Author Harold Courlander successfully sued author Alex Haley for plagiarizing works, which led to the book, that served as the basis for this miniseries. Haley paid six hundred fifty thousand dollars in an out-of-court settlement.
When ABC programmed it to air on several consecutive nights in primetime, it was considered a revolutionary approach to programming a miniseries. Most were aired once or twice a week over several weeks. Several years later, the network revealed that it was aired that way to get the show "out of the way" in a hurry. The network felt that nobody would watch the story if it aired over a longer period of time.
The installment that aired on January 30, 1977 was the most-watched television show in U.S. history at the time. It got a Nielsen share of seventy-one, with 36.38 million households, or 51.1 percent, watching. It has since been surpassed by the M*A*S*H (1972) finale, and the "Who Shot J.R.?" episode of Dallas (1978), season three finale, "A House Divided".
When the miniseries debuted on ABC, it was presented as a factual history of Alex Haley's family. Historians and genealogists have found critical errors in his research work. Most of the story is either unsupported or contradicted by the available evidence.
ABC originally broadcast the show as eight episodes. Episodes one, two, six, and eight were two hours apiece. Episodes three, four, five, and seven were one hour apiece. For VHS, DVD, and re-broadcast, it was packaged as six two-hour episodes.
The people who played Kizzy, George, and Tom Harvey were born within three years of each other. Leslie Uggams and Georg Stanford Brown were both born in 1943. Ben Vereen was born in 1946. This means that Tom was actually three years older than his father, and Kizzy was three years older than her son.
It became the first show to receive at least twenty major nominations in the Emmys. With nominations in Creative Arts categories, the total expands to thirty-seven. Both records still stand for all shows.