What is an American Family?

WHYY revisits what many consider to be the first reality TV show ever

Photos courtesy of PBS

In 1973, the Loud family made quite an impact on not only the television world, but also American culture as we know it with An American Family. Considered by many to be the first reality TV show, the PBS series (by Alan and Susan Raymond of Gulph Mills) chronicled the days in the life of Pat and Bill Loud and their five children in Santa Barbara, Calif., for seven months.

With frank, sometimes surprisingly candid discussions about marriage and sexuality, the show’s 12 hours of footage offered a riveting look into the modern American family – including affairs, everyday dramas and a gay son named Lance. He, too, became a first for TV as an unapologetic, openly gay man living a kind of bohemian New York lifestyle shortly after Stonewall and long before AIDS.

This Thursday (July 7th) WHYY celebrates the 28th anniversary of the show with a two-hour special An American Family: Anniversary Edition (9 p.m.). As the new special will highlight, unlike many documentaries of the day, An American Family had no host and no formal voice-over narration. Instead it’s cinéma vérité-style of filmmaking was not only controversial but also mesmerizing, drawing as many as 10 million viewers each week (a record for the time period), which may be why TV Guide named it among the “50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time” in 2002.

Lance Loud, it should be noted, who came out on the show – died in 2001 – but not before becoming an intimate in Andy Warhol’s New York circle, performing with his band Mumps at Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs with the likes of Blondie, The Ramones and The Talking Heads.

Here‘s an interview with Loud on The Dick Cavett Show.

Loud also became a noted columnist for magazines like The Advocate and Interview. His life – and death – was chronicled in 2003 in Lance Loud! A Death in an American Family, a poignant depiction of his decline due to addiction to crystal meth and complications of AIDS.

Here’s a clip in which the Loud family is first introduced to America:

Watch the full episode. See more THIRTEEN Specials.