Genealogy’s Chicken Little Moment

Yesterday a bombshell hit the genealogy community: NBC canceled Who Do You Think You Are?, its weekly show in which it traces the roots of a celebrity. The stock price of fell 18% today as investors worried how this would affect the company’s growth. After all, “’s prominent presence on WDYTYA, a partnership with NBC, contributed to a 42.6% spike in its online subscriptions, to 1.87M, in the two years since the show debuted” (source). But for those of who care about the success of the genealogy industry beyond the valuation of our stock portfolios, what does this news really mean? Should we be panicking?

For the time it was on the air, WDYTYA clearly ignited many people’s latent interest in their family’s history. And while there couldn’t possibly have been more Ancestry commercials during the breaks, the show itself was the best possible advertisement for genealogy. It made it look fun and accessible. The detective work was suspenseful, and the breakthroughs enormously satisfying. And most of all, the emotional impact of the stories on the celebrities was real and heart-felt. None of this was marketing hype. This really is what genealogy is all about. The personal payoffs are as real as the show portrayed. And it was this connection that the show created between the celebrities’ journeys through their family history and the potential journeys that await us, the viewers, that created the surge in subscriptions for Ancestry.

Too many of us are responding to the cancellation by bemoaning the shallow time in which we find ourselves and forgetting that the latent interest that preceded the show is still out there! Sure, Ancestry lost a major channel for outreach, but they — and we — still have a huge potential audience waiting to be reached. All of us in the genealogy community — bloggers, researchers, companies, even little start-ups like Treelines — can pick up where the show left off to make our passion as accessible as possible. Every single one of us who’s already researching his/her tree can be an advocate for genealogy amongst our own family and friends. We can improve our research tools and guides to help novices dive in more easily. We can broaden our offline societies into online social networks to better assist newbies in breaking down their brick walls. And most of all, we can wrap the dry research and data management with the same warm emotions that the show did to help people see, for example, that a ship manifest is not just a ship manifest, but a window into the life of a very brave ancestor whose choices made us who we are. No TV host is required for any of this!  (We at Treelines are hard at work on this last suggestion.)

The sky isn’t falling if we can take what made the show wonderful and use it to make genealogy as fun and accessible as the show portrayed.

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