In January 1973 PBS aired "An American Family." The documentary series chronicled the daily life of the Louds, an upper middle class California clan whose problems, aspirations, attitudes, and possessions became the fodder for a kind of attention and public debate that had never before been generated by a television program. During the course of the show's 12-hour run, parents Pat and Bill decided to divorce, oldest son Lance became the first openly gay man to be featured in prime time, and the rest of us became doomed to a future of superabundant reality TV.
Filmed by Susan and Alan Raymond over the course of seven months in 1971, "An American Family" was intended to show the everyday life of a normal U.S. brood. But the Loud's affluence— evidenced by their finely appointed Santa Barbara home (with an in-ground pool), four vehicles (including a Jaguar), and a horse— seemed to indicate that the their resources considerably surpassed the $14,865 mean income of a family with five children in 1973.
But America was mesmerized nonetheless. A first for public television, an estimated 10 million viewers watched each episode, captivated, not by plot points, but by personalities and the fact that people, even rich ones with every material need fulfilled, were as screwed up and in as much of a quandary as the rest of us. The desire to judge, commiserate, and dissect was irresistible, and everyone from Shana Alexander to Margaret Mead weighed in. In her Newsweek commentary Alexander said that "At school, at work and at play, these nice-looking people act like affluent zombies. The shopping carts overflow, but their minds are empty." Mead, on the other hand, thought the series "may be as important for our time as were the invention of drama and the novel for earlier generations: a new way to help people understand themselves."
And the assessments seemed to have been drawn from those two distinct perspectives. One, a judgement of the people being filmed for TV, and the other a judgement of what appeared to be a completely new form of TV itself. A nationwide debate raged in editorials, reviews and interviews.
But most of us watched Lance deck himself out in drag, Pat smoke cigarette after long, slim cigarette, Bill spout his old-school expectations of his wife and kids, Kevin and Grant try to elevate their garage-band talent into stardom, Delilah hope for a future in modern dance, and Michele try to stay afloat amidst everyone else's drama, as one would watch a train wreck. The series became a suspended moment of thinking, "I fear to watch, yet I cannot turn away."
But whether it was what was being revealed or how the revelations were presented to us, one of the predominant elements of this first reality show was a willingness on the part of the participants to reveal intimate details of their private lives and bear the humiliation that might follow. According to a 1973 piece in Time magazine, sociologists viewed the Loud family's penchant for on-camera revelation as proof that Americans had a "compulsion to confess," and saw this as a dangerously loose fiber in the country's moral fabric.
One wonders what the state of that fabric might be today when, according to a recent count of programs listed on RealityWorldTV.com, there are 649 current and syndicated reality shows being broadcast— during the course of which, thousands of people are disclosing information about themselves that makes the Louds look like prissy and boring Pollyannas.
But back then, the Louds garnered more than their share of vitriol for being what many considered whiny, spoiled and dysfunctional. Not surprisingly, Lance's homosexuality drew especially bitter fire. In a 9-page Sunday New York Times Magazine article, Ann Rolphe referred to Lance as an "evil flower," but also took 15-year-old Delilah to task for not focusing on the plight of migrant farm workers or grieving for those lost in Vietnam. A number of commentaries saw Pat's asking for a divorce, not as a positive move that might end an unhappy union and lead to a life of fulfillment and liberation, but as the breakdown of the penultimate American institution. As was the case with so much of "the old" and "the new" in the early 1970s, the Louds were assailed from both sides of the political and social arena.
Still, despite the unenviable barbs launched their way, all of the Louds, with the qualified exception of Pat, never regretted participating in the project. They all profited in some way from the notoriety gained by appearing in the documentary— but only briefly. In 1974 Pat published Pat Loud: A Woman's Story, the kids formed a band that enjoyed a second or two of fame, Lance went on to front "The Mumps," a group that experienced modest success on the New York City punk-rock scene, and even Bill allowed himself to be photographed for a magazine article on celebrity bedrooms. But none reaped any long-term benefit from the show.
Their lack of regret, however, is telling and makes one wonder if a desire for attention can outweigh fear of humiliation. Yes, there are reality shows on which one's tacit agreement to be pitied might be vindicated by need, as is the case with Extreme Makeover: Home Edition on which families with special needs end up having their homes remodeled to meet those needs. The hope of having actual talent acknowledged on American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance might be another legitimate reason to appear on a reality show. It's even understandable that a large wad of cash could encourage people to do practically anything in front of a camera: Hello, Survivor. But a short surf through the tryouts for Idol and shows like America's Got Talent is proof enough that appearing on a reality show for a bit of attention alone has become the dope for which many Americans are jones-ing.
It's particularly disturbing when children are tossed into the mix. The fact that one's child might be seen as a brat on a nationwide scale doesn't seem to bother parents of mini beauty pageant contestants on Toddlers and Tiaras or the adults whose children are featured on Super Nanny. From the parents of last year's "Bubble Boy" to the progenitors of the 16-year-old girl who recently attempted to sail solo around the world, there's no shortage of self-serving adults who see their offspring as tickets to their own 15 minutes of fame.
