Three camera crews moved into the Santa Barbara house of Bill and Pat Loud and their five children. According to a Variety story three months before the debut, docu producer Craig Gilbert “set out to capture the living patterns and mentality of a fairly typical middle-America household but instead recorded the drama of a family in the process of coming apart.” The couple’s 21-year marriage ended, Bill Loud suffered a business crisis and eldest son Lance, 20, came out to his parents at a time when homosexuality went unspoken, especially in primetime. The 12 one-hour weekly episodes drew an impressive 10 million viewers.
Albert Brooks’ film “Real Life” in 1979 spoofed the situation, but it took TV 20 years to catch on. MTV’s “The Real World,” inspired by “American Family,” bowed in 1992, and the nonfiction format caught fire after the May 2000 debut of “Survivor.”
The cash-strapped PBS was relatively new, and this was a tentpole for the public broadcaster, with sources at WNET/13 telling Variety the series was “the big event for PBS in a lean year and expect it to have a blockbuster effect.”
Gilbert and his team ended up with 300 hours of raw footage, filmed during the second half of 1971.
According to the Oct. 25, 1972 story in weekly Variety, “Reportedly, it took the family a month to adapt to the presence of the cameras and to behave naturally in their presence.”
When the show debuted, it sparked debates that have lingered through the hundreds of reality series since: Were the people really behaving naturally if the cameras were there? And were events edited in a way to make them more dramatic than they actually were?
The arguments only fueled more interest. There were two follow-up specials, “An American Family Revisited: The Louds 10 Years Later,” in 1983 (made by HBO and aired on PBS in 1991), and PBS’ “Lance Loud! A Death in an American Family,” in 2003.
HBO made the TV movie “Cinema Verite” in 2011, a dramatized version of the show’s creation, with Tim Robbins and Diane Lane as the Louds and James Gandolfini as Gilbert.
And the ripple effect continues to be felt, with every nonfiction series from “Big Brother” to “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.”