December 02, 2008

We Shall Remain a game-changer?

In Preview of We Shall Remain, the author claimed thatThe film series and its massive outreach initiatives will go a long way in repairing the woefully inadequate misrepresentations of American Indian history in the country’s educational institutions and in popular culture.Sorry, but I have to disagree with that. I'd venture to say that no PBS documentaries have ever changed anything.

Remember Roots? That was an epic event--the highest-rated mini-series ever on network TV. Here's a refresher for the young'uns among us:Roots is a 1977 American television miniseries based on Alex Haley's work Roots: The Saga of an American Family, his critically acclaimed but factually disputed genealogical novel.

Roots was a ground-breaking event in US television history, receiving 37 Emmy Award nominations. It went on to win 9 Emmys, a Golden Globe, and a Peabody Award. It received unprecedented Nielsen ratings with the finale still standing as the 3rd-highest rated US program ever, behind the series finale of M*A*S*H and Super Bowl XLII. It captivated American television audiences, successfully crossing racial lines and piquing the interest of families, in all ethnic groups.
Did Roots go a long way in repairing the woefully inadequate misrepresentations of African American history? Not really:Apprehensions that Roots would flop shaped the way that ABC presented the show. Familiar television actors like Lorne Greene were chosen for the white, secondary roles, to reassure audiences. The white actors were featured disproportionately in network previews. For the first episode, the writers created a conscience-stricken slave captain (Ed Asner), a figure who did not appear in Haley's novel but was intended to make white audiences feel better about their historical role in the slave trade. Even the show's consecutive-night format allegedly resulted from network apprehensions. ABC programming chief Fred Silverman hoped that the unusual schedule would cut his network's imminent losses--and get Roots off the air before sweeps week.

Silverman, of course, need not have worried. Roots garnered phenomenal audiences. On average, 80 million people watched each of the last seven episodes. 100 million viewers, almost half the country, saw the final episode, which still claims one of the highest Nielsen ratings ever recorded, a 51.1 with a 71 share. A stunning 85% of all television homes saw all or part of the mini-series. Roots also enjoyed unusual social acclaim for a television show. Vernon Jordan, former president of the Urban League, called it "the single most spectacular educational experience in race relations in America." Today, the show's social effects may appear more ephemeral, but at the time they seemed widespread. Over 250 colleges and universities planned courses on the saga, and during the broadcast, over 30 cities declared "Roots" weeks.
To even approach a Roots-level impact, We Shall Remain would need several things. For starters, it would need event status on a major TV network and well-known stars (e.g., Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington) in supporting roles.

Another thing that would help would be a framing device like Alex Haley's search for his roots. An Indian could search through all of history for his Native roots--though it's unlikely he'd have ties to the Wampanoag, Shawnee, Cherokee, Apache, and Lakota. Or a time traveler could visit each period a la The Time Tunnel.

In the long run, Roots had a minor effect on America's perceptions of blacks. Electing Barack Obama probably will have a more lasting effect. Similarly, seeing an American Indian in a major role every day--e.g., as US president, millionaire playboy (a la Donald Trump), or box-office superstar (a la Tom Hanks or Will Smith)--will have more of an effect than We Shall Remain.

The good news is that Americans will watch ethnic stories if they're done right. And that Hollywood doesn't know what the hell it's doing by excluding American Indians. The moguls had no idea that Roots (or All in the Family, or Lonesome Dove) would be major hits. I doubt they knew The Cosby Show or Ugly Betty would be hits. So their fear of putting on Latino, Asian, or American Indian shows is illogical and unfounded.

For more on the subject, see Diversity Lacking in Television.


Anonymous said...

"Another Shot in the Dark" -

This particular effort at changing attitudes towards the American Indian will most likely fail miserably as only thinking people watch PBS's American Experience - and not the millions of "pooh butts" who gravitate towards dung heap television fare like "American Idol."

Perhaps if the series were hosted by "Larry the Cable Guy" - then there would be a greater amount of not only "viewer anticipation," but an actual above-average (in terms of numbers) audience for this production.

dmarks said...

Might be interesting. Seems like whenever I turn to PBS there are hours of craft shows, or hours of documentaries on musicians like Dylan.

Or interminable beg-a-thons (I might consider donating, except I'm already donating to it whether I want to or not).

Rob said...

Good point, Melvin. PBS specials often speak to liberals who "get" their message. In this case, the likely viewers probably know something about Native history already.

Updating my Roots analogy for today's way to reach everyone else would be with a "cowboys vs. Indians" reality TV series. Perhaps a quiz show on American history or a "survivor" show where people compete using traditional skills. In other words, something that presents Indians as capable modern people who don't wear "leathers and feathers."