Of course reality shows that focus on kids are the minority, but adding a youthful factor to the original premise of An American Family is a large part of what fueled the success of MTV's The Real World series. Since its debut in 1992, it's become the longest running program in MTV history, and its success has helped generate the plethora of shows that offer us peeks into the everyday lives of celebs and nobodies alike. Each season the number of people who audition for "reality" competitions and "slice of life" programs increases, and the spinoffs from celeb and quasi-celeb programs also goes up. But even if every third citizen wanted to be on a show, broadcasters would still need an audience for them, and Americans are definitely tuning in.
The reason? Of course there are many, but as mentioned above, there's something riveting about watching a program in which someone, (other than you), has roughly an even chance of looking like a hero or looking like a boob. On most reality shows, only a thin line of luck and the unknown strength of a participant's mental and moral fiber separates the two outcomes.
Whether a viewer is rooting for the underdog or surfing a couch potato wave of complacent condescension, the desire to bear witness to victory or humiliation is remarkably powerful. Sadly, whatever insights reality TV viewers might gain while watching bickering couples race round the world, affluent housewives undergo painful bikini waxes, or overweight boogie-ers dance their asses off, it's unlikely that the programs serve Maggie Mead's wistfully therapeutic goal of providing "a new way for people to understand themselves."
Mostly, the shows are simply "too Loud."
QUEEN FOR A DAY Host Jack Bailey coaxed tales of crippled children, foreclosed mortgages and blind mothers from female contestants who hoped to have a hardship-related dream fulfilled on this series that ran from 1956 to 1964. An applause meter measured who the audience thought most deserving, and a crown, robe, roses and the object of desire would go to the winner.
EXTREME MAKEOVER: HOME EDITION Each episode of this ABC series features a deserving family facing challenges brought on by everything from rare disease to natural disaster. Host Ty Pennington, assisted by his team of remodelers and local contractors, revamp the family's home, or in some cases, replace it entirely, all in seven days. Tears of gratitude abound when the family returns to their incredible new digs.
TED MACK AMATEUR HOUR None other than "Old Blue Eyes" himself, Frank Sinatra, was discovered on the radio version of this talent competition. It's television counterpart, which ran from 1948 to 1970, was responsible for the discovery of Gladys Knight (pictured), Pat Boone, Ann-Margret and Irene Cara.
AMERICAN IDOL Idol can be credited for the success of winners, (and losers), Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Taylor Hicks, Jennifer Hudson, Adam Lambert and Daughtry, but should also be taken to task for shining momentary spotlights on the likes of William "Make-Your-Ears-Bleed" Hung, Larry "Pants-on-the-Ground" Platt and Sanjaya's hair.
THE DATING GAME Clever answers from one of three contestants would result in his or her being picked for a groovy date on this show hosted by Jim Lang from 1965 to 1973. The series tapped pre-fame celebs Farah Fawcett, Suzanne Somers, Lindsay Wagner and Lee Majors as prospective daters, and even featured already notable folks such as Sally Field, Tom Selleck, and Michael Jackson.
THE BACHELOR A pool of 24 or so love-hungry females vie for red roses from a single bachelor with the ultimate goal of receiving a proposal and engagement ring at the end of the season. Despite hopes and dreams, long-term relationships have never proven to be a payoff for the last gal standing, but at least now a woman can do her own picking on the program's female counterpart, The Bachelorette.
KIDS SAY THE DARNDEST THINGS Originally a segment on Art Linkletter's House Party, which ran daily from 1952 to 1969, the premise of asking children questions that they answer with unreserved bluntness, skewed logic and enviable fancy was turned into a half-hour show by Bill Cosby in the late 90s. A new edition of Linkletter's book of the same name, with an intro by Cosby, is in bookstores now.
TODDLERS & TIARAS Parents subject their offspring to choking fogs of tanning spray and hair lacquer, long hours of practice strutting, early sexualization and painful disappointment in this series about child beauty pageants. Paying thousands of dollars for frou-frou outfits seems little punishment for adults who obviously need attention more than their children do.
CANDID CAMERA Trick props, bizarre requests and behavior that defied logic were the raw material for Alan Funt's hidden camera laugh-fest. Unsuspecting average Joes were exposed to gags devised by the likes of Woody Allen and that featured guest appearances by Muhammad Ali and Buston Keaton. Still on the air since 1948, the show is now hosted by Funt's son, but continues to end the mischief with, "Smile! You're on Candid Camera.
PUNK'D Decidedly less family-friendly and tinged with a tad of mean-spiritedness, at least Ashton Kutcher's pranks are pulled on celebs versus everyday people. Still, considering some of the show's scenarios, we think it's amazing more fisticuffs don't occur.