It’s a common misconception that many think reality television only started in the 2000s. Yes, it was the decade that brought us initially a competition based reality TV show format from a British TV producer who introduced it to the U.S. Once this show aired it was an instant success. Then an avalanche of similar or other off-shoot type reality shows have since came along one after another with varying degrees of success. Now it’s provided a majority of the programs we see on television. However, there was one revolutionary program on PBS in 1973 that chronicled a nuclear family, which comprises of a set of parents and their children only. Other cultures still have extended families living with them. Some time after the postwar World War II era the 60’s and early 70’s saw the advent of a nuclear family. In addition, we now have the postmodern family that comprises of a single parent and their children only. This particular nuclear family, The Loud’s of Santa Barbara, California, was filmed in a documentary style back in 1971. Little did they know it would become television’s first reality show and the springboard to countless others nearly thirty years later.
Please Allow Me to Introduce The Loud Family
Before there were the 2000s versions of a reality TV show based on a family such as The Osbournes with heavy metal rocker Ozzy Osbourne and his wife Sharon and their children Jack and Kelly (another daughter who refused to participate). Also, the series Keeping Up with the Kardashians whose late ex-husband was the high profile defense attorney in the OJ Simpson trial, Robert Kardashian, which chronicled Kris’ current husband Olympic champion Bruce Jenner and her children, his stepchildren and Jenner’s two daughters there was An American Family The Story of the Louds in the early 70’s. This breakthrough PBS TV series featured the father William Carberry Loud or Bill, the mother Patricia or Pat, and their five children. The eldest was Lance followed by in birth order: Kevin, Grant, Delilah, and Michele. The Loud’s were living the idyllic lifestyle of an upper middle class family set in Santa Barbara, California with all of the typical “American Dream” materialistic trappings. At the time of its filming and the post-production Mr. and Mrs. Loud assumed they would be portrayed as a hipper version of the popular 1950’s TV sitcom based on the Nelson family (No, not mine and no relation) The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. According to Pat Loud she later stated in an interview in 1983 “I, to this day, am embarrassed,” she confesses.
The Adventures of The Louds 1970’s Style
Many might find a documentary series and an old reality TV series to be virtually the same. At the time of filming An American Family the reality TV genre, as we now know it, was not defined in such a way. The more accurate term back then was cinema verite, which is French for “truthful cinema.” It is a style of documentary filmmaking that allows for naturalistic techniques combined with stylized cinematic devices of editing, camerawork, staged set-ups and the camera itself to provoke its subjects. If this sounds like déjà vu it is in a similar vein to our present day reality TV. A prime example of a more current cinema verite/reality show would be COPS or MTV’s The Real World.
The only way something like this could be presented on television back in 1973 was on educational TV or PBS. When An American Family premiered its 12 weekly episodes in 1973 it drew an audience of over 10 million viewers, which was, and still is, a huge phenomenon for PBS in viewership. Out of the five children in the Loud household it was Lance, the oldest, who garnered the most attention due to his flamboyancy. According to media scholars and television writers Lance Loud is considered the first openly gay person on network television in the U.S. Lance has been commonly written about as coming out of the closet on the show, when in fact it is technically incorrect. The family knew about Lance’s sexual orientation for quite sometime prior to the filming. However, the most famous incident from the series is the shocking, at least for the viewers at the time and everyone involved with the filming, of the very pubic display when Pat Loud asked her husband for a divorce and to leave the house. This would be “as real” as reality TV ever got, before or since.
An Epilogue to An American Family
With their series being so successful it was inevitable for members of the Loud’s to become celebrities in their own right, much like reality TV stars today. Delilah was a frequent contestant on the game show The Dating Game, Bill posed in bed for Esquire magazine and Lance posed nude for a highly provocative magazine (that is still in existence) called Screw. Lance Loud has since become a gay icon. However, he passed away in December 2001 of liver failure caused by co-infections from hepatitis C and HIV. There have only been two televised specials regarding An American Family with one from HBO in 1983.
Also, the last one focused on Lance Loud being reunited with his family at a hospice that aired as a final episode twenty years later in 2003 on PBS. You may have seen An American Family featured as a brief footnote on reality TV special countdowns. However, TV Guide has listed it as one of the 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time. Unfortunately it is not available on DVD due to the Loud’s request and other legal wranglings. There are music licensing fees that would make it prohibitively expensive for PBS, since it features rock music played on the radio in various episodes. That is tragic, because this reality show was not tainted like the so-called horrifically scripted ones you see today. An American Family is bold, innovative, and still very relevant.