Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Before we had the Kardashians, even before we had The Real World, we had PBS's An American Family -- the original "reality" series.

The real Loud family (right) meets HBO's Loud family. HBO's triple-Golden-Globe-nominated Cinema Verite takes a look behind the scenes of the filming of America's first reality TV family. Photo from

Before 1973, the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California, lived in the privacy of their own home. With the airing of the documentary An American Family, that "privacy" extended to every American home with a television. Jeffrey Ruoff is author of An American Family: A Televised Life, the first in-depth look at this pioneering "reality TV" documentary. HBO's 2011 mini-series Cinema Verite, which is nominated for three Golden Globes at this weekend's awards ceremony, takes an in-depth behind-the-scenes look at the filming of An American Family. In anticipation of this weekend's awards, we thought we'd post the preface and part of the introduction to Ruoff's book — which we highly recommend.


The advent of satellite and cable television in the 1980s, together with intense competition among American networks for advertising revenues, left broadcast media scrambling for ways to reach audiences. Using new small-format video technologies that make taping possible under virtually any circumstances, producers have introduced a flood of inexpensive reality-based shows, often called "reality TV" or "docu-soaps." Fox's Cops (1989-present), which follows actual police officers while they patrol the streets of America, led the way. Subsequently, ABC's America's Funniest Home Videos (1990-present) brought amateur footage into prime time as studio audiences voted to award $10,000 to the evening's most amusing clip. MTV's The Real World (1992-present) held casting tryouts for another hybrid form in which seven youths, strangers at the outset of the show, lived together in a loft apartment specifically constructed for filming purposes. As I write this preface, CBS's Survivor, with its game-show format and tropical island setting, has become the hit of the summer of 2000, prompting Time magazine to do a cover story on "voyeur TV." As audiences followed the ups and downs of the dwindling number of contestants for the million-dollar prize, Business Week reported that Survivor was "rejuvenating the network's demographics and boosting summer ratings." Commercial success guarantees that programmers will offer more of the same: reality TV is designed to make real life pay.

But before "infotainment" and "reality programming," there was a nonfiction series called An American Family. Produced by Craig Gilbert, this documentary chronicled seven months in the lives of the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California, including the divorce proceedings of the parents and the New York lifestyle of their gay son, Lance. Twelve episodes long, An American Family was shown weekly on the Public Broadcasting Service in 1973; millions watched. The Louds—wife Pat, husband Bill, and their children, Lance, Kevin, Grant, Delilah, and Michele—became household names. Unlike the contrived situations and game-show formats of current reality programming, the PBS documentary portrayed everyday life without embellishment. No prizes were awarded. There were no commercials, because An American Family was not broadcast to make money.

Producer Gilbert deliberately chose an upper-middle-class family whose lifestyle approximated that of families seen on situation comedies such as Leave It to Beaver (1957-63) and The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet (1952-66). As in The Brady Bunch (1969-74), there were plenty of kids in the family. But by the time Pat Loud asked her husband to move out of the house in the ninth episode, the old ideal of carefree sitcom families had crumbled. Gilbert's use of narrative techniques in a nonfictional account of family life blurred conventions of different media forms. Unlike most documentaries, An American Family had no host, no interviews, and no voice-over narration. By bringing cameras into the home, An American Family announced the breakdown of fixed distinctions between public and private, reality and spectacle, serial narrative and nonfiction, documentary and fiction, film and television.

It is worth revisiting this groundbreaking documentary today because it opened doors to a variety of new nonfiction forms, not only reality programming but also confessional talk shows like The Oprah Winfrey Show (1986-2011) and a wave of personal documentary films such as Ed Pincus's Diaries (1982) and Ross McElwee's Sherman's March (1986). Like Theodore Roszak's The Making of a Counterculture, An American Family asked audiences to think seriously about family, marital relations, sexuality, and affluence. This realistic view of one family permanently demolished the "happy family" cliches of situation comedies of the 1950s and 1960s. Together with programs such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77) and All in the Family (1971-79), An American Family transformed the representation of family life on American TV, introducing a new authenticity and diversity to fiction and nonfiction programs. In the intervening years, despite the hundreds of available channels and the vogue for "reality TV," American television has failed to produce creative nonfiction such as An American Family.



An American Family
was the most significant American documentary of the 1970s and among the most influential television programs of that decade. It reached an unusually broad audience for a nonfiction program; Newsweek estimated ten million viewers for each episode, the high point for public TV in the 1970s. The size of the viewing public astonished the program's production staff. "No one ever looked at public television," coordinating producer Jacqueline Donnet recalled. "We thought that we were working on a little series like The Working Musician. Of course, there was an audience out there, but we didn't think the family was going to make the cover of Newsweek." But the program had unusual resonance with the general public. In the words of a Chicago Tribune reviewer, the documentary "made the trials of the Louds a shade better known than those of Job. Everybody wrote about them and dissected them." Journalist Merle Miller, writing in Esquire, concurred, "I doubt if in the history of the tube there has been so much talk about anything." Cartoonists such as Garry Trudeau and Jim Berry lampooned An American Family. To not watch the show was an act of defiance. Novelist Elie Wiesel's refusal to join fellow New Yorkers in front of a living room TV set was cited in the New York Times Magazine. "One written sentence," Wiesel steadfastly maintained, "is worth 800 hours of film."

