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NAB 2007: Wolper Brought ‘Roots’ to Millions

Apr 16, 2007  •  Post A Comment

By Debra Kaufman, Special to TelevisionWeek

NAB’s highest honor is the Distinguished Service Award, and this year, which marks the 30th anniversary of the airing of “Roots,” NAB will honor the executive producer of that seminal miniseries, David L. Wolper.

“The Distinguished Service Award is given to people who have made lasting and significant contributions to the medium of broadcasting,” said Dennis Wharton, senior VP of corporate communications for the National Association of Broadcasters. “David Wolper is an iconic figure in the history of TV.”

Mr. Wolper is best known for “Roots,” the 1977 miniseries adapted from author Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the journey of a family from Africa through slavery to modern times. “It changed the psyche of the American people, giving them a much greater appreciation of the plight of African Americans,” Mr. Wharton said. “The whole nation stopped to watch that series, night after night. It was a defining moment for the medium — educational, entertaining, and a history lesson that Americans couldn’t get by reading something in a book. David Wolper did all that, in a great fashion that is still being talked about today.

“With today’s fragmented audiences, it would be difficult for a miniseries to attract such an audience,” he said. “I can’t think of anything else that would compare to what ‘Roots’ did.”

Mr. Wolper’s courage and foresight were on display with the production of “Roots,” at a time when there were few faces of color on TV, much less a program in which almost the entire cast was African American. “It doesn’t seem like a good idea in a country where 90 percent of the people are white and 10 percent of the people are black to produce a story where white people are villains,” said Mr. Wolper. “But it was a family story, and you start rooting for them.”

Born in New York City, Mr. Wolper has made more than 700 films in his 50-year career, including the 1971 “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” “L.A. Confidential” and the Academy Award-winning documentary “The Hellstrom Chronicle.”

His career also includes producing the Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, as well as TV and film adaptations of two more Pulitzer-winning books: Theodore H. White’s “The Making of the President” and Carl Sandburg’s “Lincoln.” Other books he adapted for the screen include Colleen McCullough’s “The Thorn Birds,” John F. Kennedy’s “A Nation of Immigrants” and Garson Kanin’s “Moviola.”

The NAB Distinguished Service Award caps a career of more than 150 honors, including Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes and Peabodys.

“This is a very special award for me,” said Mr. Wolper. “My first film, ‘The Race to Space,’ couldn’t get on the networks because they didn’t take independent documentaries. But I knew a lot of stations, and I got 108 stations to take my documentary, which saved my life and helped me during a crucial time in my career. The New York Times called it the first fourth network. NAB 2007 is a perfect place to thank all the stations that are part of that organization.”

Past recipients of the Distinguished Service Award include Edward R. Murrow, Bob Hope and Walter Cronkite; last year’s recipients were former “NBC Nightly News” anchor/managing editor Tom Brokaw; former “CBS Evening News” anchor/managing editor Dan Rather; and Peter Jennings, the late “ABC World News Tonight” anchor/senior editor.

“You have to be a pretty special individual to win this award,” said Mr. Wharton. “And David Wolper certainly fills that bill.”

NAB 2007
Billed as: The world’s largest electronic media show
Where: Las Vegas Convention Center
When: Through Thursday, April 19
Details: www.nabshow.com