An American Family: The Chilling Birth (and End) of Reality TV

What is real in an age when purported "reality TV" has "finales" and one-named self-branded celebrity wannabes posing as people? When being on a show like "Survivor "or "Jersey Shore" is just another path to celebrity in which every move is self-conscious and calculated to achieve effect? You want real? Try enduring the clip below - the emotional climax to the 1973 PBS series "An American Family."

On July 7 PBS will run an anniversary 2-hour compilation from the original series. Extended clips from the 12 episodes are available online. Notice how different the visual style was in this first stab at reality TV. No manipulative editing. No suspiciously trumped up reaction shots and outrageous set ups. The long pauses that make up real conversations are part of the drama and the tension.

This was the birth of reality TV, but in many ways the peak from which it descended. For 12 weeks many of us were absolutely transfixed by this well-heeled but profoundly lost and aching Southern California family. Bill and Pat Loud's clan of teen kids, including the first openly gay characters on American TV, Lance, became the cause celeb in this country as documentarians Alan and Susan Raymond chronicled their privileged but arguably vapid lives. Unbeknownst to anyone when the novel project of recording everyday existence began, the Louds were headed straight for the heart of the defining trend of 70s America - divorce. In the scene below Bill returns home from one of his chronic business trips only to be handed the business card of Pat's divorce lawyer. Almost 40 years later, I still recalled the chilling calmness of the scene and all that is left unsaid but clearly felt.

In the face of this, modern programming should be ashamed to take the name "reality TV." The next time we hear critics bemoan that unscripted programming has gone too far, they might well consult their media history. "An American Family" should remind us just how manufactured our TV "reality" had become in four decades. In its capacity to make us think, feel and gain insight about how we live and why we live this way, our "realty TV" hasn't gone "too far." It is lagging far, far behind what came before it and where video truly is capable of taking us. 

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1 comment about "An American Family: The Chilling Birth (and End) of Reality TV".
  1. J S from Ideal Living Media , June 24, 2011 at 2:24 p.m.

    I agree with Steve's point, in general, but I see things a little differently.

    Since the start of television, there have been only a few formats: News (including sub-genres like documentary, and instructional), Sitcoms, Variety Shows, Game Shows, and Dramas (including soap opera and cop shows). Over the years, all of these formats have rotated in popularity.

    So what is "reality" programming? Well, successful "reality" programming will follow one or more formats. Using non-actors doesn't substantially change the formats, nor does the fact that the end isn't known from the beginning.

    Anyway, that's my theory...