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Megan Smolenyak

Megan Smolenyak

Posted: January 19, 2010 12:39 PM

Celebrity Genealogy Hits Prime Time

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With genealogy often cited as the second most popular hobby, I've never understood why it's been largely ignored on TV. We've got channels dedicated to everything from golf to going green, but aside from shows such as History Detectives and Antiques Roadshow that occasionally incorporate a dash of family history, genealogy has been badly neglected. Finally, that's about to change.

Active and armchair genealogists across the country -- not to mention those who can't know enough about their favorite celebrities -- will soon be treated to two shows offering a combined 11 episodes of prime time programming. Starting on February 10th and running 8:00-9:00 p.m. for four Wednesdays will be Faces of America, the latest PBS series by Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr. Just two days after this series winds down, Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTYA) will ramp up for seven episodes (Fridays, 8:00-9:00 p.m.) on NBC.

I suppose now might be an appropriate time to confess that I'm not a disinterested party as I conducted research for both of these series and had the opportunity to write the companion book, Who Do You Think You Are?: The Essential Guide to Tracing Your Family History, for one. Still, I can honestly say that my excitement would be as high even if I had had nothing to do with them. Genealogy will make for great TV for one simple reason: there's no such thing as a boring family. This is reality television that was scripted before TV existed.

Both shows offer considerable, multicultural star power that will appeal even to those who have never looked up a census record or interviewed an older relative. The PBS line-up includes Yo-Yo Ma, Queen Noor, Malcolm Gladwell, Eva Longoria Parker, Mike Nichols, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Meryl Streep, Stephen Colbert, Louise Erdrich, Kristi Yamaguchi, Elizabeth Alexander and Mario Batali, while the NBC one includes Lisa Kudrow (who also happens to be the show's executive producer), Susan Sarandon, Sarah Jessica Parker, Spike Lee, Brooke Shields, Emmitt Smith and Matthew Broderick.

Though both are celebrity roots shows, their formats are quite different. Both are participatory in nature with celebrities traveling to learn about their heritage, but Faces of America will feature Dr. Gates revealing many findings with his guests (much as he did in African American Lives I & II and Oprah's Roots), while WDYTYA -- a wildly popular import from the U.K. -- follows celebs on journeys of self-discovery.

As a life-long and hard-core genealogist, I see this as reason to celebrate. Anyone who's ever dabbled in family history knows how addicting it swiftly becomes, and if WDYTYA's success in other countries is any measure, many non-genealogists will suddenly find themselves pulled in by the undertow. So now's the time for current and budding roots-enthusiasts to start planning their weekly soirees (two shows in the week of March 1st!) to gather with friends, down some popcorn, swap tales of DNA testing Grandpa and purposely getting locked into libraries overnight, and most of all, enjoying these long overdue shows.

 
 
 

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