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The Genealogy World Without “Who Do You Think You Are?”

Who Do You Think You Are?

With yesterday’s announcement from NBC that it decided not to renew the US version of Who Do You Think You Are? for the 2013 season, I’ve been pondering what the absence of WDYTYA will mean for the genealogy industry as well as for me professionally and personally.

My pondering really didn’t start just yesterday . . . I actually had a gut feeling several weeks ago that NBC wouldn’t pick up the WDYTYA series for another go-around. Basically it came down to ratings and if you look at some of the numbers this season, you realize one thing: the 18 to 49 year old demographic, which advertisers somehow have deemed the “key” demographic, just wasn’t engaging with the show.

WDYTYA Ratings Slide

Season 3 of Who Do You Think You Are? expanded to 12 episodes featuring celebrities like Martin Sheen, Helen Hunt, Rashida Jones and this week, Paula Deen. Purely looking at the numbers, one realizes that Season 3 saw the first dip under the 1.0 rating for the 18-49 demographic (as low as .8) and under 5 million viewers (with the Edie Falco episode at 4.64 million).

One observation: NBC didn’t seem to do as much promotion of WDYTYA as in past seasons. Did you notice this or was it just me? Granted I am not a big television watcher and don’t watch NBC very much, but while viewing other shows, I saw almost no promotions of WDYTYA.

Perhaps this was a “sink or swim” test on the part of NBC to see if WDYTYA could hold its own?

The WDYTYA Disconnect

So why the disconnect with the 18-49 year olds? Here’s my take:

  • A lack of celebrities under the age of 40. The key demographic could not identify with many of the featured personalities.
  • Most young people don’t want to do genealogy. Why? Many don’t want to “look to the past” and are focused on the future. This is especially true with young men. For women, it seems that it isn’t until they have their first child that they want to connect with their family history.
  • The CSI aspect was not played up enough. In Season 3, many of the stories seemed to lack the power of previous episodes of WDYTYA. The stories were not as compelling and some celebrities seemed to have similar stories.

The Impact on

As I write this post, the stock price (listed as ACOM) is down over 15% this morning. But Ancestry will do fine, believe me. I’m sure they’ve had a contingency plan in place and they’ll find other ways to spend the marketing dollars they poured into promotion of Who Do You Think You Are?

Ancestry will be promoting its new Ancestry DNA product line of tests as a way of attracting new customers as well as keeping its current subscribers engaged in their family history.  In addition, as was mentioned in last week’s presentation at the National Genealogical Society 2012 Conference in Cincinnati, new records sets are coming down the pike. These include German records as well as an agreement with the Italian government to digitize civil records.

Is “50” the New “Young Genealogist”?

As I approach my Golden Year – the big Five Oh – and I exit that “key” demographic, I’m wondering if the 50 and above demographic which seems to be prevalent in genealogy is a bad thing.  I know, I can feel comfortable with that now that I’m in that club, right?

Well, I think that perhaps you can’t really appreciate your family history fully until you reach a certain age. The 50+ club tends to have more discretionary income to spend on genealogy research, conferences, heritage travel and the like (and contrary to what you may have heard, genealogy is not cheap or free!). We also tend to have more leisure time to devote to our hobby, our passion. And we also somehow want to remember “the good old days” and connect with those memories.

The Future of Genealogy Television and the Genealogy Industry

Looking into my crystal ball:

  • It is possible that the producers of WDYTYA will shop around the show to another network. Don’t look for it on broadcast television – my bet is TLC or The History Channel.
  • Look for more modern approaches to genealogy television shows with the involvement of DNA testing and the presentation of results. As the technology gets better, you’ll see shows where a person (not necessarily a celebrity) is presented with DNA test results filled with surprises as to ethnicity and then the journey begins to find the “why” and piece a puzzle together.
  • The WDYTYA concept will go local. We’ve already seen this with many local news broadcasts including segments on their own version of Who Do You Think You Are? Not only will you continue to see a version of this on local broadcasts, but look for genealogy societies and conferences to pick up on the concept and leverage it to connect with newcomers to family history.
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The genealogy community will survive the loss of WDYTYA, be sure of that. One main reason: over the past few years many of us have embraced social media and technology which will keep the family history industry progressing forward. Many of these modern tools will increase our ability to look backwards and connect with ancestors while at the same time make a connection with our families and other researchers.

