Saturday, 6 March 2010

Some thoughts on WDYTYA? in the USA

Yesterday saw the first transmission of the new American version of the Wall to Wall made series "Who Do You Think You Are?", which has been going for many years now in the UK, and which has already been produced elsewhere around the world including Australia, Canada, Ireland and other countries. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the country that is last to join the party is the one making the biggest noise about it, but that is no different to the situation we found ourselves in the UK when it was first shown here! It's a new event in the US - there's a lot to shout about, particularly in a country filled with hyphenated Americans from all identities, something that has made the USA as great a nation as it is.

At first the product that became "Who Do You Think You Are?" in the UK started off quite differently to what was eventually shown on screen. Initially the series was to be developed inhouse within the BBC as a new 'Nations and Regions' series concerning genealogy. Nations and Regions is how the BBC is divided up, with the Nations (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), and the Regions (English regions), and previous shows such as "Coast" had been made on that model, so for example in Scotland the three Scottish programmes were made for that series, Northern Ireland made its one, Wales its two, and the English regions divided up the rest. (Similarly structured shows included the successful "Restoration"). If this model had been followed, the series would certainly not have made it to the screen in its current format or branded with the name "Who Do You Think You Are?", but for various reasons the plans changed and it was handed to Wall to Wall to make into a celebrity based format, and the rest is history.

In the UK, the series first transmitted on BBC2, followed by a half hour series on BBC4 entitled 'Family Ties', which was produced by the Open University, and which, from a personal point of view, I found far superior to WDYTYA - not because of production values (both were well shot, narrated, structured etc) - but simply because the BBC4 series dealt with real people in an almost observational documentary style, such as the English born man who suddenly found that his father had served with the German SS in World War Two, and other stories equally challenging in the areas of identity. I've always found the idea that identity can be affected by your family history research far more powerful than what can perhaps be construed as 'celebrity gossip'. That does from time to time appear in "Who Do You Think You Are", with the very best example perhaps being the very first episode concerning Bill Oddie trying to come to terms with his mother's mental illness.

Initially the series was documentary based, emotive when it was correct to be so, and challenging, and to add to the party, the BBC also added a fifteen minute 'red button' feature each week with useful information given by presenter Nick Barratt on the very basics of family history - how do you find a birth certificate, what is a census, etc? The question "Who Do You Think You Are?" was pointed directly at us, the viewers - we were merely watching the celebs to show us the path how to find out. The whole idea of the initial commission was to create a learning journey - watch the show on BBC2, be motivated enough to follow it to the red button and/or BBC4 "Family Ties" programme, then to the BBC and /or OU websites, and perhaps end up with the viewer doing a course or in pursuit of their family history though other means. Public service broadcasting at its very best.

So successful was the first series, that a second was commissioned, to equal acclaim, and I still consider the first few series the best yet, though the support materials in the form of 'Family Ties' and the red button features disappeared in the show's infancy. Each year a new batch of stories appeared, without repetition (or not too much at least) of subject matter. Somewhere down the line the decision was then made to 'promote' the series to BBC1. That to me was a terrible decision and a real turning point. The show had been a ratings hit for BBC2, but also had a degree of intelligence in each edition's construction, but the move to BBC1 saw the format change to be more about the celebrity, and more as an entertainment product, than a decent show on genealogy. I personally now find the BBC show a tired version of its former self. It seems that each season we now get 'token' programmes covering the same themes - the mandatory 'Irish' programme, the obligatory 'Jewish' programme, the one with the 'Trenches' etc. Don't get me wrong, some classics do still pop up - it's a resilient format. But where the earlier series allowed us to follow the celebrities on their journeys, and to learn ourselves how to pursue our own, now the show has become repetitive, and one of those shows alongside "This is Your Life", "Coronation Street" and "Doctor Who" that all celebrities would like to appear on. Its their show now, not ours, and an ordinary person's story is no longer an important consideration. Hence why it is not at all deemed inappropriate to stage Carol Vorderman bumping into someone in a shop who just happens to have an answer to a particular brick wall problem, or to see Chris Moyles looking at the original 1911 Irish census in Dublin when the rest of us would be shot and told to go and look at the digitised version online instead! (True genealogical research techniques have long been abandoned by the UK series, and it is amazing how many doors can be opened with a big name celeb that you and I might find less easy to move!).

At the same time though, there is a real contradiction - the celebrity angle has certainly invigorated the genealogy market more than if the show had been about ordinary people, because the UK has now become a celebrity obsessed culture, and without a famous name attached these days, little happens - whether that is the winning of settlement rights for the Ghurkas in Britain or the commission of a television documentary. The WDYTYA brand is a powerful brand - last week's show in Olympia proved that with some of the highest attendance figures yet - and each series continues to gain high viewing figures.

