Coming around on 'Roots'

Why the Internet and social media could make the new "Roots" more than just another cynical revival

In recent weeks, an army of skeptics has questioned the A&E Networks’ decision to revive classic miniseries "Roots." Some of them — most notably Snoop Dogg (Caution: Link extremely NSFW) — have focused on the racial dimension, wondering whether a "Roots" remake will add anything of value to the conversation or just further inflame tensions.

I, too, had been questioning the necessity of another "Roots," but from the perspective of a TV critic who vividly remembers the phenomenon of the original, a 12-hour tour de force that drew an estimated 140 million viewers for some portion of it. What are the odds the remake could come anywhere near that kind of success? Why would A&E want to set itself up for that kind of failure?

The first "Roots," of course, aired at a time when there were only three broadcast networks. But in today’s fractured media environment, even with this new version running simultaneously on A&E, Lifetime and History, the ratings will surely pale in comparison.

Then there is the scheduling issue. Why debut Part 1 of this new version on Memorial Day, when much of the audience is drinking beer in the sun or decompressing from a long holiday weekend? Why not schedule it for the fall or the winter, when HUT (Household Using Television) levels are higher and the available audience is not seguing into summer fluff like "America’s Got Talent" and "Big Brother"?

I don’t get that.

But an interesting thing happened as I put the proverbial pen to the paper for this column. I changed my mind.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alex Haley, the 1977 "Roots" sparked a national dialogue about the legacy of slavery and the growing interest in genealogy. No matter how many new miniseries come and go, "Roots" will always be the poster child for important dramatic storytelling. And that’s a legacy that should be preserved.

But despite the mammoth-sized audience and the accolades (including nine Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe and a Peabody Award), the original "Roots" has long been criticized for a lack of accuracy — or, as modern audiences refer to it, "authenticity." This time, the producers have worked closely with historians and other experts to incorporate new information about this historical period. And while the new "Roots" runs on television, will delve further into the exploration of the slave trade online, giving the series a cross-platform dimension that immediately elevates its educational potential above the original.

Today, younger generations (as well as many members of older ones) probably have no idea that before "Roots" was a mini-series, it was a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Alex Haley. This new version, produced by Mark Wolper (the son of original "Roots" producer David Wolper), promises to be truer to the book, possibly inspiring a new audience to seek it out (It’s available on Amazon, of course). And with a reported budget of $50 million, higher than any other series in the history of the A&E Networks, the new series should help ensure the story will hold the interest of young people for another few generations.

Part one of "Roots" on Monday was seen by 5.3 million viewers across the four networks, based on the Fast Nationals from Nielsen. While that is nothing compared to the original, it still made "Roots" the highest-rated miniseries on cable since 2013, and a vast improvement over anything those networks aired last year at this time, when post-Memorial Day fatigue was in full swing. 

But the more important benchmark is what could happen by daring to revisit the origins of slavery. If discussions do result — and in today’s world of social media, they’re pretty much guaranteed to (thank you, Snoop Dogg) — that may be enough reason to believe A&E Networks made the right decision.

As for scheduling the new series to start on Memorial Day, I still think that is the pits. But hopefully, 40 years from now, that will not be what we talk about when we talk about "Roots."  

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