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The First Family of Reality TV: Between the Covers with The Louds

By Ray Zone

An American Family
A Televised Life

By Jeffrey Ruoff
University of Minnesota Press
163 pps. (paperbound) $24.95
ISBN 0-8166-3561-7


Published as Volume 11 in the Visible Evidence series of the University of Minnesota Press dealing with issues of "cultural and historical representation," Jeffrey Ruoff's in-depth examination of An American Family fits the leitmotif of the series like a glove. Ruoff is a film historian and documentary maker who has written the first book on the making of the Loud family documentary and its impact upon its subjects.           

Before present day "reality TV," the nonfiction series An American Family, produced by Craig Gilbert, with Alan and Susan Raymond credited as "filmmakers," documented seven months in the lives of a Santa Barbara family which included the divorce proceedings of the parents and the "coming out" for Lance, their gay son. Shown weekly on PBS in 1973, An American Family was 12 episodes long, and by the time the series wrapped, every member of the Loud family had become a household name in America.

An American Family was notable for its lack of contrivance. Everyday life in the Loud family was plainly and simply shown. It was free of the commercial embellishment that clutters up reality TV today. There was no host, no interviews or voiceover narration.

"By bringing cameras into the home," writes Ruoff, "An American Family announced the breakdown of fixed distinctions between public and private, reality and spectacle, serial narrative and nonfiction, documentary and fiction, film and television." Ruoff credits the series with opening doors to "a variety of new nonfiction forms" that include not just reality TV but the confessional talk shows that are wildly popular today.

As an upper-middle class family, the Louds were a real-life answer to the ideal, and patently unreal, families seen in sitcoms such as Leave It to Beaver (1957-1963) and The Brady Bunch (1969-1974). "By the time Pat Loud asked her husband to move out of the house in the ninth episode," notes Ruoff, "the old ideal of carefree sitcom families had crumbled."

As the most influential TV documentary of the 1970s, An American Family reached 10 million viewers for each episode, a fact that astonished the production staff and public television executives. "As intended, Gilbert's program provoked debates concerning family life and sexuality, the state and character of the nation, and the role of television in American culture," writes Ruoff. Everyone from Garry Trudeau, cartoonist of Doonesbury, to Margaret Mead had something to say about the Loud Family.

Under Gilbert's supervision Alan and Susan Raymond filmed the lives of the Louds from May 30 through December 31, 1971, on 16mm color film.  Over 300 hours of film were shot and subsequently edited by a team of people who worked for more than a year at National Educational Television (NET) in New York on the project. Technical innovations in production included the use of lightweight portable cameras and wireless microphones. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Ford Foundation had provided $1.2 million to make the series. 

Gilbert was inspired by Allan King's 1969 documentary A Married Couple, which had used an observational style in recording 10 weeks of a marriage in crisis. At this time, due in part to books like Theodore Roszak's The Making of a Counterculture and Charles Reich's The Greening of America, many social critics believed that the American family was becoming obsolete. 

Reich had written, "Many attitudes, points of view and pictures of reality cannot get shown on television; this includes not only political ideas, but also the strictly non-political, such as a real view of middle-class life in place of the cheerful comedies one usually sees." Here was Gilbert's blueprint for An American Family.

Gilbert also believed that "the essential talent involved in the making of a documentary, particularly in the making of cinéma vérité films, is the picking of the subject." He limited his search to California in the belief that it was the cultural cutting edge of the nation. After reading the Ross Macdonald novel The Underground Man (1971), which he felt "perfectly described" the kind of family he was searching for, Gilbert telephoned its author. MacDonald's fiction was set in a town much like Santa Barbara.

The author assisted Gilbert, who limited his search to Santa Barbara.  Soon, an acquaintance of MacDonald's introduced Gilbert to the Louds. Bill and Pat Loud, with their five children, seemed ideal to Gilbert. 

It was essential to Gilbert that Pat Loud be a homemaker. In his critique of American culture, Reich had written "Wives of middle-class professional men occupy a particularly questionable position: well-educated and highly intelligent, they are forced into a position in which they cannot do any real work or assume any real independence. When their children grow up, they are left with empty lives, and often there are divorces."

Production techniques, the use of serial and multi-focus narrative and the impact of celebrity on the Loud family children are insightfully discussed. "An American Family represents a new stage in the filming of everyday lives of ordinary individuals," writes Ruoff.  "In its aftermath, the American documentary would never be the same."


Ray Zone is a documentarian, freelance writer, film historian and contributing editor to American Cinematographer magazine.