The US is now being introduced to the series, which it is believed will be shown later in the year in the UK (but with a British narrator). When it arrives, it will be the ultimate celebrity fest, in that we will be able to learn even less, I would imagine, from our overseas cousins' stories that can help us in our own research. I suspect we may even find it a bit odd, as I would imagine there will be structured emotional moments leading into commercial breaks on NBC (compare 'Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares' American version to the British one!). It will still be a genealogy series - but when it arrives, for us here in the UK I suspect it will have completed its journey to become a purely entertainment based format, but I hope that it will help achieve the same cultural impact in the USA that it has here in the UK.

"Who Do You Think You Are?" did change the goal posts here in the UK - it is our history, and we do have a right to find it out for ourselves, and that was something the show helped to open doors for. Hopefully it will have the same impact in the US - but USA, please don't forget the meaning of the title as your version develops in the years to come, as perhaps has happened over here.

It is "Who Do You Think You Are?" - not "Who Do They Think They Are?"!

Scotland's Greatest Story


The Professional Descendant said...


I agree with much of what you say.

WDYTYA is an entertainment programme that uses genealogy, not a programme aimed at genealogists. Once I accepted this I found I could enjoy it a lot more (although still experience regular 'shouting at the telly' moments :P).

I think the great advantage of the programme and its prime time slot it that it really has brought genealogy to a whole new audience. I'm amazed how many people, who have no real interest in genealogy, have seen at least one or two episodes, apparently enjoyed them and still remember them several years later.

Not all will go on to trace their own families but at least they know what I'm talking about when I say I'm a genealogist and figure that it's a pretty interesting thing to do. WDYTYA has definitely helped improve the image of genealogy.

It would be nice to see a'proper' genealogy programme along side WDYTYA but I wonder if radio and/or podcasts aren't a better medium, if only because the reality of much genealogical research (i.e. sitting at a computer screen or microfilm reader) isn't necessarily very interesting visually.

I think the format of BBC Scotland's 'Digging up your roots' works pretty well but it would be nice to hear something a bit more indepth.


Chris Paton said...

Hi Kirsty,

The remit of WDYTYA has changed significantly over the years, particularly with the channel change, as BBC1 and BBC2 attract hugely different audiences. As you say, it absolutely is an entertainment show now - what the Beeb calls 'factual entertainment' - but the first shows were geared to helping people research their trees by watching the examples of celebs, but providing follow up support, inc the red buttons and the BBC4 series, strong web presence and more. Now it is purely about the celebs.

Regarding your question about whether 'proper' genealogy could be done on TV - IMO, absolutely it can. If you didn't see Family Ties on BBC4, I'd urge you to somehow beg, borrow or steal a copy! It was decommissioned after the OU became part of the BBC's Specialist factual department, which was a real pity. can't remember if it ran for one or two series (I think two). It was WDYTYA without celebs, ordinary people on their own journeys, half an hour long, and absolutely gripping from start to finish.

Radio absolutely works, though at times can be just as formulaic, but has not degraded anything like the standards in TV. If it wasn't for the likes of Radio 4, the jewel of the Beeb, I'd probably refuse to pay my license fee! Podcasts, blogs and the internet are definitely a way forward, and that is fittingly in keeping with the idea that family history has been so democratised - as much as that is the case, so it is the case that we can now create our own broadcast media, thanks to the internet.

The real TV crunch will come one day when a BBC exec or channel controller will say "no more genealogy". And it will come, as much as it did for Changing Rooms, Big Brother, Meet the Ancestors and other long running genres. Thankfully when it does, I think the hobby will be as embedded as it possibly can be, and the web will take over - it's thankfully a genie that I don't think can be put back into a bottle!


The Professional Descendant said...


Don't think I saw all of the 'Family Ties' programmes. Must see if I can get a hold of them.

I do remember the 'red button' bits though. Useful and quite well done and it's a shame they don't repeat or redo them with each new series of WDYTYA.


Chris Paton said...

Couldn't agree more - though I suspect much of it is now probably out of date, e.g. no Family Records Centre in London anymore, etc.


Brenda said...

"Structured emotional moments" had a good part in the first episode of American WDYTYA, with Sarah Jessica Parker. Much sweeping of hair from the brow. To be fair, the Association of Professional Genealogists' mail list has some consensus that the entertainment value will engender more business for researchers.