African American Issues

Roots Miniseries: A Cultural Phenomenon

In the simpler media landscape of the late ‘70s, networks considered a show a blockbuster if it was watched in three of every 10 households. When “Roots,” a 12-hour miniseries exploring the multi-generational story of an African-American family, made its historic premiere on ABC during the last week of January in 1977, it could be found on more than half of the nation’s televisions (that night in Los Angeles, the share was 67 percent).

When putting the estimated audience of 130 million into perspective, one network executive said, “it’s like millions of people reading the same book simultaneously.”

Author and journalist Alex Haley made his name exploring different chapters of the African-American story, from Malcolm X to Miles Davis, and the blockbuster miniseries adaptation of his best-selling 1976 masterpiece “Roots” was a prologue to them all. Haley’s family story tells “the symbolic saga of a people,” a tale far more universal than even the most compelling celebrity interview.
Chasing the answer to a simple question of origins, which required the author to spend 6,500 hours in 57 libraries and archives, led to profound answers.