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Old November 1st, 2012, 02:40 AM
Brainbin Brainbin is online now
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The Roots of the Mini-series

At the dawn of television, in the established media of the time, two separate, yet equally important serial formats had achieved widespread popularity: the continuing series, imported from radio, and the limited serial, which was a product of the movies. Television would eradicate both of these formats as they existed in their native media: by the 1960s, dramatized productions of any sort were essentially absent from American radio, and virtually all films were stand-alone, any sequels being made on a discretionary basis. When it came to motion pictures, of course, film serials were far from the only format to be rendered obsolete by the rise of television. Newsreels and shorts were also a thing of the past, though many cartoon characters did find new lives on the small screen. From the very beginning, though, television seemed more interested in bringing over the production model from radio, wholesale (up to and including its entire stable of stars), with producers preferring longer, continuing series. In the 1950s, most programs ran for 39 episodes per season. This had declined to as little as 22 episodes per season, in some instances, by the late 1970s (though 26 remained the standard). Across the Pond, on the other hand, the tendency had always been to favour runs of shorter episodes, and indeed, many such programs were not picked up for additional seasons (or series) of production. Thus, the mini-series (as it would become known in American parlance) became a standard format there. The United States would not follow suit until the 1970s.

The catalytic incentive was, unsurprisingly, also ultimately derived from other media.
The “new freedom of the screen” that so defined the American motion picture industry in the 1970s – the “New Hollywood” era, as it were – did have an impact on television, though a more subtle and incremental one. But the desire to take more creative risks was certainly not limited to the movie studios – their television divisions, along with the networks, felt the urge to spread their creative wings as well. Television was as an ideal a medium for the adaptation of epic works of literature and histories as was possible. Though it lacked the sheer scale achievable in motion pictures, as well as the intimacy of the stage, it was also able to provide enough elements of each of these and avoid having to make tough sacrifices a classic “jack of all trades” situation which had paid great dividends in the past, and would by all appearances continue to do so in the future. In fact, it had been in the 1950s – the decade during which television market saturation increased from 8% to 87% (its growth rate was declining, to reach a plateau of 98% by the late 1970s) – that the cinema had attempted some rather brazen methods of audience retention in the face of the first real challenge to its supremacy. Some of these tactics, such as the wider screens, would be so well-received that they would become mainstays; others, like 3D, became highly dated and almost nostalgic fads, the likes of which would surely never be seen again [1]; and then there were the outright fiascoes, like “Smell-O-Vision”, about which the less is said, the better. But it was clear that, from the very beginning, television and motion pictures have been inexorably linked.

Everything would finally come together in full force with Roots,
the brainchild of Alex Haley, an African-American writer who had also collaborated with Malcolm X in the writing of his autobiography. Like many writers, he refused to let strict historical accuracy get in the way of a good story. Indeed, Haley even coined the term faction – a fusion of “fact” and “fiction”, to describe his work. However, Haley may have gone a bridge too far after it became apparent that he had plagiarized numerous passages from the 1967 novel The African, written by folklorist and anthropologist Harold Courlander, who had sought legal action against him for doing so (a settlement was eventually reached out-of-court).

, the novel, epitomized the proud tradition of the multi-generational historical familial epic; so too did the mini-series adapted from it cement the legacy of the lengthy, sprawling story which the strengths of television as a medium were uniquely suited to present. The story of Roots began with that of Kunta Kinte, a purported ancestor of Haley, who was born in West Africa in the mid-eighteenth century. As a youth, he was captured by white slavers, and was taken on the Middle Passage to what was then known as British North America, specifically the Thirteen Colonies thereof, eventually being purchased by a plantation owner in Virginia. After numerous escape attempts – culminating in the amputation of part of his right foot by his brutal taskmasters – he would eventually marry and start a family of his own, with the narrative then following the story of his daughter, who was in turn also said to be a direct ancestor of Haley, and her own children. The author claimed that the Kunta Kinte story was a long and cherished one passed down through the generations of his family; but between “borrowing” from The African, and actually traveling to The Gambia and claiming to speak with someone knowledgeable in the oral traditions of the area, this claim was highly dubious. This strong African connection perpetuated a dominant theme in black culture of “re-connecting with the Motherland”; interestingly, many black people in fact had longer lines of ancestry within the United States (as the slave trade had effectively ended by the turn of the 19th century) than many white people (who were descended from waves of immigration originating throughout Europe in the mid-to-late-19th century and beyond).

