Tv Nation

When Alex Haley's "Roots" aired in 1977, most of America was watching and the epic miniseries became a shared experience for our society. Today, with a multitude of specialty cable channels, we no longer tune in as a nation.

January 27, 2002|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

IF YOU ARE OVER THE age of 40, chances are you remember what you were doing with your evenings exactly 25 years ago - you were watching Roots.

Most Americans were. The ABC miniseries, broadcast in eight parts from Jan. 23 to Jan. 30, 1977, remains a television phenomenon. Its concluding episode is the third highest rated program in history - behind the finale of M*A*S*H and the "Who Shot J.R.?" episode of Dallas. Some 71 percent of televisions that were turned on at the time were tuned to Roots. That was over 36 million households.

Back then, most of those households had only one television, so the whole family was probably watching. The audience was more than 120 million people.

It will never happen again. Certainly we all gather around our sets on days like Sept. 11, but they are tuned to a variety of channels that are mainly a conduit for images of the unthinkable. Audiences of Roots-like size now tune to a single channel for only one made-for-television event, the odd cultural, social, sporting phenomenon known as the Super Bowl. Otherwise, we live in a media-fragmented world, all tuned to channels or Web sites or computer games carefully designed to appeal to interests we already have.

Something is gained in this deregulated democratization that lets 1,000 electronic flowers bloom every day on our cable-ready sets and modem-linked computers. But something is lost as television no longer has the ability to produce and deliver unifying cultural experiences.

"Roots was a very important event, a breakthrough in public education," says Mark Crispin Miller, a professor at New York University. "It was a bit melodramatic, but for all that it provided a vast audience with a glimpse of American history that most people had never had in school."

Indeed, Roots hit America between the eyes with its melodramatic two-by-four, stripping slavery of its romanticized Gone With the Wind trappings, laying bare the cruel scar it left on our national heritage.

"Most Americans don't know very much about slavery," says Ira Berlin, a professor of history at the University of Maryland, College Park. "What they do know probably comes from its depiction in Roots."

For African-Americans, Roots permanently altered their view of their pasts, setting off a continuing search for a heritage that is deeply - and in part tragically - entwined with the history of this country.

"It was popular entertainment with a certain civic mission," says Miller. "There's not much of that now."

Roots began a period of network television's occasionally flexing its society-altering muscles. NBC's broadcast of the 10-hour Holocaust in 1978 is considered a watershed in the country's view of that event. Though the ratings did not match Roots, about 100 million are thought to have seen at least part of it. When Holocaust was shown in Germany the next year, it received stunning ratings and led directly to a repeal of the statute of limitations on war crimes, which had been about to expire.

In 1983, ABC's one-night broadcast of The Day After, a dramatization of the aftermath of a nuclear exchange, again attracted about half the country's population on a Sunday evening. Whatever its dramatic limitations, it meant that for at least one day we as a nation seriously considered the possibility of a nuclear holocaust.

Jeffrey McCall, a professor of communication at DePauw University in Indiana, admits he did not watch all of Roots when it was first broadcast.

"I did watch part of it," he says. "What I remember is that everyone showed up the next day at work or school or the supermarket and talked about what they had seen and what was going to happen in the next episode. It provided a common experience like nothing does now."

If Roots were developed for television today, it might be for BET - the Black Entertainment Television cable channel. Holocaust would be on The History Channel. The Day After sounds like a PBS co-production with the BBC. In any case, all would be on channels attracting audiences predisposed to their messages. They would be preaching to the converted.

"The bottom line is that we are not broadcasting anymore," says McCall. "We've got so many different choices with cable channels and even non-TV entertainment, the Internet and video games."

Nation and family

McCall says that not only do we not watch as a nation anymore, we don't even watch as a family.

When the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan, when the evening news broadcasts were showing the police dogs in Selma, when the fire burned away that map at the beginning of Bonanza, when the World Series came on, there was one TV in the house and everyone sat in front of it.

Now, in many homes there is a TV - or a computer monitor - for virtually every member of the family so each can seek out a particular source of entertainment or information.

"Kids used to pick up news by accident," McCall says. "Now when their parents are watching the news, the kids are down the hall on the Internet."

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