far back "the family trade" goes.
--Broadcaster Esther Rantzen believes her family history is exclusively a story of genteel middle-class respectability, but there is mystery and tales of a black sheep in the family that has always intrigued her.
--Great-grandparents on both sides of model Jodie Kidd's family were awarded titles. On one side is the legendary Lord Beaverbrook. But when Jodie heads up to Newcastle to find out more about her mother's grandfather the mysterious Sir Rowland Hodge, a Newcastle shipbuilder, she uncovers an early 20th century political scandal.
Designer Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen has always felt a close connection to the sea and wants to discover how far back his seafaring roots go.
Boris Johnson sets out to find more about his roots in Turkey, in particular his great grandfather who was also a journalist and a politician.