© 2012, copyright Thomas MacEntee

21 thoughts on “The Genealogy World Without “Who Do You Think You Are?”

  1. Tom, you hit the nail on the head here – or, I should say, you hit several nails on the head. As someone who worked in TV, I agree with your assessment.

    I think the chance is slim – possible, but slim – that another network will pick up the show. If it does, expect to see a very different show than you’re used to.

    The revamped version will be much leaner and meaner, and will involve little to no international travel (unless, for example, the Irish tourism board would pay for the show’s travel in an effort to lure Americans there to search for their roots).

    We shall see!

  2. Tom,

    I agree with your analysis, but I think you missed one reason for low viewer interest. Most of the celebrities in the episodes seemed to have been picked for their political views and connections rather than for genealogical interest.

    That trend became very apparent in the first year. I watched anyway (being in the 50+ group), and just rolled my eyes at the political nonsense.

  3. Ralph,
    Would you care to elaborate on that? I failed to see any political connections. If there were any connections, it might have been that they were friends of Lisa Kudrow and were interested in taking part in the series.

  4. Why is no one watching “Finding your Roots” with Professor Henry Gates which is currently running on Public Television (which still can do programs without thinking solely of demographics). The program always studies DNA as part of the guest’s lineage. The future you long to see is already here! I’ve wondered many times why GeneaBlogger never mentions it.

  5. The reason I haven’t mentioned “Finding You Roots” as much is that there doesn’t seem to be much of a marketing campaign as compared to what NBC and Ancestry have put together for WDYTYA. Each week I receive updates about WDYTYA.

  6. Bill,

    My point was that most were picked for their political views and connections (they are popular with the politically correct crowd), not that they presented their political views in the episodes, although in the case of Martin Sheen I would argue they kept trying to connect his political causes with causes of his ancestors to make him seem more legitimate.

    It also seemed to me that many actors were picked for their ability to emote on the screen. Much of it seemed quite phony to me, some of it seemed very rehearsed.

  7. Everyone I know–myself included–who loves WDYTYA is in the “key demographic” (and they are all women). Or they are younger–as in, the kids who watch it with mom.

    My parents think the show is boring (they like gory crime shows). My in-laws think it is boring (yet watch financial TV all day long).

    Being a “young” genealogist is not easy, as the community thinks you don’t exist. I have been doing this since I was 22 (and I majored in history in college). I have been to exactly one genealogy conference. Our huge local conference is scheduled right at the end of the school year. Husband is madly grading, and the kids have crazy numbers of activities between school and scouts. It is just impossible for those with kids or educators in the house to get to this–and the one time I made it, for 1 day, most of the crowd appeared to be retired. I can’t afford to travel to anything that is scheduled at a do-able time.

  8. I am one of the younger genealogists (36) and to be honest, I didn’t know half of the people who were featured on the show this season! I didn’t know the Football player because I’m not into sports. Martin Sheen was a bit before my time. I knew Helen Hunt; I did NOT know Rashida Jones; I know who Paula Deen is, but only because my friend went to her restaurant last year in Savannah and I had to ask who was Paula Deen? I don’t know who Jason Sudeikis is. I only know who Edie Falco is because I watched Nurse Jackie when it first came out and I loved it! Really the only person I could relate to is Rob Lowe and I knew of his brother Chad more than him. I was not impressed with this season mostly because I couldn’t relate to them, but also because it seemed like so many documents were just handed over to them. Although I do think they actually squeezed in a couple of “problems” you run into in genealogy. Like name changes for example and I appreciated that aspect of it. But simply stated, the show is not reality. It would take the average person 30+ years to discover what they discovered in 2 weeks or however long it took the entire production team and team of genealogists. Oh as far as Finding Your Roots go, I watched that twice and found it to be very boring. I did not find Gates to be the best narrator, at least not enough to keep me engaged.

