He didn’t set out to, of course. Like most figures in cultural history who leave the culture a little (or a lot) worse than they found it, Craig Gilbert, who died this week, just wanted to try something new he thought might work, and, of course, to make a buck. He was successful on both counts, but unfortunately, the law of unanticipated consequences took over.
What he wanted to try was the reality TV show, though he didn’t call it that. In the early 1970’s, Gilbert was an established documentary-maker of note and a producer at WNET, the New York PBS station. He had the inspiration of having a camera crew follow a real, ostensibly typical American family as it went about living for months, to let the public see what happens behind the closed doors of their neighbor’s homes.
WNET agreed to spend $1.2 million to finance the project), and Gilbert set about seeking an appropriate family for the venture.
Gilbert searched for a family that was ostentatiously middle class with a lot of kids spanning different age groups. He settled on the the Loud family, Bill and Pat, with their five children, Lance, Kevin, Grant, Delilah and Michele. The Louds didn’t know what they were getting into, because it was something no family had ever gotten into before. Over 300 hours of filming over seven months in 1971, they were recorded in increasingly intrusive ways, creating scenes that made the Louds into national soap opera stars, except that it was their real life being watched and talked about. “An American Family” was broadcast two years later as a 12-part series, and gradually took over the lives of the family members.
During the series Lance, the oldest Loud child, came out as gay. Bill and Pat experienced increasing tension in their marriage, and during the series, Pat kicked Bill out of the house. Meanwhile, though he denied it, the documentary-maker subtly and sometimes not so subtly influenced the direction of the real life drama, while trying to get as much of the really juicy stuff on camera as possible. Some involved in the show later accused Gilbert of pushing the Louds’ marriage to the breaking point to generate drama and viewer interest. Pat Loud claimed that she had been coerced into having certain confrontations on camera when she preferred to have them in private. The family also complained that Gilbert had edited the series to titillate and dwell on negative elements. Well, of course the footage was manipulated by the film-maker: he made documentaries. That’s what documentary-makers do. All of them.
The complaints, however point to the ethical problems with the project. The Louds consented to it, but they had inadequate knowledge for truly informed consent. An ethical documentary maker—is there such a thing?—would have warned them about the risks of having their lives played out on national television, as well as the dangers of sudden celebrity and the stress on family relationships from living life in virtual fishbowl ( Albert Brooks’s comedy “Real Life,” inspired by “An American Family,” didn’t exaggerate much in showing how absurd the situation was for all involved.)
The project itself was a lie, though one that we have become inured to. No such documentary can acurately show how a real family lives, because real families don’t go through life followed by camera crews. “An American Family” was a documentary example of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states that a phenomenon being observed is materially changed by the presence of the observer, leaving its true nature ultimately uncertain.
[Correction: Digression…That’s the version of the Heisenberg Principle that I absorbed in physics class,but it’s not really correct.The formal application of the Heisenberg Principle is in quantum physics, so my version is an analogy, not the principle itself. The Heisenberg Principle involves measurement, to be accurate. Reader Neil Dorr points out that what I described is called the Observer Effect. }
Nonetheless, “An American Family” was a cultural landmark, though it savaged the Loud family and left Craig Gilbert feeling bitter and unfairly criticized. The series led directly to the rotten cultural phenomenon of realty shows, with the manipulation that Gilbert was accused of ecoming accepted practice. It turned Americans into voyeurs and debased fans of the modern equivalent of carnival freak shows. The new Louds are the Kardashians (well, not new any more), making “social influencers” out of a series of sex-obsessed young women who have the approximate educational credentials of Mike Tyson.
Reality shows represent a substantial (though declining) proportion of prime time network fare, celebrating, in various formats, delusional aspiring singers, promiscuous sex, adultery, greed, betrayal,sadomasochism, cruelty, humiliation, child abuse, desperation, and worse. Past hit reality shows have paid contestants for eating worms, wandering naked in the dark, and in the case of hundreds of show business has-beens and D-list celebrities, paying the desperate and attention-starved to parade their addictions, inadequacies and ugly character traits for the public’s amusement.
And, of course, a reality show paved the way for Donald Trump to become President of the United Sates.
All or any of this might have happened without “An American Family,” , but let history record that Craig Gilbert lit the slow fuse that blew the dignity and taste of our culture to bits.
It would be unfair to blame him, but I’m not throwing any bouquets his way either.