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An American Family: the Birth of Reality TV

The year was 1971. The typical American family was the Brady Bunch. So said one side of Hollywood. I beg to differ, said the other side. The typical American family is going through a divorce, and has a flamboyantly gay son who likes to go drag racing every now and then.

Thus were the American public presented with An American Family, And they were also presented with the birth of reality TV, for better or worse.

I'm not here to sit in judgment of reality TV. An argument could be made that Candid Camera was a prehistoric form of the genre. And I 'm heavily into The Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers, two shows which seem to fit into the mold.

However, much of what constitutes reality TV homes in on the baser segments of human nature, and there are certainly some seriously low spots that can be tapped. An argument could be made that they are simply following the lead provided many years ago by PBS and the Louds.

The Louds were considered the typical American family by producer Craig Gilbert. In fact, they were well up the financial chain, and living in a very desirable area on the west coast, where summer and winter are differentiated largely by whether or not it was raining.

The deal was that they would agree to be filmed while they went about their day-to-day activities. The bonus to PBS was that those activities would include a marriage falling apart and a son coming out of the closet.

The result was a gut-wrenching presentation that would eventually make TV Guide's Top 100 all-time series list. And it would also be recalled when the extremely profitable genre of reality TV arose in the late 1990's.

The Louds agreed to be filmed in 1971, and some 300 hours of footage was shot. During the filming, husband and wife Bill and Pat decided to separate and get a divorce. It was all caught in living color.

Also, during the course of the twelve episodes, we deduced that son Lance was a homosexual. Hey, we're talking southern California, no need to be coy about it. But the American TV public were exposed to it on a straightforward basis for what for them was the first time.

And this was the family that PBS decided was a typical one.

This column is not a bash of PBS. I've enjoyed many of their offerings over the years. But the year was 1971. Just how mainstream were the Louds?

It really doesn't matter. They were fascinating. An American Family was one of the most-watched PBS offerings. It was a soap opera, but even better. The heartaches and anger were real.

The biggest tragedy about the show is that it's not available any more. The Louds came and went in 1973 without anyone hitting the record buttons on their Betamaxes. And PBS has thus far been loath to re-release the episodes.

Here's a suggestion: The next time it's fundraising time, why don't you PBS folks offer a nice boxed set of the travails that the Louds went through in front of your cameras? My guess is it could make for a nice haul, what with all those Jon and Kate fans out there ;-).

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