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In The Mix
February 26, 2015

The How of Who

It takes a team to unearth ancestors on TLC's Who Do You Think You Are?

Paula Hendrickson

Cindy Crawford is related to Charlemagne.

According to TLC's Who Do You Think You Are? the 8th-century monarch is the supermodel's 41st great-grandfather.

Actually, the link was brought to light by a crew of researchers from the show and from ancestry.com, the world's largest online family history resource and a critical component of the production.

"We have maybe 10 people researching on our end, in the U.S. or internationally, and Ancestry has up to 40 working on their end," says Stephanie Schwam, executive producer of the series and vice-president of programming at Shed Media U.S.

"At any given time, 20 people can be conducting research on the story of one celebrity ancestor."

The series, based on a British predecessor, debuted on NBC in 2010; in 2015 it moved to TLC, where season six will debut March 8.

Celebrities — who this season will include Sean Hayes, Angie Harmon and Bill Paxton — are asked what they already know about their family and what questions they'd like answered. Then Ancestry researchers trace their first few generations.

"We work in tandem from there, deciding what avenues we'll pursue and what we see as potential storylines for the episode," says Aleta Rozanski, Shed's research manager. "Then we work out how best to get at those stories."

An investigation can take from three to nine months, says Jennifer Utley, senior manager of research at Ancestry.

"Some trees come together very quickly, but we've had many trees take over 1,000 hoursof research to put together 42 minutes of television."

Of course, not every search leads to royal lineage, as it did with Crawford. Producers focus on uncovering compelling stories, while ancestry.com counterparts provide valuable historical context.

"You forget you're working on a celebrity's family tree," Rozanski says. "You become very engrossed in the characters and the people you're meeting through the research."

Which, in itself, is a crowning achievement.

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