I had the chance recently to interview Dan Bucatinsky, coproducer (with Lisa Kudrow) of TLC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?”
We talked about why the show researches celebrities instead of average-Joe genealogists, how casting and filming happen, and his wish list. My questions were inspired by comments we’ve heard from many of you on social media, by my own impressions of the show, and by the conversation.
You can listen to the whole thing by clicking here, and/or you can read the synopsis below. If you listen, know a few things first:
- It’s about a half hour, so get comfy.
- You can barely hear me ask my questions (stupid recording device) (it’s probably something I did), but Bucatinsky comes through loud and clear, so I don’t think that harms what you can learn about the show. I hate my voice in recordings anyway.
- His kids run into the room about halfway through, which I thought was cute (much more so than when my kids do this to me).
- You can tell this was just after the Jesse Tyler Ferguson episode, because he talks about the upcoming shows with the McAdamses, Valerie Bertinelli and Kelsey Grammer. Yes, it took me awhile to get this together for you.
If you can’t listen, or you just want to know what you’re in for, here’s the gist:
Why profile just celebrities?
The comment/question we at Family Tree Magazine most often hear about “Who Do You Think You Are?” is “Why doesn’t the show trace the roots of someone who isn’t famous?” (“Like me?” is usually implied.) So I asked.
Basically, the explanation is what I thought it would be: In order to stay on TV, the show needs to attract a general audience—not just a genealogical one. To do that, it needs the celebrity “hook.”
While the show certainly is meant to inspire, Bucatinsky says, “There is a reality about television … in order to get the high volume of viewership on any network or any website, you need to find a very, very high level of public interest, one that crosses many circles of demographics.”
“The casting process is extremely intense, and if we didn’t have the well-known ‘tour guides,’ we would have probably a very difficult time getting people to engage, even though it doesn’t mean the stories would be any less interesting. Even if you get maybe 100,000 people who are interested in genealogy, which is a big number, it’s not a big number for television.”
He said the producers’ ratings research bears out this statement: The higher the profile of the celebrity featured, the higher the ratings numbers.
How are the celebrities selected?
Casting the celebrity guests can be surprisingly difficult. In the first couple of years, Bucatinsky and Kudrow reached out to people they knew personally. Now that word is out in celebrity circles, stars’ representatives tell producers they’re willing to participate, and they go on a list.
“Any celebrity who has done the show has raved about their experience on it,” Bucatinsky says.
But that’s not all: Although it’s hard to tell when research begins where an ancestral story will go, producers aim for variety. TLC gets a say, too. “One thing we do, when we have control over it, is try to create as much diversity as possible,” Bucatinsky says. “We’ll try to see if the preliminary research makes the story feel like it will be diverse. We get approval from the network … [the talent] has to coincide with what they know their viewership wants to see.”
The guest’s schedule also has to mesh with the show’s production schedule. “I can’t even imagine another show that’s as complicated to produce. The Rubik’s cube of getting the talent approved, getting a story that actually feels like it’s gonna break and be interesting enough to shoot, and getting a celebrity’s schedule to tie in with our production schedule and the release dates is—I can’t begin to tell you how complicated it is.”
How was the transition to TLC?
I also asked Bucatinsky about the show’s move from NBC to TLC before last season, and whether he feels it fits on a network that’s also home to shows like “Honey Boo Boo.” (No offense to “Honey Boo Boo” fans out there—it’s just a different kind of show from “Who Do You Think You Are?”)
He thinks family history has a broad enough appeal that “Who Do You Think You Are?” is interesting to a range of audiences. “We certainly had our trepidation about ‘hmm, I wonder if the audience for those shows is the same as our audience?’ But there’s no question there’s a very wide audience for ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’”
He added that TLC has been supportive of the show, and hasn’t asked for changes in the formula.
What’s the most popular kind of story?
I’ve seen a lot of “types” of “Who Do You Think You Are?” episodes. Some focus on one ancestor; some cover two or more. Some stay in the United States; some globe-trot. I like stories that stick with one person, but others might think that slows the pace too much. I wondered which approach is most popular with viewers.
All of the above, Bucatinsky says. It’s the emotional connection that matters. “I feel like we’ve had really good success with stories where there’s an emotional tie to the protagonist. Christina Applegate’s episode last season was quite popular. It was partly because Christina herself has a wide audience, and partly because she was making the journey for her father, who never really knew his mother. And to come to so many amazing conclusions about his mother, and be able to bring her father to the gravesite of his mother—it’s hugely cathartic stuff. ”
“I love an episode that really is emotional and bring insight into somebody’s grandparents, who they remember as a kid but didn’t know anything about,” he adds. “And I also love the stories that take you back and you don’t even realize that you had relatives that are part of the Mayflower or the Civil War or the Gold Rush—things you only learn about in history books, and the context makes it much more relevant.”
“It’s some combination of the popularity of the celebrity and the strength of the story.” He also pointed out that how engaged the celebrity guest is plays a role.
Are the celebrity guests coached to do or say certain things?
Sometimes, I think, the celebrity seems to ask just the right question to segue into the surprise discovery—almost as if the person was told what to say. That’s not the case, says Bucatinsky. “They may be prodded to find the information that we need them to find. We know that they need to hit a page of a particular document that they’re wearing gloves to look at, so they will get guided to it, but the discovery itself is always organic and authentic. There’s very little coaching in the moment.”
The celebrity doesn’t know what he’ll find or where he’s going next, but the archivists usually does. “Our archivist is someone who we’ve spoken to and found out information from … they’re there ready to meet our celebrity, and when the celebrity arrives, they will never have met before. … Every bit of it that films our subject is filmed originally and in the order of the journey. It’s not rehearsed. It’s a documentary.”
How long does it take to film an episode?
“A whole journey would be anywhere between 8 and 23 days, but that includes travel days,” Bucatinsky says. “We’ve had episodes that could probably have made really good two-hour episodes. We try to do the best we can. If we think the season’s going to wind up on DVD, we’ll put the scenes [there].”
Interestingly, an entire story line from Gwenyth Paltrow’s episode didn’t even make it on the show.
Who’s your dream guest? (and other things he’d love to do with the show)
“I don’t really focus on the person, I focus on plans and stories that we haven’t told before. I really want to tell a Latin American story.” (His family is from Argentina.)
“We haven’t been to Asia, and it looks as though we’re going to this season,” he added. (Although the season finale is tonight, with Minnie Driver, and they stay in England. Did I miss a trip to Asia?)
Although it seemed like he was going to evade the question, he later added, “If one of the Obamas wanted to do it, that would be dreamy.”
I also asked about the possibility of a follow-up show that would tie up some of the loose ends—such as what happened to the former spouses of Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s great-grandfather. Bucatinsky mentioned the scheduling difficulties as an obstacle, but added, “What I would want to try to do down the line is just start with one: One person who wants to come back and revisit a story and see how it goes. There are other stories to be explored, and it would be fun to have someone that people love come back.”
Want to hear more? Here are a couple of Bucatinsy’s interviews with other bloggers:
- Lisa Louise Cooke (in a free episode of her Genealogy Gems podcast)
- Thomas MacEntee of Geneabloggers