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 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.
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.
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.