Roots remains one of television's landmark programs. The twelve-hour mini-series aired on ABC from 23-30 January 1977. For eight consecutive nights it riveted the country. ABC executives initially feared that the historical saga about slavery would be a ratings disaster. Instead, Roots scored higher ratings than any previous entertainment program in history. It averaged a 44.9 rating and a 66 audience share for the length of its run. The seven episodes that followed the opener earned the top seven spots in the ratings for their week. The final night held the single-episode ratings record until 1983, when the finale of M*A*S*H aired on CBS.
The success of Roots had lasting impact on the television industry. The show defied industry conventions about black-oriented programming: executives simply had not expected that a show with black heroes and white villains could attract such huge audiences. In the process, Roots almost single-handedly spawned a new television format -- the consecutive-night mini-series. (Previous mini-series, like the 1976 hit, Rich Man, Poor Man, had run in weekly installments.) Roots also validated the docudrama approach of its Executive Producer, David Wolper. The Wolper style, blending fact and fiction in a soap-opera package, influenced many subsequent mini-series. Finally, Roots was credited with having a positive impact on race relations, expanding the nation's sense of history.
Based on Alex Haley's best-selling novel about his African ancestors, Roots followed several generations in the lives of a slave family. The saga began with Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton), a West African youth captured by slave raiders and shipped to America in the 1700s. Kunta received brutal treatment from his white masters and rebelled continually. An older Kunta (John Amos) married and his descendants carried the story after his death. Daughter Kizzy (Leslie Uggams) was raped by her master and bore a son, later named Chicken George (Ben Vereen). In the final episode, Kunta Kinte's great-grandson Tom (Georg Stanford Brown) joined the Union Army and gained emancipation. Over the course of the saga, viewers saw brutal whippings and many agonizing moments, rapes, the forced separations of families, slave auctions. Through it all, however, Roots depicted its slave characters as well-rounded human beings, not merely as victims or symbols of oppression.
Apprehensions that Roots would flop shaped the way that ABC presented the show. Familiar television actors like Lorne Greene were chosen for the white, secondary roles, to reassure audiences. The white actors were featured disproportionately in network previews. For the first episode, the writers created a conscience-stricken slave captain (Ed Asner), a figure who did not appear in Haley's novel but was intended to make white audiences feel better about their historical role in the slave trade. Even the show's consecutive-night format allegedly resulted from network apprehensions. ABC programming chief Fred Silverman hoped that the unusual schedule would cut his network's imminent losses--and get Roots off the air before sweeps week.
Silverman, of course, need not have worried. Roots garnered phenomenal audiences. On average, 80 million people watched each of the last seven episodes. 100 million viewers, almost half the country, saw the final episode, which still claims one of the highest Nielsen ratings ever recorded, a 51.1 with a 71 share. A stunning 85% of all television homes saw all or part of the mini-series. Roots also enjoyed unusual social acclaim for a television show. Vernon Jordan, former president of the Urban League, called it "the single most spectacular educational experience in race relations in America." Today, the show's social effects may appear more ephemeral, but at the time they seemed widespread. Over 250 colleges and universities planned courses on the saga, and during the broadcast, over 30 cities declared "Roots" weeks.
The program drew generally rave reviews. Black and white critics alike praised Roots for presenting African-American characters who were not tailored to suit white audiences. The soap-opera format drew some criticism for its emphasis on sex, violence, and romantic intrigue. A few critics also complained that the opening segment in Africa was too Americanized--it was hard to accept television regulars like O.J. Simpson as West African natives. On the whole, however, critical acclaim echoed the show's resounding popular success. Roots earned over 30 Emmy Awards and numerous other distinctions.
The program spawned a 1979 sequel, Roots: The Next Generations. The sequel did not match the original's ratings, but still performed extremely well, with a total audience of 110 million. Overall, Roots had a powerful and diverse impact--as a cultural phenomenon, an exploration of black history, and the crown jewel of historical mini-series.
EXECUTIVE PROUDCER David L. Wolper
PRODUCER Stan Margulies
Adapted for Television by William Blinn
Kunta Kinte (as a boy)............................... LeVar Burton
Kunta Kinte (Toby: adult).............................. John Amos
Eight Consecutive Nights at 9:00-11:00, or 10:00-11:00
Five Consecutive Nights at 8:00-11:00 or 9:00-11:00
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Bogle, Donald. "Roots and Roots: The Next Generations." Blacks in American Film and Television: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1988.
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