EXCLUSIVE: History is taking on one of most celebrated TV programs of all time, blockbuster 1977 miniseries Roots. The cable network is planning a new eight-hour Roots miniseries after acquiring rights to the 12-hour original from Mark Wolper, son of Roots executive producer, the late David L. Wolper, and to the book the mini was based on, Roots: The Saga Of An American Family, from the estate of author Alex Haley. Mark Wolper is on board as executive producer. The network is about to start discussions with writers for the project, which will draw both on the book and the original mini from a contemporary perspective. “We would like to revive that cultural icon for a new audience,” said History EVP and GM Dirk Hoogstra. The project originated with a remark by one of Hoogstra’s executives, VP Development and Programming Michael Stiller, who suggested the network should try to remake Roots. The idea was put into motion, and meetings were set up with Mark Wolper and the attorney representing the Haley estate. As talks progressed, it emerged that there was a second Roots remake project out there from different original auspices that had been eyed by FX. In the end, History stepped up and secured rights, clearing the way for a new Roots mini on the cable network.
The timing couldn’t be better — the topic of slavery is very much on people’s minds through a string of popular movies including last year’s Django Unchained, this year’s Oscar hopeful 12 Years A Slave, and with Lee Daniels’ The Butler also touching on the subject. Add to that the success of other recent historical films like Lincoln. “History in general is in the zeitgeist, which is great for us being a network whose name is History,” Hoogstra said. The cable network has played a major role in bringing history to the forefront of pop culture over the past couple of years with its blockbuster miniseries Hatfields & McCoys and The Bible as well as series The Vikings.
Roots became a cultural phenomenon when it premiered on ABC in January 1977, airing over eight consecutive nights. An unlikely hit with a largely black cast and a slavery theme, it broke ratings records, with the conclusion drawing 100 million viewers, almost half of the entire country. The mini also is credited with helping improve race relationships and establish David Wolper’s miniseries style of blending fact and fiction in a soap opera package. The mini earned a record 36 Emmy nominations, winning nine including best limited series; supporting actor for Ed Asner; and music, shared by Quincy Jones. Thirty six years on, Roots has shown remarkable longevity, consistently drawing solid ratings for its reruns. Last December, BET’s 35th anniversary airing draw 4.1 million viewers for the opening two parts.