Behind the Scenes at "Who Do You Think You Are?"

Last year during the inaugural season one of NBC's television program Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTYA), genealogist Megan Smolenyak worked behind the scenes researching five individual episodes. Now she’s giving us a behind the camera look at what it was like to work for the show.

How does someone get to be a WDYTYA researcher? Do they just call you up?

If you don’t already work for, the best way to be selected is to be a guru in a particular locality or niche. If you specialize in a particular locality that ends up relating to a celebrity being featured on the show then you could get called.

How many weeks are you given to research a single person’s ancestry? How long does it actually take to do the research?

I wasn’t given time limits but the pace was often frantic. A typical episode is 500-700 hours collectively for all the researchers involved. Research includes the entire family tree and then the best stories are investigated. TV shows are always pedal to the metal. They can be really intense. Also, they have to take into consideration the schedule of the celebrity who is very busy.

How much time is the researcher filmed talking to a celebrity vs. how much actually gets on tv?

The Emmitt Smith taping with me was about a half hour. The part of the interview that included me that was shown lasted maybe a minute. Susan Sarandon’s episode actually taped several hours and then showed a few snippets of my interview with her.

How real are the celebrities’ reactions?

The celebrity reactions are for real. The celebrities are hearing the information for the first time when they are filmed. Emmitt learned he was going to Africa when he taped the scene with me and then he left later that same day. He didn’t know in advance.

What is that non-disclosure agreement all about that researchers must sign? 

Every show on television has that. When you work on the show you are not allowed to say anything about working on the episode before it airs.

Who were some of the stars that you worked with?

I researched everybody but Spike Lee and Matthew Broderick in the first season, and was on air in the Susan Sarandon and Emmitt Smith episodes. I also researched the episodes for Brooke Shields, Sarah Jessica Parker and Lisa Kudrow.

How much time did you get to spend researching each celebrity?

Brooke Shields was the most complicated. With the other celebrities it really varied. Susan Sarandon was the least amount of time but it was focused on a specific question that was critical to her episode.

Was your time with the celebrities restricted to on-camera time? Did you get to talk to the stars about anything besides family history?

They are very protective of the celebrities. There’s minimal time to chat while taping. I ran into Emmitt Smith later in the hotel after taping and we talked for a long time. He asked lots of questions about his family and was gracious with everyone.

Did the celebrities seem genuinely interested in their family history?

Yes. It was real. I don’t think they would have done it if they weren’t genuinely interested because it’s a big time commitment for them.

Which celebrities would you like to see on a future season of Who Do You Think You Are?

I would like to see Michelle Obama because she has such diverse ancestry. But it’s unlikely that she would do any genealogy show at present. It’s so hard to choose one celebrity because I think every family has an interesting history. I always say there’s no such thing as a boring family!

Megan Smolenyak is the author of Who Do You Think You Are?: The Essential Guide to Tracing Your Family History, A Companion to the NBC Series.

Megan will be appearing at a book signing for Who Do You Think You Are? at the Tattered Cover Bookstore at Colfax, Colorado on March 30, 2011.


  1. Marian, another great interview! You are turning into the Oprah of the genealogy world. You get the best genealogists to interview for your blog. This one was extremely interesting, and everyone is dying to know the "behind the scenes" stuff at WDYTYA?

  2. Really enjoyed reading this! Looking forward to Megan's appearance on Geneablogger Radio tonight.

  3. The one thing I find lacking in the program is the connection between years of census. Example, they know a woman married in 1927 so her names changes. Instead of mentioning finding clues in 1920, 1910, 1900, they often jump back to 1880 when the person was a child. That implies dice roll guessing & not connecting the dots. I do wish more could be mentioned for interum years ~ a single sentence would accommodate "we have taken it back to this period& discovered" instead of implying 1927 to 1880 is all they researched.

    Beyond that, nice show.

  4. Loved reading more about WDYTYA. I've enjoyed every show you have done. Sure wish that a show could be developed that would help us novice genealogists learn how to do better research. I'd sure tune in!

  5. It was excellent to be able to hear directly from the genealogy researcher on so many of these shows. As a documentary TV Producer, I can empathize with the "pedal to the metal" process. Every time I watch WDYTYA, I'm thinking about all the research and hundreds of hours of time spent by all involved (after the research is done, the producer has to figure out how to weave the best elements into an intriguing story -- and as said, figure out how to schedule the celebrity with a tight production schedule. Long days. Good show.

  6. I just found this post. I've researched for 3 shows total, and was on show with Tim McGraw episode, and always curious if others had the same experience. Good to hear that the process is similar.


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