Tuesday, September 24, 2013

PBS' Genealogy Roadshow - Good Format But What's The Back Story

PBS launched it's new genealogy based show yesterday called "Genealogy Roadshow." As an avid and interested genealogist with more than 30 years of experience plus a bunch of courses and conferences under my belt, I considered this to be 'must see' viewing for me.

The 'Roadshow' title immediately suggested to me the lines of folks seen on The Antiques Roadshow, each hauling an old family treasure in the hope that an expert would provide good news about the treasure's remarkable value and place in history. The Genealogy Roadshow doesn't disappoint - there are the long lines of folks seen outside the show's venue but, rather than carrying family antique treasures, they come with family stories and questions about relationships and connections.

D. Joshua Taylor and Kenyatta Berry serve as the experts who present the genealogical findings that answer the family history questions on the show. I think they both do an admirable job of presenting and explaining the genealogy evidence found through what had to be an exhausting amount of research. Both Josh and Kenyatta also do, in my opinion, a even better job in representing the genealogical community. They are not just clever but they also have a sense of humour and an ability to communicate a lot of information concisely, perhaps too concisely.

On the critical side, the show covers a lot of stories in it's fast paced format. Perhaps a few less stories and more depth would work better? 

While viewing the show, I was left puzzled as to how the guests were selected. It was clear that there had been some preliminary event when potential guests would have offered their family history queries however if I didn't know what I know about genealogy, I might have been left with the impression that the census records, city directories, archived letters would just appear on online.

That certainly seemed to be the impression of New York Times television reviewer Neil Genzlinger whose tepid review of the show appeared on September 22, 2013. In his review, Genzlinger states, "No frequent-flier miles are racked up by the guests on "Genealogy Roadshow." Mostly, its experts just show them computer screens full of census pages and such (research they could have done themselves with a little search-engine savvy)."

Now I know where I've gone wrong. I just need a little search engine savvy. I'm sorry to disappoint Neil but I think I have more than a little search engine savvy in addition to a pretty good idea of the type of records to look for and how to read them but still I can't find all the answers to some of my family's questions and mysteries.

"Genealogy Roadshow" might benefit from spending a little bit of time looking at the back story, that is the research process used to uncover the answers to the puzzles being solved for the on-air guests. For example, how did an unknown first cousin of a woman inquiring about the father she didn't know, just happen to be in Tennessee in order to step out from a group of onlookers with a two inch thick album of photos and mementos specially prepared for the occasion. 

"Genealogy Roadshow" succeeds in showing that answers are possible but I think the show needs to do more to explain how to make possible a reality.

What were your first impressions of the show?


  1. I had the same thoughts! And how long did it take to find these records? Where is the genealogical proof? :-)

  2. Yes, as a genealogist I want to know the back story. But I'm a fan of "Antiques Roadshow" and I knew what was coming with this genealogy show. On AR the experts give a short history, provenance, and information on retail, auction or insurance values. But they don't tell the audience or the participant how they came up with this information. GR is based on AR, and is expected to be entertaining and fast paced. I understand both PBS's position, and also sympathize with you, the New York times and other genealogy fans.

    1. Heather, thanks for the comment. I am also a fan of 'AR' and 'GR' succeeds with the fast paced, entertaining format. Perhaps I've been incorrect in assuming the 'AR' experts don't need to do as much research as I am certain is required for 'GR.' I still think some minor tinkering can improve 'GR' by explaining a bit of the research effort.

  3. I have been an amateur genealogist for almost 50 years so was really looking forward to the "Genealogy Roadshow". I was very disappointed with the format and presentation and felt a lot of the information was just being 'thrown' on the screen. It felt contrived and lacklustre. I have given it a three-episode chance. I won't be watching any more.