Emmys: When 'Roots' Ruled Primetime

Courtesy Everett Collection

THR looks back at the miniseries, whose finale still ranks as TV's third-most-watched show ever.

When Roots premiered in January 1977, The Hollywood Reporter review began, "There is no doubt that this searingly honest look at a part of our American history that has been long suppressed and distorted for 200 years will have a strong social impact."

That was one prophetic review.

Urban League president Vernon Jordan called the David L. Wolper-produced show based on Alex Haley's generational slavery saga "the single most spectacular educational experience in race relations in America."

Roots is also credited with establishing the consecutive-night miniseries as a format and gave ABC a ratings blockbuster: The eight episodes averaged 80 million viewers per night, with the finale drawing one of the highest Nielsen ratings ever -- a 51.1, with a 71 share. About 100 million Americans watched the series conclude with Chicken George (Ben Vereen) in 1867 telling his grandson the story of his great-great-grandfather, Kunta Kinte, the African who went to find some wood and was captured by slave traders. (By comparison, American Idol's recent finale drew 29 million viewers.)

Although the program was initially criticized for featuring too many white characters in the prelaunch promotion (including TV staples Ed Asner and Lorne Greene), all was forgiven at the Emmys. Roots won nine awards, including outstanding limited series and statuettes for directing, writing and lead actor (Louis Gossett Jr.).

A bit of trivia: The series featured a cameo by O.J. Simpson, and Robert Blake co-hosted the Emmys that year.