Baby Boomers Invent Reality TV Way Back When

Newsweek coverSo contemporary. So 21st century. So wrong.

Let’s return to ancient baby boomer times: A.D. 1973.

A reality show used to mean National Geographic. Everyone thinks the pop culture genre was invented around 2000. It was re-invented.

A daring series hit television in 1973: an out-the box idea to do live running footage of the real happenings of an “average” American family. Despite newly arrived Archie Bunker, baby boomer family television remained a steady diet of Bradys and Waltons. That’s reality, Hollywood said. If you don’t measure up, look in the mirror. Boomers and their parents did, fell short, and felt inadequate.

The Loud family didn’t measure up, either, and it probably made us feel better about our less-than-perfect selves. On the surface, all appeared fine: here was an upper middle class Southern California nuclear family with five kids, three poodles, a horse and a swimming pool. But the husband cheats, the wife kicks him out, a nasty divorce begins, and the kids go to pieces.

If that weren’t enough, a son who fancies dresses breaks out of the closet. All on national television.

The producers didn’t expect the domestic fireworks, but not to worry, they thought. The show was little more than a glorified home movie that would fly under the radar, especially on public television. Who watches that?

OMG! For 12 weeks, 10 million eager voyeurs were glued to one of the most popular PBS programs in history. TV interviews and endless news stories quickly followed.

TV Guide ranks An American Family #32 in its list “50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.”

Cinema Verite filmingCinema Verite, an HBO movie, appeared in April, 2011 to mixed reviews. The term means films about ordinary people without script or direction—as in Realty TV. This revisit of An American Family was made by Hollywood heavyweight David Seltzer (The Omen).

The cast wasn’t too shabby, either. James “Is There Life After Tony Soprano?” Gandolfini; Diane “I’m Still Hot at 45” Lane; and Tim “I’m More Than Shawshank Redemption” Robbins. Thomas “Teen Throb” Dekker played the gay son. Seltzer’s idea was to do a “behind the scenes” look at the making of the show. James Gandolfini portrayed the producer who came up with the idea and preps the family, especially Mom (Diane Lane) and Dad (Tim Robbins).

An American Family was a one-hit wonder, but had a “realistic” influence on regular television programming, from Good Times to Dynasty.

Terry Hamburg writes the Baby Boomer Daily about the exciting and revolutionary baby boomer years.

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