Monday, January 23, 2012

The 'Roots' Phenomenon

On this night in 1977, a television phenomenon, unlike any other in my lifetime, began.

I am referring to the TV miniseries that was based on the hugely successful novel "Roots" that dominated bestseller lists and water–fountain conversations the year before.

There had been other miniseries that were based on modestly successful books, but none had the kind of impact of Roots.

For eight nights, it was a national event.

Video recorders were still too expensive to be in most homes so it was not yet possible for most people to record programs and watch them later. You had to watch something when it was on, or you didn't see it at all.

And, since just about everyone was engrossed in the series, my memory is that regularly scheduled meetings of city councils, school boards, etc., were postponed or severely abbreviated so that people could see the latest installment.

There have been a few comparable attempts to galvanize the viewing public in the 35 years that have passed since Roots was first televised — and some have succeeded, at least to the extent it was still possible to do so.

But that is the real problem. In 1977, television viewing was confined to the three major networks (plus a public broadcasting station if your area had one at that time — and many did not).

The proliferation of cable and satellite service — not to mention the overall population growth — makes it virtually impossible for anything on television to receive the share of the viewership that Roots achieved with its somewhat captive audience. After the series gathered momentum from its early episodes, the later episodes set ratings records that still stand today.

America's population has grown considerably in 35 years so it is probably possible for something to attract as many viewers as Roots — if not more — but the ratings are something else.

Super Bowls have surpassed most Roots episodes in ratings almost routinely, and a couple of programs from the early '80s — the M*A*S*H finale and the "Who Shot J.R.?" episode of Dallas — exceeded Roots' eighth and final installment, which aired on Jan. 30, 1977.

But, otherwise, shared TV experiences just don't happen anymore. Great numbers of people may experience major news events together via television, but they don't watch the same network coverage — and, thus, do not share precisely the same experience.

On Sept. 11, 2001, for example, it is likely that the sum total of people watching TV coverage of the terrorist attacks matched or exceeded the number of people who ever witnessed the same thing at the same time — but some saw it on CNN, others saw it on Fox, still others saw it on extended broadcasts of network morning news shows.

In January 1977, it was as if all the conditions had merged to make Roots a huge success.

Roots had only a handful of competitors in 1977, and it had an all–star cast, with that cast constantly changing as the story went through the generations of Alex Haley's family.

It also dramatized an already compelling story that had been a runaway bestseller less than a year before.

Even without cable to lure away viewers, I think it would be very difficult to re–create the circumstances that made the Roots phenomenon possible.