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Roots tribute has ABC blushing

As anniversaries go, not only is this a big one, it's a big controversy as well.

In a bonehead decision that ranks right up there with Pink Lady and 'Bob Patterson,' ABC executives decided to pass on 'Roots: Celebrating 25 Years.' So tonight, NBC gets to air the anniversary special.

It was, after all, ABC that aired 'Roots,' the eight-night miniseries that helped revolutionize television, keeping 130 million Americans riveted to the tube that cold week in 1977. But ABC didn't see the relevance of marking the culturally historic occasion Ñ probably because it had too much on its plate what with developing 'The Chair' and figuring out how many weeknights to air 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.'

This past week at the TV Critics Association media tour, ABC executives admitted that they goofed. And after watching the hourlong retrospective, which is full of enlightening interviews (chopped up in sound bites) and poignant scenes, the oversight looks even larger.

That scene when Kunta Kinte's father holds the newborn up toward the sky and proclaims, 'Behold Ñ the only thing greater than yourself,' still gives me goose bumps.

Host of the special is LeVar Burton, who starred as the young Kunta Kinte in his first professional acting role. The program centers on the impact that 'Roots' had on everyone. That included cast members, one of whom was best-selling author and poet Maya Angelou, and a number of viewers. It's been all too easy to forget the powerful impact that 'Roots' had on both blacks and whites.

' 'Roots' did not sound like a good idea É at the beginning,' explains David Wolper, executive producer of both 'Roots' and tonight's program. The miniseries Ñ part of the 'Roots' legacy is the invention of the term Ñ was based on a novel written by the late Alex Haley.

'Here's a story where the blacks are the heroes, and the whites are the villains, in a country that's 90 percent white and 10 percent black,' Wolper says. 'But there was something about that family story that struck everybody who heard it.'

Ben Vereen, who played Chicken George, makes the point that 'Roots' came before the era of VCRs and TVs in every room: 'It was a shared experience,' he says, 'a national phenomenon that families watched together in one room.' For eight nights, the most wide-ranging discussion in the country was about the worst part of its history Ñ slavery.

Now, ABC ought to make amends by re-airing the entire miniseries. Something tells me it would find a bigger audience than 'The Chair.'

Pete Schulberg is host of 'Portland's Morning News' on KPAM (860 AM). Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..