A sad fact is that thousands of people go missing
In 1973 millions obsessively watched the first experiment in reality TV. Over 12 episodes ‘American Family’ captured a family in full-on melt down, as it followed Pat and Bill Loud and their teenage children, Lance, Kevin, Grant, Delilah and Michele. An anthropologist said that the show was as important as the invention of drama and the novel – as it gave people “a new way to understand themselves.” But were they right?
#1 Initially shown to be the model family living the American dream in Santa Barbara they had a glamorous lifestyle including an eight-room ranch house, regular travel, a horse, three dogs, a pool, and four cars.
#2 At first the show’s producers wondered if ‘real people’ could behave naturally in front a camera, but the Louds quickly adapted and soon treated the camera like an extra family member, making comments and asides to it. Pat said that very soon she had forgotten about the camera altogether.
#3 This new ‘reality’ approach to recording an American family revealed things normally hidden under the surface – it showed, Lance who was gay, trying to connect to his out of touch father, Pat telling the crew about Bill’s affairs which she discovered from his credit card bills, and in capturing conversations, looks and silences, the ongoing personality clashes between the family members in their daily lives.
#4 The most serious crisis was the night when America watched in shock as Pat confronted Bill about his affairs, demanded a divorce and kicked him out of the house. It was all recorded and broadcast. This level of access to the drama and emotion of real life problems had never been seen before.
#5 In editing, the team watched thousands of hours of footage and realized that real-time, real life was incredibly boring! They had to edit it to make it entertaining. As a result, various Loud family members later raised the common complaint which is often made by reality TV stars – that they had been ‘edited to look bad’.
#6 The editors also made another discovery – they were addicted to the Louds! They had started rooting for their favorite family member and had even started talking about family arguments as if they had actually been there.
#7 When the show aired the Louds were shocked at the response – they were slammed as exhibitionists and one critic called them “affluent zombies.” They received sacks of mail from the public, which ranged from supportive letters to Pat, proposals of marriage to Bill, and support for Lance.
#8 They would never be ‘normal’ again, they were celebrities making TV and media appearances. The children performed on The Dick Cavett Show, Delilah on The Dating Game and Lance posed nude for Screw.
#8 This ground-breaking show raised issues real-life-as-entertainment for the very first time. So did it give us a new way to understand ourselves? I think the jury is still out!