Of course, it is impossible to describe Genealogy Roadshow on PBS without comparing it to its commercial cousin, Who Do You Think You Are? that has recently been broadcast on TLC. Indeed, I will describe my impressions of the similarities and differences of the two programs.
Who Do You Think You Are? features one nationally-known celebrity each week and usually traces that person's ancestry back to one person of interest. The celebrity typically is paraded through a number of archives and often is taken to the city or cities where ancestors lived. In contrast, Genealogy Roadshow features many different people in each episode and all of them are non-celebrities. Each person arrives at the show with assumptions or family stories about being related to someone famous or, even better, to someone who is infamous. The professional genealogists on the show then either prove or disprove the assumption by showing various historical documents such as those that are familiar to most genealogists. There was no travel to archives or cities shown during the program.
The professionals featured on the program are Kenyatta Berry, president of the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG), and D. Joshua Taylor, president of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS). Indeed, I cannot think of two more highly qualified people to lead this television program. I happen to know both of them and was pleased to see a side of each of them that I had not seen before: they are excellent television hosts. I suspect there are a number of other professional genealogists working behind the scenes as well, but Kenyatta and Josh provided excellent on-screen examples of professional genealogists.
This week's program setting was at a huge mansion in Nashville, Tennessee but the program otherwise was very informal. All videotaping was done in that one mansion; there were no trips to archives, battlefields, or the distant home towns of ancestors. All records were shown were digitized and were displayed on an iPad connected to a huge monitor for both the guest and the audience to see.
All the guests on the first episode live in Nashville or the surrounding area. (Next week's episode will be filmed in Detroit.) All the guests had submitted their questions in advance, asking about things they had been told as children or about assumptions they had made. Probably the most touching query was from a woman who had never met her father and knew nothing about him. She wanted to know more about him and his family.
Each guest was seated with either Kenyatta or with Josh and watched as the documentation was shown to confirm or to disprove their initial assumptions. The audience stood around the guest and host. That audience often cheered, clapped, and sometimes shed a tear as the results were shown to reach guest.
The stories presented struck me as excellent in most ways. The presenters did not hesitate to show illegitimate children of interracial relationships, one black Union soldier who later settled in Nashville (I suspect the white residents of Nashville did not approve of his military service), and other controversial topics. In short, this was a presentation of "your family as it is."
I also like the idea that the presenters were quick to disprove several "family stories" claiming that the family is related to someone who was famous in history. Not everyone is related to Davy Crockett or to Jimmy Carter, despite what the family stories claim. Both Josh Taylor and Kenyatta Berry were quick to point out that some of these claims were not true.
I was especially touched by the last guest on this evening's program: the young woman who never met her father and knew nothing about him. The show's genealogists and producers not only found a lot of information about the man, they also found a woman in California who is the niece of the man in question and therefore a cousin of the woman who was seeking information. The show's producers flew the cousin from California to Nashville where she met her cousin for the first time on television. She carried with her a large photo album containing dozens of photographs of the father in question, along with many aunts, uncles, cousins, and I believe there were pictures of grandparents as well. I think a lot of tears of joy were seen in the audience at that moment. Yes, even my eyes also watered a bit.
I did have two "quibbles" with tonight's show. One guest was told that she was PROBABLY related to a famous American and then, in a follow-up interview with the show's host, she said she was delighted to find out that she was related. I'm sorry, but "probably" is not the same as "is."
Another item I believe is a technical error in reading records of a soldier's role in the American Revolutionary War. I don't want to give details until I have a chance to verify some information. While I believe the details provided were in error, it made absolutely no difference in proving or disproving relationships to the soldier. In short, it was a trivial error that had no impact on the findings. It only jumped out at me because I am a history buff and I have some knowledge of the military during the American Revolutionary War. I suspect most viewers never noticed it.
In the program's defense, I will state that I have seen more errors on Who Do You Think You Are? than what I saw this evening on Genealogy Roadshow.
All in all, I was happy with this evening's broadcast of Genealogy Roadshow. I saw two genealogy experts provide family tree information to a number of non-celebrities who had an interest in finding more information about their families. In short, the guests were just like you and me: just everyday folks. I consider that to be a good thing.
I also liked the format of multiple guests on each program, each surrounded by audience members, in an informal setting. I will suggest this is a great way to teach the American television public "this is how to research your family tree."
I am looking forward to next Monday's broadcast of Genealogy Roadshow.