January 5, 2013

This week in TV Guide: January 6, 1973

Once upon a time there were shows on television called “scripted series.” What this meant was that someone, or perhaps a number of people, would sit down in a room, working at a typewriter, and compose a “script”. These people were called “writers”. A second group of people, called “actors”, would then be hired to read the lines in these scripts, playing “characters” that had been described by the “writers” in the “script”. The script was what you might call a little story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. A number of these stories would be made, and then shown on television in a recurring pattern, once a week, at a specific time. The resulting product was called a “series”, and for many years this format was the backbone of the television schedule.

I know all of this might be hard for you younger viewers out there to believe, given that reality television has dominated the landscape the last few years. But that all began to change on Thursday, January 11, 1973 with the premiere of a new documentary series on PBS called An American Family. For 12 episodes we watched the real-life story of the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California—husband and wife Bill and Pat, and their five children, Lance, Kevin, Grant, Delilah and Michele—all played out in front of the cameras of PBS affiliate WNET.

The show had been filmed over the course of seven months in 1971, and debuted to great expectations. The famed anthropologist Margaret Mead, in her TV Guide preview, called the format “as significant as the invention of drama or the novel.” This was unscripted television as it had never been seen before, telling a story in which nobody knew the ending. It was part family drama, part cultural mirror, part encounter group. During the course of the series the Louds would separate (and later divorce), their son Lance would come out as a homosexual, and the concept of “family” would be completely redefined for a new generation.

Much of the drama—and the appeal—came from seeing the family fall apart before our very eyes. For example, Pat announced to Bill that she wanted a divorce and asked him to move out of the house —right there in front of the cameras. Presumably this was the moment Bill heard about it for the first time. It was something like watching a train wreck. Today we’re more accustomed to living our private lives in public; indeed, for many people there is no such thing as “private,” and they view that as a good thing. However, back in the day, nothing could have been further from the truth. Divorce was a stigma, homosexuality even more of one, and unless you were a celebrity penning a tell-all book—and remember, back then, most scandals were hushed up; you just didn’t talk about these things in polite company.

The show was controversial from the outset and remains so to this day. The producer, Craig Gilbert, was accused by the filmmakers, Alan and Susan Raymond, of instigating drama for benefit of the cameras.* The Louds would claim that the film (some 300 hours had been accumulated in those seven months) had been edited to make things look worse than they were. And there was more than a suggestion that the whole thing epitomized an unsavory kind of voyeurism.

*Said Alan Raymond, "We were at odds with Craig over the treatment of the family. There were numerous confrontations where we tried to raise the question about whether the experiment was veering off course.”

In reading this, you’re probably leaping to the same conclusion I had: An American Family marks the beginning of reality TV. For example, Lance would later say that the series “fulfilled ‘the middle-class dream that you can become famous for being just who you are.’” On the other hand, there are those who would argue that it ain’t necessarily so: these weren’t strangers thrown into a house together, for example, nor were they reacting to artificially contrived situations. They didn’t have the self-awareness of celebrity, since the show didn’t air until over a year after filming had been completed. Regardless, I think you could make the case (and I would) that An American Family broke down barriers—societal, media—that would allow reality television to fester and take root.

So I think you can make a case that An American Family was the first "reality" show.  But was it reality? Can anyone truly be “real” when they’re in front of cameras? Can they really claim to be “unaware” of their presence? Gilbert would say,”Going in there with a camera, of course it affected the family, and of course it affected those of us who made it. But no one can know for sure exactly how.”

However one chooses to view it, there’s no question, as the philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote, that the series was “a symptom of our altered relationship with reality, characterized by ‘dissolution of TV in life, dissolution of life in TV.’” At the end of her TV Guide article, Mead suggests that An American Family may well be turn out to be more controversial than anyone might imagine: “In an age when so many people are jaded and apathetic, convinced that their own lives are not as interesting or important as those created by writers of fiction, it comes very close to the bone. I think An American Family will change their minds.”

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I always enjoy "Year in Review" pieces, and it's clear that the editors of TV Guide thought I wasn't alone, since they advertise the 1972 review as "A special section you'll want to save." I'm not quite sure I had that conscious thought when I saved this issue, but I did anyway, and I'm glad.

So let's see what made 1972 such a special year—I'm flipping through the pages as I type this. Hmm. Big story is Nixon's trip to China, and later to the Soviet Union. I really don't know whether or not we get so excited about things like this now, but trust me: in 1972 this was a big, big deal. It's often said that only Nixon could have gone to China at that time, because of his anti-Communist bona fides. Nixon probably should have won the Nobel Peace Prize for that, but 19 months after this issue appeared, he was out of office.

Yasser Arafat did win the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1994, but in 1972 he was the mastermind of the Summer Olympic massacre that took place in Munich on September 5. Television viewers were held spellbound throughout the drama, and Jim McKay won acclaim for his coverage. The great Austrian skiier Karl Schranz was thrown out of the Winter Olympics for professionalism. That most assuredly would not be a big deal today.

