By Nellie Andreeva
History Channel is taking on one of most celebrated TV programs of all time, the blockbuster 1977 miniseries “Roots.”
The cable network is planning a new eight-hour “Roots” miniseries after acquiring the rights to the 12-hour original from Mark Wolper, son of the late “Roots” executive producer, David L. Wolper.
History has also acquired the rights to adapt the book the original miniseries was based — “The Saga Of An American Family” — from the estate of author Alex Haley, Deadline has learned.
Mark Wolper is on board as executive producer.
The network is about to start discussions with writers for the project, which will draw from both the book and the original miniseries from a contemporary perspective.
“We would like to revive that cultural icon for a new audience,” said History executive vice president and general manager Dirk Hoogstra.
The project originated with a remark by one of Hoogstra’s executives, vice president of 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 that had been eyed by FX. In the end, History stepped up and secured the 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 the 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 relations 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 drew 4.1 million viewers for the opening two parts.