The Surprising Origins Of Reality TV

Most people think that Survivor was the first reality TV show to air in the United States, but that’s not true. While most people associate PBS with documentaries, it’s responsible for one show that was decades ahead of its time. Long before Bravo or MTV, PBS introduced America’s television audience to reality TV. The show was called An American Family, and when it aired on PBS from January to March 1973, it offered an intimate and sensationalistic examination of a single family alongside a powerful critique of American society. Unlike commercial networks that are dependent on advertising revenue, PBS had the flexibility to broadcast an experimental program that challenged audiences without pressures from advertisers that preferred to sponsor comfortable, traditional content. In fact, the program’s problem may have been that it was too realistic for a TV audience accustomed to sitcom perfection. From the start, producer Craig Gilbert sought to use the Loud family — mother Pat, father Bill and their five children in Santa Barbara, Calif. — to force audiences to grapple with issues at the heart of the American condition. He knew that an accurate portrayal of an American family would shock audiences. Of course, real life often doesn't provide nice, neat resolutions. The mere fact that these shows were scripted created a feeling of separation from reality: Viewers understood that what they were watching wasn't real. An American Family aired only 12 episodes and then disappeared. Today, reality TV is sophomoric, contrived and often silly. Unlike An American Family, it rarely challenges viewers in a critical and thoughtful manner.