An American Family is an American television documentary filmed from May 30 through December 31, 1971 and first aired in the United States on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) from January 11, 1973 to March 29, 1973. After being edited down from about 300 hours of raw footage, the series ran one season of 12 episodes on Thursday nights at 9:00 p.m.
The groundbreaking documentary is considered the first "reality" series on American television. It was originally intended as a chronicle of the daily life of the Louds, an upper middle class family in Santa Barbara, California but ended up documenting the break-up of the family via the separation and subsequent divorce of parents Bill and Pat Loud.
A year after this program was broadcast, the BBC in 1974 filmed its own similar 12-episode program, called The Family, focusing on the working-class Wilkins family, of Reading, Berkshire, England.
In 2011, "The New York Times" reflected on some of the controversy the series engendered:
For the viewing public, the controversy surrounding An American Family doubled as a crash course in media literacy. The Louds, in claiming that the material had been edited to emphasize the negative, called attention to how nonfiction narratives are fashioned. Some critics argued that the camera’s presence encouraged the subjects to perform. Some even said it invalidated the project. That line of reasoning, as Mr. Gilbert has pointed out, would invalidate all documentaries. It also discounts the role of performance in everyday life, and the potential function of the camera as a catalyst, not simply an observer. The show included footage, including of intimate family interactions, including an on-camera separation demand from wife Pat to her husband, and the coming-out of one of the children who was gay.
In 2002, An American Family was listed at #32 on "TV Guide's" 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time list. It is the earliest example of the reality television genre.
The Loud family members profiled were:
William Carberry (Bill) Loud (born January 22, 1921, Eugene, Oregon)
Patricia (Pat) Loud (born Patricia Russell, October 4, 1926, in Eugene, Oregon
Alanson Russell (Lance) Loud (June 26, 1951 – December 22, 2001)
Kevin Robert Loud (born January 28, 1953)
Grant Loud (born May 5, 1954 in Eugene, Oregon)
Delilah Ann Loud (born October 15, 1955)
Michele Loud (born October 12, 1957)
The Louds' eldest son, Lance, came out to his family as gay during the course of the series, which was controversial at the time. He is credited as the first continuing character on television who was openly gay and subsequently became an icon within the LGBT community.(He later became a columnist for the national LGBT newsmagazine "The Advocate").
One of the more notable moments of the series was when, after 21 years of marriage, Pat asked Bill for a divorce and to leave the house. Pat's saying to her husband "You know there's a problem" – with Bill's response, "What's your problem?" – was chosen as one of the Top 100 Television Moments by "TV Guide."
The series drew over 10 million viewers and considerable controversy. The family was featured in "Newsweek" on March 12, 1973. The article was titled "The Broken Family".
The series was produced by Craig Gilbert and featured the work of filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond.