"There's no game, there is no prize, there's no voting everybody off the island. It's just people going through a really relatable experience and it's traumatic and emotional," said Executive Producer Tom Forman about the intention behind the new reality show "Find My Family." The new ABC series previewed last week to strong ratings and hopes to keep the momentum going this week in its regular timeslot and without the benefit of a "Dancing With The Stars" lead-in. Our Jim Halterman talked to Forman about how the show found its subjects, how hosts Tim Greene and Lisa Joyner could relate to the task at hand and the lengthy process of finding those people who may or may not want to be found.
Jim Halterman: What are the origins of 'Find My Family?'
Tom Forman: It is a successful foreign format that has run first in Scandinavia, then Australia for a bunch of years but somehow never made it to the United States. I had seen it, I was aware of it and we had talked about whether it would work here and the time never felt quite right. If you looked around this year, if you looked at the economy and you looked at how people were living and what people were thinking and talking about, we just felt that shows that emphasize huge cash prizes or even building someone a giant free house � and remember that was my show, too, and I'm very proud of 'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition' � but it didn't exactly tap into what people are talking about today, which are things of core values that really matter and there's nothing more core than family. So, look at this international format where people have massive emotional, relatable reactions just to meeting their Mom, Dad, brother or sister; that's pretty interesting.
JH: How did you go about finding the subjects that had been searching for someone else?
TF: Some of it was traditional casting and outreach [and] we did some posting on the Internet. Some of it was working with 'search angels,' � I like to say that in quotes � or people who really volunteer their time to conduct a search like this. If you go online and Google around, you find desperate people who have searched for years and years and when we announced that we were willing to throw the resources of ABC and a major television show behind their search, that was big news in that community and people responded really well.
JH: What were the criteria for a good subject that would fit into what you wanted to do with the show?
TF: Ideally, it was someone who had searched on their own and exhausted their resources in part because that only seems fair. You want to help those people who have really tried to do it themselves but have hit a brick wall. That was a part of it. I would add that we take a really broad definition of family. It is easy to mischaracterize this as an adoption or reunion show and not to knock any of those shows but we've stretched the definition of family pretty broadly. We shot a beautiful reunion between a woman whose life had been forever changed by the big sister who she met in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program when she was a little girl. Not technically family but family to her and someone who had radically impacted her life and she just wanted to say 'thank you' thirty years later. She looked and looked and looked and couldn't find her but we were able to. So they weren't blood but they were family nonetheless.
JH: You'd think with the Internet that it would be easy to find people but obviously it's not. Is that what you found with your subjects and the show's search efforts?
TF: Initially, the big stumbling block is that you just have so little information to go on. You'd think the Internet would make it easier but if you don't have a name, birth date or a city, where do you even start? It just takes man-hours and pulling records and the ability to travel across the country, go to the small town public records office, wait in line, pay the fee, pull the birth certificate, find out it's wrong, get back on a plane, go somewhere else�it's a really tough thing for real people with real lives and real responsibilities to do so my heart goes out to them and hopefully we'll be able to help.
JH: Both host Tim Greene and Lisa Joyner talk on the show about being adopted.
TF: They both found their own birth parents so they've lived it, which was really important to us. For the family member who contacts us, for the person they're trying to find if we find them, for other family members who may be touched by this as well. We talk a lot about this internally but certainly if you read about the adoption triad, both the adoptee, the parents who gave them up and the adopted parents, there are a lot of things that needed to be handled delicately and handled right. We're incredibly conscious about treading lightly on this subject matter and wouldn't it really help if the hosts themselves had lived through it. So [Tim and Lisa] knew what to say and they knew how delicate it was.
JH: What do you do if you come across someone who does not want to be found?
TF: This is a show about reuniting people on a search with people who want to be found. We reached out really cautiously and really appropriately and after long conversations with psychologist, adoption experts, attorneys, private investigators, with people who really know the right way to do this and we developed the protocol for reaching out. But if we called you and said 'We're from 'Find My Family' and there's somebody looking for you' and you said 'I'd really rather have no part of that' then that's where it ended. It's not about forcing anybody into anything that makes them uncomfortable. And, by the way, if you'd rather do it off-air, then that's okay, too.
JH: Do you and the crew have to have a constant supply of tissues for all those emotional moments on the show?
TF: Look, I thought when we did 'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition' that I could never cry harder but it turns out I was wrong! For me, maybe it's because I'm a father myself but there's just nothing more touching than watching their life change not because you gave them a huge prize but because you answered questions they've had their whole life. You've introduced them to their father or their brother or their mother and it's just really moving.
JH: In general, why do people respond to these shows and their dramatic stories?
TF: I think this show is still a television show and I get that but this is about as real as any reality show you've ever seen. It's people just like you who have a question they want answered, you give them the answer and whatever happens next, happens next. On some level, people are going to get that. It feels really good, it felt good while we were shooting it and the families that we reunited, we talk to them everyday. It's very rare that a television show can be an actual life-changing experience for our participants. I hope America gets that.
"Find My Family" airs every Monday at 9:00/8:00c on ABC.