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, in the article "The Broken Family".
In 1974, the BBC made its own similar program, called The Family. The program consisted of 12 half-hour episodes, showing the daily lives and concerns of the working-class Wilkins family, of Reading, Berkshire, England.
In 1979, Albert Brooks spoofed the series in his film Real Life.
In 1983, HBO broadcast An American Family Revisited: The Louds 10 Years Later.
The series inspired the MTV reality television series The Real World.
In 2003, PBS broadcast the show Lance Loud!: A Death in an American Family, shot in 2001, visiting the family again at the invitation of Lance before his death. The same family members participated in the documentary, with the exception of Grant. Lance was 50 years old, had gone through 20 years of addiction to crystal meth, and was HIV positive. He died of liver failure caused by a hepatitis C and HIV co-infection that year. The show was billed by PBS as the final episode of An American Family.
Subsequent to the showing of A Death in an American Family, Pat and Bill Loud moved back in together, granting one of Lance's last wishes. They live very close to three of their four surviving children—Grant, Michelle and Delilah—and keep in close contact with Kevin and his family, who live in Arizona.
In April 2011, PBS rebroadcast the entire original series in a marathon format on many of its member stations, before the release of the HBO film Cinema Verite, based on the series.
On July 7, 2011, most PBS stations presented An American Family: Anniversary Edition, a two-hour film by Alan and Susan Raymond that featured selected moments from the documentary series, in tribute to the 40 years since the series began filming in 1971. It was subsequently released on DVD.
In 2012, Pat Loud released a book about her son's life called, "Lance Out Loud". Published by Glitterati Incorporated 2012.
HBO premiered Cinema Verite on April 23, 2011, a fictionalized examination of the process of making An American Family. With a script by David Seltzer and under the direction of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the cast includes Tim Robbins as Bill, Diane Lane as Pat, Thomas Dekker as Lance and James Gandolfini as Craig Gilbert.
An American Family episode nine end-credits; rerun airdate April 24, 2011, 7 a.m., WNET-TV