  9. Tom, I think your post is right on the money.

    I also hope it gets picked up somewhere else – might even be a good show for the producers to start to work the hybrid on-TV and on-line angle, since genea-peeps seem to love crossing the social media divides.

    As for the comment about political views being a factor in celebrity choice: I think it is pretty clear that most of the people selected for the show already had some relation to NBC and/or the producers AND there was a grabber of a story that could be told within the slot allowed.

    Also, I do agree some of the celebrities’ reactions did appear stilted or generic (Wow! Incredible! Impossible!) but I attributed that to them being people used to making believe they were someone else on screen and not having to be themselves. I didn’t really see anything that looked phony to me.

    Finally, I’d love to see them showcase the actual research and documentation more in a theoretical revamped version – From the long success of CSI-type shows it is clear to me that people the networks care about like to see investigation details.

    There are very few guns and life-or-death situations in genealogical research (except that one time…) but the connection to history, in both big picture and familial fashions can only widen the draw to various sets of viewers.

  10. Hi Thomas,

    Young people are certainly interested in genealogy! However, they may be interested in a different kind of genealogy/family history than what is viewed as “traditional”.
    The National Family History Survey headed by Ancestry in 2007 gives us a good indication of the all important 18-49 demo. Now there are some limitations to the survey as the results do not indicate if it was only online (which I suspect it was) and if the survey was given to members and/or non-members of Ancestry. But the answers speak for themselves: 83% of those surveyed ages 18-34 were interested in doing genealogy. So why don’t we see them getting started? Probably a few things but to begin with these are Millenials! They are young professionals who are not really joiners and do not really subscribe to seniority status rules in groups they do belong to. They grew up with computers, digital images, cell phones/smart phones, and mobile apps. They go places and do things; they are busy and it is hard to reach them. They absolutely need some outreach to get them involved.
    Also, it is difficult for any show to get the 18-49 demographic on a Friday night. I am in that demo and I DVR most things on Friday. Very busy working and raising a family. And I echo Dree too that going to conferences on a family budget may be difficult. So like I said, most people in that demo are interested in a different kind of genealogy.
    If any of the large societies offered a younger generational club or group to join, I’d sign up to see who else like me is out there.
    Thanks for the great questions Thomas! I asked ( answered) some predictions myself over on my blog too (-:


  11. I am rather bemused by the idea that WDYTYA has been cancelled. Only the American spin off from the original British program has.

    The few episodes of the US version I have seen seemed rather dumbed down compared to the BBC original. Perhaps they should have followed the original formula more closely. It might have matched the success of 8 series.

  12. Thomas, I think your right. Bill West, thank’s for the link, I gave them a piece of my mind. I knew everyone they had on WDYTYA. I go to the movies, watch TV, listen to all kinds of music and keep up with the news. I do prefer Dr. Gates’ PBS series, but I will miss WDYTYA.

  13. 50 is the new young genealogist? My response to that is a particularly young sounding “lol wut”. Are there really so few of us? I’m 24 now, and I’ve been doing genealogy since I was 17, when I was assigned a family tree project in grade 11 history. We exist!

    And I disagree that genealogy isn’t cheap/free. It all depends how you go about it. I estimate I’ve spent about $60, ever, on genealogy, including a year’s membership at the local historical society. You can always do things the hard and cheap way. 🙂

  14. I never watched the show – partly because my retired husband controls the TV, partly because it seemed like more celebrity-worship – so I really shouldn’t comment. I felt like it was going to be the rich and famous having access to professional genealogists doing all the research for them – and that’s not my world. I heard Megan Smolenyak speak at the Texas Library Association Conference last month and even got an (autographed!) copy of her book about the series, but I’ve been too busy to read it – mostly doing my own genealogy research in my free time, and indexing the 1940 Census!

