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Reality TV's first family: Introducing the Louds from 1973

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Before the Osbournes & the Kardashians in 2000s, there was the Louds in the early 1970's

It's a common misconception that many think reality television only started in the 2000s. Yes, it was the decade that initially brought us a competition-based reality TV show format. This came from a British TV producer who more or less re-introduced it to an American audience. Once this reality TV show aired it was an instant success. After that, 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 today.

Yet, there was one revolutionary program on PBS, released 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. Sometime after the postwar World War II era, the ‘60s and early ‘70s 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 Louds of Santa Barbara in Southern California, was filmed in a documentary style back in 1971. Little did they know it would become television's first reality series, thus leading the way to countless reality shows and series thirty years later.

So May I Introduce to You -- The Loud Family

Starting in the 2000s there were versions of a reality TV show based on a family, such as MTV's “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 TV series on E! “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” features matriarch Kris Kardashian, whose late ex-husband was the high profile defense attorney in the OJ Simpson trial -- Robert Kardashian. Her current husband, Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner, and their own children blended in are chronicled in a similar fashion to the Louds. It features Kris’ three daughters and son, Jenner’s two sons from a previous marriage, and Kris’ and Bruce’s two daughters.

The story of the Loud family in the early 1970s titled “An American Family” was a breakthrough PBS TV series premiering in 1973. It 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 Louds 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 “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” According to the cinematographer of "An American Family," Pat Loud was mentioned in an article from 1990 stating, “If she had the chance to do it again, she would not do it."

The Adventures of the Louds -- 1970s 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 such as PBS. When “An American Family” premiered its 12 weekly episodes, it drew an audience of over 10 million viewers, which was, and still is, a huge phenomenon for PBS 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 that’s technically incorrect. The family knew about Lance's sexual orientation for quite some time prior to the filming. Apart from that, the most famous incident from the series is the shocking, at least for the viewers at the time and everyone involved with the filming, was the very public display when Pat Loud stated to her husband she wanted a divorce and to leave the house immediately. 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 infections from hepatitis C and HIV. There have only been two televised specials regarding “An American Family” with one from HBO in 1983.

One last episode of “An American Family” was broadcast decades later focusing on Lance Loud being reunited with his family at a hospice. It aired as an epilogue 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 wrangling's. 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. For its 40th anniversary at the PBS website, you can see a two-hour film of highlights of this extraordinary documentary that’s evolved into the reality TV genre.

HBO’s “Cinema Verite” 40 Years Later

Forty years after “An American Family” began filming in May 1971, HBO released its TV movie titled "Cinema Verite" about the Loud family in April 2011. This is chock full of them on-camera, complete with clips of the real-life Louds, and behind-the-scenes during the somewhat traumatic filming of “An American Family.” The performances and remarkable likeness of Pat Loud, portrayed by Diane Lane, and actor Tim Robbins as Bill Loud is completely unbelievable. Throughout the HBO film there are side by side clips indicating the various chapters. They feature scenes from the actual PBS series and from “Cinema Verite.”

Once again cinema verite is a style of documentary filming that would lend itself to the reality TV genre of the 21st century. James Gandolfini is Craig Gilbert, the series producer and confidante to Pat. He produces documentary films, one of them being on anthropologist Margaret Mead who studied a primitive family. Gilbert then pitches to his network executives there’s never been a day to day show on a real American family. “Cinema Verite” was nominated for several Emmy and Golden Globe Awards, primarily to Diane Lane and for outstanding TV movie or miniseries.

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