Well Told

CERTAIN FORMULAS should never be meddled with—especially when they keep viewers tuning in year after year to a top-rated PBS show and famous Americans lining up for the chance to learn about their ancestry.

But what happens when a pandemic threatens to upend that?

For Dyllan McGee ’89, to go remote with the “big reveal” on each episode of Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr. would have been antithetical to the long-running show’s key to success. It’s the moment when Gates, the show’s host and a revered African American historian, enlightens celebrities, politicians, and journalists about their lineage.

“That was probably our biggest challenge,” says McGee, the show’s executive producer. “That show is built around the reveal that Henry Louis Gates does. It requires an emotional safe space.”

McGee, a two-time Emmy and duPont- Columbia Journalism Award-winning documentary filmmaker, says that the show’s producers even looked into a robotic camera setup for the episodes. But that just wouldn’t have replicated what audiences and show participants had come to expect from the program, which will air its eighth season in 2022 and is in production for a ninth.

So, working with a minimal crew and strict health protocols, Finding Your Roots went on, albeit with the requisite social distancing between the show’s subjects and Gates, a Harvard University professor who goes by the nickname Skip.

“At the end of the day, we decided we had to be in the room,” she says. “We give such a gift to the person in the chair across from Skip Gates.”

The partnership between McGee and Gates began while the two were working for Oxford University Press. An editor suggested that they would be a match. It proved to be a dynamic pairing, from their collaboration on Finding Your Roots to The Black Church, a four-hour PBS series that aired earlier this year. During the pandemic, they also produced Making Black America, a series showcasing African American people’s ability to collectively prosper and define Blackness in ways that transformed America itself. It will air in the fall of 2022.

When they first teamed up, Gates had been working on The African American National Biography.

“He wanted to produce a series chronicling the stories of living African Americans at the time,” McGee says. “He had been the subject of early DNA genealogy testing. He thought, Is there a way to bring DNA and genealogy into the series?

After several months of planning, the premise was conceived for what was then known as African American Lives, a groundbreaking series that traced the ancestry of the likes of Maya Angelou, Morgan Freeman, and Whoopi Goldberg.

Nothing quite established the show as a force than did landing Oprah Winfrey, whom Quincy Jones connected with Gates.

“Once we got Oprah Winfrey, we knew other people would agree,” McGee says.

Two seasons later, the producers expanded the show’s scope to include prominent Americans from all walks of life: it became Finding Your Roots. The format’s popularity, McGee says, has been enduring, especially during times of adversity.

“The pandemic, racial injustice, all just contributed to the reactions and the emotions of our guests,” says McGee, the founder of New York City-based McGee Media.

The show makes viewers realize something else: “It celebrates our heritage and our differences, but also our commonality,” she says.

From African Americans to women, telling the stories of the underrepresented has been a life calling for McGee, who previously served as an executive producer of MAKERS: Women Who Make America. The critically acclaimed PBS series developed such a substantial following that it spawned MAKERS conferences, yet another platform to tell the stories of the accomplishments of women and the barriers that they overcame.

“When I started MAKERS, I remember knocking on doors and people constantly saying, ‘Are people really going to be interested in women’s stories?’” McGee says.

“Then the interest and demand for women’s stories really exploded. That felt exciting.” Then came the pandemic, delaying the release of Not Done: Women Remaking America, a PBS series charting the last five years of the women’s movement and its intersectional fight for equality. Pushed back from June 2020 to November 2020, the show was nominated for an Emmy and received a Gracie Award, which recognizes “exemplary programming created by, for and about women.”

“It felt like we were in a new era, like the 1970s activism,” McGee says.

McGee left her role with MAKERS in March to focus on her production company, but she says that doesn’t mean that there aren’t more stories of perseverance and inequity to tell. Only 38 Fortune 500 CEOs, she says, are women.

“That’s not a lot,” she says. “The pandemic completely set back a lot of progress for women. It really was hard for women to keep up their jobs.”

McGee says that a commitment to inclusion transcends numbers.

“It’s not enough to just hire a woman or a person of color,” she says. “It’s about creating communities that allow different people and perspectives to be heard.”

—Neil Vigdor ’95