On This Day In History: On this date in 1977, a miniseries appeared on ABC-TV. This is before the widespread use of cable television so, even the large markets had the 3 networks and a few local independent stations and that was it. Now, the network executives were convinced that the 8-part, 12 hour miniseries would fail and so they purposely scheduled it for 8 consecutive nights in January before ratings began in February just to get it off the air.
If you recall, a few days ago I talked about the election of President Obama and how, prior to even the nomination, I was shouted down at work by those who said I was stupid and didn’t know anything and that there was no way America would ever elect him president. I said that they were wrong and that my generation and younger were not raised that way and that I believed that Americans in general have good hearts and are patriots who will eventually do what they think is best for the country. Too bad the executives at ABC couldn’t hear my speech in the 1970′s or they would have put this miniseries on during ratings.
You see, the miniseries was based on a book by author Alex Haley. It was called “Roots” and was the story of the generations of a family in America. The first generation was brought to America as a slave in the 1700′s. The series depicted slavery’s brutality and the effects that it had on families. It was not really sugar coated. But, I suppose the executives, like my friends, were unaware of how America was changing and all they could probably remember was the open racism of the 1940′s and 1950′s and forgot the millions of Americans who stood in concert with the Civil Rights movement. So convinced it would be a flop and be rejected by audiences, they cast familiar actors like Lorne Greene, who had starred as the stalwart Ben Cartwright on Bonanza, in the secondary roles so to
better assure audiences. Ed Asner, who had starred in the Mary Tyler Moore Show, played the part of a slave ship captain who suddenly gains a conscience. That part was added for TV…that character never appeared in Haley’s book. They added the part to make audiences feel better about their race’s role in the “peculiar institution.” While the portrayal of the slave characters showed well defined human beings and not the comical vaudevillian type nonsense that had permeated movies and TV, the network promotional announcements were disproportionately absent of the slave actors. The bottom line is that the network was ultimately surprised. They didn’t think a show that showed the white guys as the bad guys would be successful or be “accepted” by white audiences. Wrong again.
For the 8 days it ran, the show averaged 45% of all televisions turned to the show and 66% of all televisions in use during the airing tuned in to “Roots.” Some 85% of all television homes saw all or part of “Roots” with 100 million people, nearly half the country, tuned in for the final episode. Told you they should have waited for the ratings period in February. With numbers like that, it’s really irrelevant what critics thought because the American people were entranced by it. I remember everyone at school talking about it every day. But, the critics had some snipes about the number of scenes involving rape, violence and
sex. I guess they wanted a sugar coated story. And some didn’t like the romantic, soap-opera-like, romantic subplots. But, perhaps the biggest criticism had to do with one casting decision. OJ Simpson played a native in Africa who tried to use his great speed to run away. People had seen OJ play football and OJ run through airports on Hertz commercials, but they weren’t too accepting of OJ Simpson running around West Africa. One that I couldn’t get over was Chuck Connors…The Rifleman. He was always good guy Lucas McCain to me and in this he was a mean, dispicable guy. I bet Micah would have slapped the cuffs on him.
Two things about this. The series was important because it brought to life something reasonably close to the awful, immoral nature of slavery…but probably in many cases wasn’t as bad as it really was. It brought about some social change in that it brought discussion to schools and in the public. It opened the doors to having African Americans gain more positive roles in movie and television production and generally portrayed in a more positive light. But, this also is an example of how the producers failed to see the change in America. They had their fixed notions, rooted in the past, and they were wrong. History is not prescriptive as it is limited to its time. Just because something happened in the past does not mean that it will happen in the future. History repeating itself is a misued cliche that should be left on the shelf and one should not form preconceived notions about the present based on the past. The times are different, people are different, society is different, the culture is different.
Weather Bottom Line: Snow White and I went out to Henry’s Ark…or Henry’s Farm…or Wallace’s Farm and fed all of the animals about 10 pounds of carrots on Thursday. We took advantage of the temps in the 50′s. The emu thought my finger was a carrot and then pulled Snow White’s hair. The entire porcupine family came out to say hello and the Zebras ran all the way from across the field and left their hay just to come take some carrots from us. They all seem so hungry that we may go out again today as Friday will be a touch warmer than Thursday. Then, that’s it….back to colder temperatures. The weekend will see highs in the low 30′s and upper 20′s. Next week looks to be seasonal or slightly colder than seasonal for much of the time. The little system is still on the board but running behind a bit with perhaps some snow on Tuesday night into Wednesday. Then it changes to sleet or maybe a period of freezing rain and then to rain by Thursday. Right now, it doesn’t look overly menacing but there are several days left on the drawing board.