    It’s heartening to see so many posts from under-50 (some lots under) genealogists, but I still think Thomas is right about the demographics of this avocation and for the show.

    I think another reason for the increased interest in genealogy in the over-50 crowd is twofold – a growing sense of our own mortality, and a desire to find some answers for parents or other loved ones still living (my parents are 83) who may be finding it difficult to do their own research. At least, those are motivators for me – I just turned 55 last month. I got started in genealogy when I had my first child nearly 26 years ago, but the passion has intensified as I – and my parents – have aged.

  15. It is important to make the distinction that the US adaptation has been cancelled. The original British series, and I believe the Australian adaptation as well, are alive and well.

    Of course, the British version is sponsored by BBC – which as far as I am aware is 100% funded by the government, so it is even less beholden to ratings than PBS is in the US.

    I find it somewhat humorous for genealogy buffs to argue that the show would garner more ratings if it focused on the research, when it is really only us who are fascinated by research. To be successful the show needs to attract non-genealogists who are interested in the lives of the rich and famous.

    Less actors, and more celebrities from other fields (sports, corporate, politics, media), might have been more compelling, as emotion wouldn’t have been ascribed to acting ability. Though I do like to give the actors the benefit of the doubt.

    I don’t think Reba McEntire, Rob Lowe, Ashley Judd, or Tim McGraw would normally be described as PC or Liberal in their political views. There are many others on the list for the past three years whose political views are unknowns, at least to me.

    I’m a 40-something and have been hooked by the genealogy bug since I was a 30-something.

  16. Thomas,

    Excellent analysis of what went wrong with WDYTYA. You could attach that to your resume if they ever ask you to consult on a similar show.

    I was intrigued by the possibility of doing something similar on a local format. Littleton, where I live, would be a perfect spot for such a show. We have great corral of minor celebrities from which to choose (news anchors, talk show hosts, and flamboyant politicians), a big emphasis on the history of the community, and we even have a web-only television network that produces short documentaries on local events. There are several local genealogical societies that could provide consultants and researchers and the possibilities of a governmental or charitable grant to help cover costs might be available. I think I will try to talk this up.

  17. It is disappointing that WDYTYA? has been cancelled. My husband and I looked forward to watching it every week, although we usually would DVR it because, hey, Friday night is date night 🙂 I happen to be one of those who is about a year above the target demographic right now, although I was right in there when the show started. No, I didn’t know who all of those people were on the show, but it was still interesting and I liked that WDYTYA? was spreading the word that genealogy is fun and exciting!

    Oh, and I’m glad to hear the younger genealogists speaking up here too. I’d like to consider myself one of the “younger genealogists” since I started my family history research in my early to mid 30’s. 🙂

  18. As another member of the “younger generation,” I agree with Heather K.! The interest is definitely still out there — not for nothing did Ancestry’s subscribers spike as a result of the show. People just need to see that it’s not so hard to get started — and that the results are rewarding enough to warrant the effort. I elaborated about this on my blog, but in short I really do think that all of us in the community need to embrace social media and technology, as you wrote, to reach people where they are.

  19. Very perceptive, Thomas, IMO. As for the younger demographic (certainly not the ones represented in your comments), ancestor hunting benefits greatly from the application of life skills that come with living life for a good while. Also, it’s not a pursuit to follow in short attention spans nor does it produce instant results.

  20. I put myself in the young genealogist camp (well, I’m under 40), and I love the show. This season seemed to have its ups & downs, but it is still an entertaining show.

    I see the bigger problem was NBC’s expectations. They were never going to get huge numbers on a Friday evening. NBC did an admirable job promoting the show, and Ancestry certainly got their advertising money’s worth. I put this on my blog, but maybe this could get picked up by the National Geographic Channel, or even run as a purely online show via YouTube or through a partnership with Facebook.

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