By Debra Lee
Special to TelevisionWeek
On Jan. 23, 1977, the historic date “Roots” premiered, I remember feeling skeptical that the depiction of slavery and its true historical impact on African Americans would accurately be portrayed to an American TV audience. Anticipation loomed leading up to its premiere, and at the same time, excitement was shared among most of my family, friends and the black community at large. I didn’t realize it at the time, but now that the 30th anniversary of the telecast nears, I have come to realize that Alex Haley’s “Roots” was a catalyst to the awakening of America’s social consciousness and undoubtedly the force to opening the door to mainstream racial dialogue among Americans for the first time ever.
After the first explosive episode, I continued to tune in, sometimes with trepidation, to the unfolding of Mr. Haley’s poignant story, which in turn became our story too. Prior to “Roots,” there wasn’t a reference that detailed the true account of our ancestors, especially one told from a black perspective on such an epic scale. Because we were given limited information on our story of slavery during our elementary school years, this miniseries significantly served as a historical tool that unfolded before not only our eyes but the eyes of all Americans, as we witnessed these unforgettable images on prime-time television. “Roots” was easily the single biggest landmark television miniseries of its time and remains so even today.
At the time of the premiere, the television industry was witnessing slow but moderate strides in the diversification of its television content. Before “Roots”‘ groundbreaking broadcast, Americans had not experienced a television program transcend before their very eyes into a social and emotional phenomenon.
As I tuned in each night, I experienced myriad emotions ranging from overwhelming pride and happiness to sadness and even anger. “Roots” told a true story and Americans were able to see for the first time in television history the issues and dynamics of slavery up close. It provided us all with a stark account of a horrific, yet paramount time in American history. It was a black family story, and memorable and symbolic African American figures like Chicken George and Kunta Kinte shaped and defined the black voice as they told the real story of the African American experience. Through its raw depiction, African Americans learned the true tale of our transport across the African diaspora, the separation of our families and the painful truth of slavery and its impact on our nation’s history.
The impact this miniseries had on me and the nation is immeasurable. It single-handedly changed the dynamics of American television and provided a tangible platform for all Americans to examine race. I can only wonder, if “Roots” had not aired 30 years ago and if the American viewing public had not witnessed that esteemed cast of African American actors in substantial roles, would such television classics as “Good Times” and “The Cosby Show” exist? Would the emergence of Black Entertainment Television (BET), a premier cable network that provides a multimedia platform catering to African Americans, have been possible just three years later?
As I reflect on this monumental event in television history, I give both thanks and praise to Alex Haley’s “Roots,” and to the perseverance it took to get his ancestral story on broadcast television. And now 30 years later, I am thrilled and proud that BET and numerous other minority entities exist and have the opportunity to provide unique and innovative television programming content that continues to touch Americans across all races, cultures and ethnicities.
Debra Lee is chairman and CEO of BET Networks.