The first episode was broadcast by PBS on Thursday evening, January 11, 1973, at 9:00PM (EST), at the same time as Ironside (1967-75) on NBC, The Thursday Night Movie (John Frankenheimer's The Gypsy Moths, 1969) on CBS, and an ABC premiere of Michelangelo Antonioni's documentary China (1972). During its twelve-week run, An American Family went against Ironside and Kung Fu (1972-75) and subsequent movies on BS, including Mark Robson's Valley of the Dolls (1967) and Mike Nichols's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Despite the competition on commercial networks, millions of viewers followed Pat and Bill Loud's unfolding marital problems in a controversial show that some critics called a real-life soap opera. As reviewer Stephanie Harrington noted in the New York Times, "You find yourself sticking with the Louds with the same compulsion that draws you back day after day to your favorite soap opera." People talked endlessly about the program, and the Louds eventually received thousands of fan letters.

The national press gave extensive coverage to the series in January, February, March, and April 1973. Many critics panned it; others applauded. Divorce was a novel topic for prime time, and few viewers had ever encountered an openly gay son, such as Lance, on TV. Equally startling was the style: an episodic documentary about family life with no expert commentary and no interviews. (By way of comparison, the 1973 Emmy Award for cultural documentary went to a scripted historical series, America, hosted by British emigre Alistair Cooke.) No less an authority than anthropologist Margaret Mead declared in an article in TV Guide that An American Family was "as new and significant as the invention of drama or the novel—a new way in which people can learn to look at life, by seeing the real life of others interpreted by the camera." As intended, Gilbert's program provoked debates concerning family life and sexuality, the state and character of the nation, and the role of television in American culture.

Reviews appeared not only in local, regional, and national newspapers, but in prestige publications such as Harper's, the Atlantic, The Nation, Commentary, Society, and America. Well-known cultural critics and intellectuals weighed in, including novelist Anne Roiphe, journalist Shana Alexander, linguist S. I. Hayakawa, novelist and critic Merle Miller, New Yorker editor Daniel Menaker, theater director Michael Murray, essayist Benjamin DeMott, author Abigail McCarthy, sociologist Herbert Gans, and many others. A number of these reviewers were highly critical of the Loud family. Alexander, author of The Feminine Eye, called the Louds "affluent zombies" in Newsweek. Sociologist Irving Louis Horowitz, interviewed in Time, concluded that the family had "a tendency towards exhibitionism." In an extended essay in the New York Times Magazine, feminist author Anne Roiphe struggled to come to terms with the gay son, Lance, calling him an "evil flower," an "electric eel," and a "Goyaesque emotional dwarf." Many critics, like Roiphe, projected their fears about contemporary America onto the Louds.

Responding to criticisms of themselves and of the series, the Loud family and the producers vigorously entered this discussion, making An American Family the most hotly debated documentary ever broadcast on American television. The Louds gave interviews, wrote newspaper and magazine articles, and appeared on talk shows such as The Phil Donahue Show (1970-76) and The Mike Douglas Show (1961-82). By the time the family appeared on the March 12, 1973, cover of Newsweek, the seven members of this upper-middle-class family from Santa Barbara had become celebrities, attaining, in Andy Warhol's terms, their fifteen minutes of fame. "Eventually," one Harvard English professor noted in the New Republic, "we began to root for our favorite Loud."

A media circus ensued. Rumors of an affair between producer Craig Gilbert and Pat Loud circulated, alluded to by Roiphe in the New York Times Magazine and then repeated by others in Commonweal and elsewhere. As an antidote to the cliches of TV sitcoms, Gilbert tried to make a series about ordinary people and their everyday lives; he ended up making stars out of the Louds. In February 1973, looking more and more like the Partridge Family, the five children performed as a rock band on The Dick Cavett Show. Lance, the charismatic son and erstwhile fan of Warhol, became a symbol for a generation of gay men discovering a more open lifestyle. Offered an attractive contract by Cowar, McCann & Geoghegan, Pat wrote her autobiography, Pat Loud: A Woman's Story, taking up the mantle of the liberated housewife on a nationwide book tour. Bill, for his part, was solicited to host a television game show. Media appearances multiplied: Delilah went on to appear as a "bachelorette" on The Dating Game, and Lance posed in the nude for Screw magazine. Although the series was widely viewed when first broadcast, and it turned the Louds into celebrities, An American Family has received little attention since 1973. In Prime-Time Families, a study of the representation of family life on television in the 1970s, TV scholar Ella Taylor makes no mention of the series.


Jeffrey Ruoff is a film historian, documentary filmmaker, and assistant professor of film and television studies at Dartmouth College. He is co-author (with Kenneth Ruoff) of The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1998).

“Insightful and lucid . . . this book is the definitive study of this neglected but enormously influential television text-cum-cultural event.” —Thomas Doherty, Brandeis University

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