Roots, January 23 – 30, 1977

Written By: Greg Howell - May• 21•18

Roots is the dramatic television event that truly changed America. Overnight, a national dialog was created regarding the historical treatment of African Americans, and America had to face, head-on, the horrible truth about the American past and their ancestors.

ABC’s nervousness about the miniseries Roots was essentially financial. Suspecting the series would bomb and displace the newly crowned #1 network, ABC rethought the plan to run Roots weekly. All other miniseries, such as successful Rich Man Poor Man series, had run weekly, but ABC decided to run the series for 8 consecutive nights, just prior to the start of February ratings sweeps. ABC’s nervousness stemmed from the series’ portrayal of positive, black characters and their heroic survival despite cruelty from white, often brutal antagonists. The epic miniseries traced the life of enslaved Africans to America, beginning with Kunta Kinte in the mid 1700’s, concluding in the post-civil war era with his ancestors.

As Americans tuned into the show in record numbers, each day seemed to bring new light to the plight of civil rights and equality. Each day for white Americans was a time of evaluation, shame, humility, and ultimately, spiritual growth and national healing. Roots was the rare drama that actually changed perspectives. Classrooms across the country stopped scheduled lectures and discussed the previous nights episode. People discussed the show at their workplace, as well in their churches. And, of course, the media followed suit.

ABC earned the highest ratings in history at the time, and held the top 8 places in the national ratings Top Ten list. Later in the year, Roots won 37 Emmy Award nominations and took home 9 trophies. The concluding episode garnered 71% share of viewers, and was the highest American television audience of all time. Roots held that distinction for another 6 years, until the final episode of M*A*S*H aired in 1983.

While a few critics dismissed the event as soap opera, Roots aspired to greatness and significance, and it succeeded. The miniseries was based on author Alex Haley’s popular book of the same name. The epic concluded in 1979 with Roots II.

Maya Angelou perhaps summed Roots up the best, as noted in Time Magazine in 2016:

‘The book and the series both gave audiences an experience that wasn’t quite so much artistic as it was introspective. They gave audiences a question to answer, as she put it: “Admitting all that has gone before, admitting our duplicity, our complicity and our greed, what do we, all Americans, do next?”’

Quincy Jones produced the epic soundtrack, and it was released in 1977 following the success of the mini-series. It peaked on the Billboard Top 200 at #21 on April 2, 1977.

At this point in television, this seemed to be the breakout moment many had been calling for in television. Roots followed the great successes of the acclaimed and highly rated drama, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and the comedies Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, The Flip Wilson Show and Good Times. A fresh new wave seemed to be on the horizon with What’s Happening, 221, Amen, The Cosby Show, A Different World, Martin, In Living Color, and the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, to name a few of the greatest successes; however, the movement cooled after the turn of the century, and only recently showed signs of new momentum.

 

Sources:

Museum of Broadcast Communications

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