The veracity of
Roots, though it did not withstand even the slightest scrutiny, was considered important because of the Black History which it represented, as it was intended to symbolize and detail the entire struggle of the African-American people throughout the history of what would become the United States of America. There were plenty of real people whose lives painted the tapestry of triumph and tragedy that epitomized them; the use of these ahistorical characters was controversial, but in the grand scheme of things, it was the impact which Roots would have on popular culture which would cement its legacy. The mini-series was also timely – it came along at about the same time as low-budget Blaxploitation was giving way to more “stylistic” and “serious” black-interest pictures such as Finney and Progress, which represented a creative epiphany. The New Hollywood renaissance was breaking the colour barrier in grand fashion. Many mini-series prior to Roots had achieved considerable – even significant – popularity, but Roots saw unprecedented ratings, emerging as the highest-rated dramatic telecast of all time, beating the nearly six-year-old record held by the series finale of Star Trek (aired in July, 1971). [2] People of every creed and colour tuned in to watch Roots, marking the zenith of the mini-series as a genre of American television.

aired for eight consecutive nights in late January, 1977, with episodes varying in length between two hours (ninety minutes of content, plus commercials) and one hour (forty-five minutes of content). [3] Of the eight episodes, three matched or exceeded the 47 rating claimed by “These Were the Voyages” in 1971 – episodes five, six, and eight. The eighth episode, the grand finale, which featured Haley himself narrating in the closing moments as he traced the line of descent directly from Kunta Kinte to himself, scored a whopping 52 rating, with an estimated 37 million viewers. [4] At the 29th Emmy Awards that May, a mere few months later, Roots performed a clean sweep, winning all nine Emmys for which it had been nominated. [5] This shattered the five-Emmy record set by Rich Man, Poor Man, beating it in yet another regard.

Rich Man, Poor Man, which had aired in the previous season, was a clear antecedent to the success that would be enjoyed by Roots, but it lacked those certain qualities which might have propelled it into the status of a true popular culture phenomenon akin to Roots. Nonetheless, it had finished at #2 overall in the 1975-76 season, behind only Rock Around the Clock. Like the later Roots, this mini-series placed a great deal of emphasis on family, though it chose to approach the concept from a distinctly different direction; likewise, it visited the concept of migration, though voluntary rather than involuntary, and from the New World back to the Old.
However, the plot focus was more on sophisticated, literary themes, as opposed to the raw, primal, and more universal appeal of a historical fiction piece based on a very palpable struggle. Perhaps this lack of universality explained its lack of lasting impact when compared to the utter juggernaut that Roots had already become in the very short time since it was first broadcast.

Nevertheless, the resultant sea change would prove a massive harbinger indeed for television and the movies. Prior to the late 1970s, the big money
– and the big ratings – could be found in television broadcasts of Hollywood films. Less than a year prior to Roots, NBC had been the first network to air one of the most popular movies ever made: Gone with the Wind. Divided into two parts, given its great length, both of them had been a smash sensation, earning a cumulative 46 rating, just behind the series finale of Star Trek as the second-highest-rated telecast of the 1970s, up to that point. [6] However, this broadcast was met with considerable resistance on the part of the increasingly influential and vocal black community, who naturally objected to the finer details of that film (as they had done in 1939, at which time they were willfully ignored). Many critics and cultural observers saw Roots and its success as something of a “response” to GWTW (including a number of people who were actually involved with the production), but it would be a better fit to call one the end of an era in telefilms, and the other a new beginning. The motivations behind television deciding to abandon pre-made motion pictures in lieu of original telefilms would only become more clear as time went on, given the key technological breakthrough which would revolutionize viewing habits as nothing had done before


[1] Remember, in the late 1970s, there had only been one 3D wave: the original, in the early 1950s. IOTL, two would follow: the first revival of the early-to-mid-1980s, and the second (and sadly, ongoing) revival of the late-2000s onward. Note that all three of these waves are timed with major technological changes that have threatened the movie-going experience as the acme of entertainment: television, home video, and high-definition home viewing, respectively.

[2] IOTL, that record was held by the two-part telecast of Gone with the Wind, on November 7-8, 1976 (less than three months before).

[3] Note that the ratio of content-to-commercials has by now declined to a level more familiar to modern audiences (approximately 3:1), down from Classic TV levels (5:1).

[4] Episodes five and six did not break the 47.0 threshold set ITTL by
“These Were the Voyages” IOTL, but they did ITTL, largely because overall ratings for the mini-series were higher. This is also reflected in the rating for the final episode, up from 51.1 IOTL (which is still good for third-highest-rated telecast of all time, by the way).

[5] IOTL, 1977 was the first year that the Emmys were moved to September (where they continue to reside IOTL); this has been butterflied ITTL.

[6] Perhaps because the dissenting voices are slightly stronger, GWTW fares slightly worse than IOTL, just enough so to fall beneath the threshold set by Star Trek, meaning that only the final episode of Roots ranks above it in all-time ratings (up to this point).


And now, we witness the arrival of that which finally dethroned
“These Were the Voyages”: Roots! As IOTL, this mini-series became a landmark production that can be measured more in its impact than its content (which is what defines popular culture, after all). A reminder that a ratings point (a rating of 47 is also that many points) represents one percent of all television-owning households in the given market (always the United States for the purposes of this timeline, unless stated otherwise).
The Turtledove Award-Winning That Wacky Redhead: Big Dreams Have Big Consequences!

Find out more on the Alternate History Wiki or TV Tropes

Last edited by Brainbin; November 3rd, 2012 at 12:15 AM..
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