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ABC turns back to `Roots’ 25th anniversary

8 p.m. Friday, NBC
9-11 p.m. ET Jan. 20-25; marathon showing noon to midnight ET Jan. 26, Hallmark Channel. 12 hrs

PASADENA, Calif. Absent any fanfare on its originating network, television’s highest-rated and most-honored miniseries marks its 25th anniversary this month.

NBC is responding with Friday’s “Roots: Celebrating 25 Years” (8 p.m. ET). Cable’s Hallmark Channel then will air a digitally remastered “Roots” Jan. 20-25 at 8 p.m. nightly, plus a marathon showing Jan. 26.

ABC, which birthed the 12-hour adaptation of Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel on Jan. 23, 1977, so far has chosen to brush off its crown jewel. While rival NBC pre-empts “Providence” to salute “Roots,” ABC will stick with “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” It’s the latest pratfall by a network that’s mired in a much-publicized ratings slump and last week shuffled programming executives again.

Judy Leonard, executive producer of the “Roots” tribute, said she first pitched the one-hour program to ABC, but was told, “We don’t think it’s going to get an audience.”

Esteemed producer David Wolper, who made “Roots” for ABC and is interviewed in NBC’s tribute, deems it a “terrible mistake” for the network to shortchange the most powerful program in its history.

“I was terribly disappointed,” he said. “But thankfully, NBC was smart enough to pick it up.”

NBC entertainment president Jeff Zucker clearly is relishing ABC’s newest imbroglio, but is tactful with his on-the-record comments.

“I was surprised that a `Roots’ tribute was something we could put on,” he said. “I didn’t really believe it at first. But then, when we were assured it was available, it was something we wanted to do.”

Movies reuniting cast members of popular comedy and drama series often wind up on networks other than the ones that made them hits. ABC recently aired a new “Facts of Life” movie, even though the sitcom had its entire run on NBC.

“Roots,” however, is a singular television event that originally drew more than 100 million viewers a night to a network that had been a stranger to prestige. In a pre-video recorder era, it had the power to close businesses early because customers were otherwise occupied watching Haley’s epic tale of the fictional Kunta Kinte’s enslavement.

LeVar Burton, then a 19-year-old University of Southern California theater major, made his film acting debut as Kunta Kinte. Overnight sensation is putting it mildly.

“I kind of liken the experience as having walked through fire,” he said.