It is almost impossible to remember that not all that long ago, all of America got its video entertainment and news from just three places--CBS, NBC and ABC, usually in that order. And you got it when it was served.
It’s especially mind-boggling now that I’m in the business of writing about online video, where there are thousands of choices, the content is usually just a few minutes long, impressions are counted in billions and the audience is around the world, not just around the nation.
I’m thinking about nothing else but that today because I read that Brandon Stoddard, the ABC executive most responsible for putting “Roots” on TV, passed away at the age of 77.
It is unlikely that the things Stoddard, or “Roots” and its author Alex Haley accomplished in 1977 will ever be surpassed.
For one week in January, more than 140 million people saw all or parts of the eight-part “Roots” mini-series --that was more than half the population of the United States.
It was so big that many entertainment venues closed in deference to it.
It was unbelievable.
I thought the author of the Stoddard obituary at Deadline.com was kind of ho-hum about “Roots” but as you watch the accompanying video interview with Stoddard on the Deadline site, it may start to come clear.
Back in the day (as they never said back in the day, in truth), a good television show could get a 30 share--that is, a 30% portion of the audience from among all the television sets-in-use. A “rating” measures viewership as a percentage of viewers with televisions, watching or not, so it’s always lower. In 1977-78, there were 72.9 million TV households.
Stoddard thought “Roots” would do okay--a 32 or 33 share he says on this video. The morning after the first episode, he recalled, ABC research called and a voice told him it did a 38. Stoddard was impressed, but not blown away.
“No, Brandon” the researcher continued. “That’s a 38 rating.” It had a 62 share.
Stoddard was stunned. ABC was stunned. That meant 38% of all the TVs there were in the U.S., were watching. Like, four out of ten homes! That was unprecedented. And it went up from there. By the time the eighth episode aired the next Sunday, “Roots” had 51.1 rating and a 71 share. Half the nation was watching, all at the same time.
That makes a viral video seem like a very petite sneeze.
The success may have said something about the status of race relations n this country--our slave history past needed to be addressed. But so did its scheduling. Stoddard’s boss, Fred Silverman, who was the president of ABC Entertainment, slotted “Roots” to air the week before the important February ratings sweeps, but not during it. Many believe he just wanted to get it over with, though "Roots" was by contemporary standards, a very sanitized version this nation's slave story.
Nonetheless, ads went mostly unsold. Stoddard recalled Orville Redenbacher Popcorn as one of the few sponsors. “He paid like $11,000 for 122 million viewers,” Stoddard laughed.
Comparing television, especially back then, to streaming video, is just pointless. But when I figured I was going to write about this, I had to figure out how to circle around to make it relate to what this blog is about.
I concluded one important consideration was intent. The Top 100 YouTube videos, for example, are dominated by sexually explicit rock videos or simple trivia. ”Charlie Bit My Finger...Again” is fourth on the list, with 763 million views, and that was just a home video featuring two cute kids.
Viewers, producers, networks and advertisers looking at those little, often cheap videos would find it hard to reconcile them with the event programming they associate with success. But the success, in fact, is that those little videos speak to specific audiences in a uniquely specific way and have an intimacy TV does not. Conversely, younger viewers probably can’t imagine how a huge portion of the country was watching the same content as their neighbor, and the home after that and the home after that, and all at the same time.
It does seem like another world.