J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI for 48 years, died on May 2. Jackie Robinson, first black man in major-league baseball, died on October 24, days after having thrown out the first ball at a World Series game. That World Series was won by the Oakland A's, capping a shortened season due to a players' strike that delayed the opening. The Lakers won the NBA championship, the Cowboys won the Super Bowl.

Serious social issues were examined in more detail on television in 1972.  Besides An American Family, there was the movie That Certain Summer, starring Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen, which dealt with a teen-aged boy who discovered that his father was a homosexual. Bridget Loves Bernie, a sitcom about "Jewish boy marries Irish Catholic girl," started out as the highest-rated show of the year, but lasted only a season.  

They also were discussed on the news. Senator Tom Eagleton, George McGovern's running mate on the Democratic ticket, was forced off after news broke that he'd suffered from depression and had been treated with electroconvulsive therapy. He was replaced by Sargent Shriver. A picture in TV Guide shows the electoral vote total from late on Election Night: Nixon 508, McGovern 17. Nixon would go on to win 521-17.

And I remember all of this. Can it possibly be that long ago?

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ABC late-nite fail - Same as it ever was
This was the week that Jack Paar returned to network television after an absence of almost eight years. He was the opening salvo in ABC's new late-night gambit, Wide World of Entertainment. Paar and Dick Cavett would each appear one week a month; the other two weeks would be filled with movies, comedy specials and variety shows. This was ABC's latest answer to the success of Johnny Carson, who celebrated his 10th anniversary in 1972; Joey Bishop and Cavett had already failed, and Paar agreed to return only on condition that Cavett be kept on as one of the rotating segments of Wide World. Didn't matter; Paar only lasted a year, and the entire format disappeared after three years, to be replaced by late-night movies. Oh well, nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

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Not much sports to report; Super Bowl won't be until the following week, so there's no pro football. There are some college all-star games, though: the Senior Bowl and Hula Bowl on Saturday, and the American Bowl on Sunday. The great running back Greg Pruitt played for the South in the Hula Bowl and had a pretty fair NFL career with the Browns and Raiders. Heisman Trophy winner (and Pruitt rival) Johnny Rodgers was in that game as well, for the North side. The Hula Bowl used to be one of the best college all-star games to watch, back when there weren't 200 games a week on television and you didn't get to see the best players all that often.

The golf season returned with the Glen Campbell Los Angeles Open. Back in the day, it was quite fashionable for celebrities to lend their names to golf tournaments: Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Andy Williams, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. were just some of the stars closely identified with tournaments. A sell-out? Perhaps, but I'd rather see the Glen Campbell Los Angeles Open than what it's called now, which I think is the Northern Trust Open, or something like that. By the way, Rod Funseth would win the Campbell this year.

And there's hockey! Two Minnesota North Star games; in Montreal on Monday and Boston on Thursday. We also have dueling hockey leagues, which may seem incredible to those of you who've noticed we only have one major league today, and it can't seem to get its act together. Nevertheless, on Sunday afternoon the new World Hockey Association premieres on CBS as the Winnipeg Jets, with star player/coach Bobby Hull, take on the Minnesota Fighting Saints. Later that afternoon the NHL returns on NBC, with the Boston Bruins travelling to Chicago to face off against the Black Hawks. I remember that Bruins-Hawks game; Chicago, then as now, was my favorite team, and they held on to beat the Bruins in a thrilling game, 5-4.

In non-sports news, it's interesting to see how many genre shows are still on: Bonanza and Gunsmoke, while on their last legs, continue to represent Westerns; the non-procedural police shows, Ironside, The Rookies, Hawaii Five-O, The FBI and Adam-12 are among the biggest. There are still a ton of comedy/variety shows: Julie Andrews, Dean Martin, Carol Burnett, Sonny and Cher and Laugh-In. Carol was part of CBS's epic Saturday night lineup, which also included All in the Family, Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart. And there were medical dramas, Marcus Welby and Medical Center. An interesting collection of shows, don't you think?

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Finally, there's almost always one of these in every issue of TV Guide. I like to refer to it as plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, partly because I can't speak French and this makes me look smart, but mostly because it's true: the more things change, the more they stay the same. This week it's the January 6 episode of The David Susskind Show, appearing on the PBS station, Channel 2. The topic: "Arabs and Israelis Confront Each Other." The show presents "a candid discussion with Arab and Israeli graduate students in the U.S." Among the issues up for discussion are "terrorism, Palestinian refugees and possible solutions to the Middle East conflict."

Plus ça change, n'est-ce pas? TV  


  1. Wow, fascinating piece about a date that I remember very well -- my first baby was 1 month old, and it is my Mom's birthday. It's spooky seeing all that again, isn't it? Time just keeps telescoping with every passing day! I loved your description of actual programs to the reality-hypnotized youth of today! Good stuff!

    1. Hey Becky - yes, as I've gone through these issues, especially the ones from when I was a little older and remember the times more clearly, it is very startling to see and recall some of that. It does seem, the older we get, the faster time slips away, eh?


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!