Long before E!, Bravo or MTV, PBS introduced America’s television audience to reality TV.
The show was called “An American Family,” and when it aired on PBS from January to March 1973, it offered an intimate and sensationalistic examination of a single family alongside a powerful critique of American society. Unlike commercial networks dependent on advertising revenue, PBS had the flexibility to broadcast an experimental program that challenged audiences without pressures from advertisers that preferred to sponsor comfortable, traditional content. In fact, the program’s problem may have been that it was too realistic for a TV audience accustomed to sitcom perfection.
Today’s media-savvy viewers largely understand the exaggerated and contrived aspects of “reality” TV. In fact, producers like Mark Burnett prefer calling the genre “unscripted drama” over “reality TV” to acknowledge staging and forgo any claim to an honest portrayal of reality.
But whether it’s “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” or “The Real Housewives” franchise, our television sets are flooded with manipulative and staged dramas designed to delight, shock and even outrage their audiences. These shows amuse, entertain or provoke eye rolls, but they explicitly avoid raising larger philosophical, social, cultural or even existential questions about the human condition. They feature celebrities living in aspirational worlds, not mirrors on our own existence. If anything, they offer an escape from reality.
“An American Family” was different. From the start, producer Craig Gilbert sought to use the Loud family — mother Pat, father Bill and their five children in Santa Barbara, Calif. — to force audiences to grapple with issues at the heart of the American condition. He knew that an accurate portrayal of an American family would shock audiences.
Rather than construct and contrive situations, Gilbert preferred a cinéma vérité approach — an observational filming style that values simple recording over complex editorial production. In allowing the quotidian details of an average family to unfold before the camera, Gilbert assumed, extraordinary insights would emerge.
The project was, to some extent, a way for Gilbert to grapple with his own demons. Nine years after the show ended, he explained that it originated in desperation. Short on work, drinking heavily and trapped in a troubled marriage, Gilbert searched for answers. He settled on the idea of using the medium of a “normal” family to explain the societal issues all Americans confronted in the early 1970s.
The tension arising from the generation gap, confusion over gender roles in transition and the changing technological landscape all made contemporary life particularly stressful. Parents born in the 1940s and 1950s with ingrained ideas about the nuclear family and work ethic clashed with children who indulged in self-expression, individualism and developing technologies. The growing feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s challenged older conceptions of gender and marriage.
Watching perfect sitcom families on television exacerbated those anxieties, as nobody could possibly measure up to the impossible standards broadcast every night. Even sitcoms like “All in the Family,” which explored these issues, did so in a packaged way. Laugh tracks buffered discomfort, and audiences could count on characters to act in prescribed, repetitive ways. Despite arguments and conflicts occurring in the family, the issues were ultimately resolved (often humorously) in the end.
Of course, real life often does not provide nice, neat resolutions. The mere fact that these shows were scripted created a feeling of separation from reality: Viewers understood that what they were watching, even when it navigated relevant cultural subjects, was not real.
So Gilbert brilliantly inverted the formula. He found a “perfect” family, one that would appear “reassuringly comfortable” to viewers, mimicking the plastered-smile sitcom families found on the commercial networks. “An American Family” would hook the viewers with its seeming normality, then educate them by raising larger truths about the human condition and problems in American society.
It worked. While Gilbert was not aware of the specific issues confronting the family at the beginning, his belief that no American family was perfect quickly proved to be correct. Viewers watched as Pat and Bill divorced and son Lance refused to hide his homosexuality.
The revelation that a “normal” family could grapple with such issues shocked critics and viewers in different ways. Pat Loud was particularly angered. Once, during filming, she asked Gilbert, “What the hell is this series supposed to be about?” Gilbert offered a simple but illustrative response: “It’s about how you and I and everyone in this room and everyone in this country is fumbling around trying to make sense out of their lives.”
This artistic vision was reflected in the way critics and viewers talked about the show. “Most viewers will experience the shock of recognition,” wrote one reviewer, and audience letters seemed to confirm this. Viewers wrote to Gilbert telling him how much they appreciated a “real” family on TV that made them feel “not alone.”
Though the show fulfilled the producer’s vision, the format of “An American Family” was ultimately unsuccessful. The Louds complained, most explicitly after reviewers and critics cast the family as hollow and problematic. Pat accused Gilbert of being manipulative and even staging events — accusations that surprised the producer, because the family reviewed footage with him before each episode was packaged.
“An American Family” aired only 12 episodes and then disappeared, only to be rediscovered by scholars later and used as a historical document. While the program attracted millions of viewers, the criticisms from reviewers and subsequent condemnation from the Louds — who did not want the public to perceive them negatively — served to discredit Gilbert’s work.
Recalling “An American Family” allows us to think about the ways in which PBS shaped our media landscape. It is unlikely that any commercial network would have been courageous enough to air the series. Commercial networks, dependent on advertising revenue, rarely broadcast material that could be incredibly challenging and uncomfortable for viewers. But PBS, precisely because it remained protected from the pressures of commercial sponsorship, was able to broadcast this important show.
Today, reality TV is sophomoric, contrived and often inane. Unlike “An American Family,” it rarely challenges viewers in a critical and thoughtful manner. But in the early 1970s, PBS thought American audiences could handle such material. This type of innovation and experimentation — and, yes, even faith in American TV audiences — is the ultimate legacy of the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act.