Impact of Haley's 'Roots' may never be equaled

February 11, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

By the eighth and final night of "Roots," movie theaters in many cities didn't even try to compete. They simply closed their doors.

Eighty million viewers watched that last two-hour episode. Its 51.1 rating and 71 Nielsen share were a record that will likely never be matched.

Mayors in more than 30 cities declared it "Roots" week.

That's the kind of impact "Roots," the TV miniseries based on Alex Haley's book, had for one week in January 1977.

In the weeks that followed, debate about the miniseries raged.

"The last publishing event in this country that was in any way comparable to the phenomenon of 'Roots' occurred in 1851," Meg Greenfield wrote in a Newsweek column celebrating the TV show. "It was the publication of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe. . . . Overnight it ['Roots'] has become part of the national folklore, this saga with its enormous power to move. . . .

Chuck Stone, writing in the Black Scholar magazine, had a different opinion of the miniseries, though. He called it "an electronic orgy in white guilt successfully hustled by

white TV literary minstrels." Clyde Taylor, writing in the same magazine, asked, "Can it be a black drama (drama for black people) when neither author nor director is black?" "Roots," the TV show, was all-white behind the cameras except for one of the eight hours, which was directed by Gilbert Moses. Alex Haley was only an adviser.

lead,2 "Roots" did change prime-time television in at least one important way. Prior to "Roots" in 1977 -- only 15 years ago, as hard as that seems to believe -- the conventional wisdom in the TV industry was that white audiences would not watch TV shows featuring blacks. In fact, ABC aired "Roots" in January, one of the lighter viewing months of the year, because it did not think the miniseries had enough ratings muscle to be run during the sweeps month of February.

Worse, before "Roots," network executives insisted that their Southern affiliates would pre-empt shows featuring black stars, making such shows financial disasters. They based that belief on NBC's experience with the "Nat King Cole Show" in 1958. Many Southern affiliates refused to air the show, and no national sponsorship could be found.

There were a few black sitcoms on the air by 1977, like "The Jeffersons," but it was not until the numbers came in on "Roots" that the networks had to quit blaming others for their disgraceful track record of lack of black programming. "Roots" gave lie to the argument that mainstream audiences would not watch shows featuring black heroes and heroines.

"Roots" also changed the shape of prime-time TV to some extent. Because of its success, the miniseries became the dominant form of big-event programming until about 1985 when its price tag was no longer viable in the new multichannel environment of cable.

For all its popular appeal, in the end it's important to remember that "Roots" was at least in part an attempt by mainstream culture to revisit a troubled part of our national past and rewrite it according to the conventions of melodrama. Yes, there was much suffering by blacks and many evil deeds by whites, this kind of ready-for-prime-time history says, but everything is moving in the right direction now, and the descendants of Kunte Kinte are going to get to participate fully in the goodness that is America.

Fifteen years later, that conclusion is still a debatable proposition.

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