Analysis | The surprising origins of reality TV - Deepstash
The first American reality TV show

The 1973 "An American Family" was the first reality show aired on PBS. *It offered an intimate examination of a single family alongside a powerful critique of American society.

The show was aired from January to March, but it was too realistic for a TV audience accustomed to sitcom perfection.

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Today's viewers mostly understand the exaggerated and contrived aspects of reality TV, flooded with manipulative and staged dramas designed to delight or shock audiences. They feature celebrities and offer an escape from reality.

But "An American Family" was different. The producer wanted to force audiences to engage with issues that affected the American condition. He knew an accurate portrayal of an American family would shock audiences.

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The producer, Graig Gilbert of "An American Family", explained that the project originated in desperation. Short on work, drinking heavily and trapped in a troubled marriage, he used the idea of using the medium of a "normal" family to explain societal issues Americans faced in the early 1970s.

Viewers watched as Pat and Bill divorces and their son Lance refused to hide his homosexuality. The realisation that a "normal" family had these issues shocked critics and viewers. It survived only 12 episodes and then disappeared, only to be rediscovered by scholars later.

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  • The Laud family on "An American Family" loudly complained after reviewers cast the Lauds' as hollow and problematic.
  • Viewers experienced the shock of recognition. Some viewers wrote how much they appreciated a "real" family on TV that made them feel "not alone".
  • The Lauds accused the producer of being manipulative and staging events, even though the Lauds reviewed the footage with him before each episode was aired.

While the program attracted millions of viewers, the criticism from critics and condemnation from the Lauds served to discredit producer Gilbert's work.

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