The 12-hour mini-series Roots premiered on this date in 1977. According to the Encyclopedia of Television:
Roots remains one of television’s landmark programs….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….
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….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.
NewMexiKen co-sponsored a symposium at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1979, that included Alex Haley, the author of Roots. Haley, who also wrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X, was a very self-possessed and self-assured speaker, confident yet pleasant and informal. He spoke for some time without notes, telling the story about the story — that is, how he learned about his family. Along with the Archivist of the U.S. and Professor Wesley Johnson, I sat on the stage behind Haley as he spoke and could see the rapture on the faces of his listeners. To an audience of genealogists this was the Sermon on the Mount.