Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Shaking The Family Tree On Network TV

Last Friday night I saw a new NBC series called Who Do You Think You Are? It could I suppose be labelled under the catch-all soubriquet of "reality show" but that would be doing it a disservice. It is perhaps the most unusual show to appear on a commercial broadcast network since the early 1950s (there were some truly bizarre concepts that were tried back then including at least one series about toy trains!). That a show is unusual is not necessarily a good thing and the case of Who Do You Think You Are? is a perfect example. Who Do You Think You Are? is a non-fiction series about genealogy. When was the last time that any commercial broadcast network in North America has done a non-fiction series about genealogy? Frankly it is a poor fit for just about any commercial network. (Okay, I just checked; CBC in Canada did their version of Who Do You Think You Are? Back in 2007.)

I'm not saying that you can't make an interesting program out of genealogy. Alex Haley proved that fact with Roots. The series made from his quest to discover his family history dating back – somewhat improbably according to some experts – to the Kunta Kinte, the first member of his family to come to America as a slave made compelling television. But a non-fiction treatment? I honestly don't think that it will work on commercial broadcast network TV. Despite the fact that this is an import from Britain, where it has run for seven seasons, the format and the concept seem to be totally at odds with what a commercial network should be doing. Not that there isn't room for a show of this sort, but my feeling is that it is better suited to PBS than it is to NBC.

Not that the show is without merit. In the episode that I saw on March 12th we followed former football player Emmitt Smith as he attempted to trace his family history back to "mother Africa." As is the case with most African-Americans he was unable to fully trace his history with historical records. He progress was not without some interesting revelations however. Starting with his father's mother he was able to trace his way back to a small town in Alabama; really just clutch of abandoned buildings and a small store, operated by a second cousin of Emmitt's, who gave him a clue about where to find more information about his grandmother. This led him to the country courthouse where he was able to find records of his family going back to the 1870 census, the first census after the Civil War and also the first in which African American names were recorded. This gave him further information, particularly related to the racial designation used at the time. His ancestors were classed as "mulatto" meaning of mixed race. It also led him to the white family that had owned his ancestors, the Puryears. He was finally able to trace his family back to Mecklemburg County in Virginia in 1815 and the identity of the probable white father of his ancestor Mariah, Samuel Puryear, who Smith and the local expert who was working with him assumes was a child of rape. It was there that the records apparently ended. However at the beginning of the episode Emmitt had taken a DNA test, the results of which were available at the end of the episode. This revealed that he was 7% Native American, 12% White and 81% African. According to the person explaining the report to him, this is an incredibly high percentage – this person has never seen an African-American who is 100% African. The DNA researcher also suggested that his family probably originated from the "slave coast" of West Africa, probably in the region of Benin. Smith's journey took him through a series of emotions. In visiting the part of Alabama where his family had lived, he was sad that while the grave of the white woman in whose will they have found the name of his ancestors was still in existence and visible, the graves of the slaves, presumably including some of his ancestors were unmarked and abandoned in the woods around the white cemetery. His disgust related to Samuel Puryear, who it was assumed had raped an unnamed ancestor and fathered Mariah, the earliest ancestor he could find, was also palpable.

Now I'm just guessing here, but I suspect – based on what little I've been able to see of the BBC show on YouTube – that Emmitt Smith himself hasn't done all, or even much, of the research on his family described in the show. I don't think that this is really a bad thing although in the British show it appears to be openly stated that the research on a participant's family tree has been previously researched by "professionals."

Who Do You Think You Are? is apparently doing well in the ratings, "well" being a relative term when it comes to Friday night programming on network TV. The second episode actually improved on the ratings for the first episode, which is unusual for any new series. The show finished second in its timeslot and apparently tied for first in the 18-34 demographic. This is surprising – amazing even – given the subject matter. And still I don't really think that the idea is well suited to commercial TV. Remember that the British series is done on BBC2, which is a popular but non-commercial network. Emmitt Smith's story was a compelling one but would the telling of that story have been more compelling if it hadn't been interrupted every ten minutes or whatever for a commercial from an insurance company or whoever was sponsoring the show? A more seamless retelling of the story would have been the result and perhaps we as an audience would have had a greater sense of the passage of time in Emmitt's search. This is the sort of programming that PBS does so well, and which commercial TV, because of its dependence on commercials and both the resulting demand for ratings and the necessary series of interruptions for commercials, has trouble doing well. As I've said, this show – in this episode at least, because of the subject matter – is relatively compelling and capable of holding viewer interest. I just don't think that it is as well done as it could have been were it not for the demands of commerce.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You have to give credit to NBC for trying to shake things up with Who Do You Think You Are?, The Marriage Ref, and Minute to Win It. I personally like Minute to Win It. It's a refreshing game show with a talented host, Guy Fieri.