The Man Who Coarsened America

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.

23 thoughts on “The Man Who Coarsened America

  1. Every reality show except The Apprentice exploited the contestants in a degrading manner. Anti-Trumper and wonderful exemplar of ethical behavior Joe Rogan made a name for himself getting fame seekers to debase themselves on Fear Factor.

    Every episode of the Apprentice had teams compete doing some public service project much like service learning or community service requirements for graduating from public school.

    Trump may have made millions and helped build his brand in reality tv but the show never glamorized behaviors we are trying to curtail. (Omorosa being the one exception)

  2. This is one of the (many) reasons I keep coming back here, Jack. This was apparently a cultural blind spot for me , as I’d never heard of this show or the family depicted. In my defense, it came out the year I was born. These little nuggets of forgotten history and culture are always welcome!

    Was “The Apprentice” really a “reality” show, though? It always seemed more like a game show to me. Maybe it was an unholy combination of the two.

    • Game shows, as they developed, were proto-reality shows…some more so, like Queen for a Day. But as “Quiz Show” showed, the drama of the individual contestants week to week was very much like a reality show, which is why producers tried to manipulate the results. I’ve alwasy found it strange that manipulating quiz shows was a scandal, but reality shows are virtually scripted in many cases.

      I agree: The Apprentice was the only reality show that I thought had substance.

      • Jack,

        Look up the Hawthorne Effect. I learned this in high school Communications class in the late seventies. It is based on the idea that people will act differently when they know they are being observed. I believe this is what some in your post called the “observer effect.

        I’ve often explained this phenomenon to people to explain why I’m not interested in watching “reality” shows; how can they be anything other that phony and contrived?

  3. Craig Gilbert lit the slow fuse that blew the dignity and taste of our culture to bits.

    British TV’s “Embarrassing Bodies” (aka in the Ukraine “I’m Ashamed of My Body”) is one of the worst – I almost typed “the last,” a bit of wishful thinking) among the world’s cultures, turning up in different countries with series featuring the Old, Teenage and Kid’s E. B.’s plus the inevitable “Fat” ones. With celebrity-hunting physicians in attendance, of course. Thanks. Now I know who to blame.

  4. Jack,

    “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.”

    Not exactly. What you’ve referred to is actually the Observer Effect. Though related, the Heisenberg Principle states that the more precisely the position of a particle is determined, the less precisely one can predict its momentum, and vice versa.

    Hope you’re well!

    • Neil,

      The Hawthorne Effect is the phenomenon that people will act differently when they know they’re being observed. I learned this in a high school communications class in 1977. I believe this may be the same as the observer effect, and , if I recall correctly, it’s named after the place in which the study was done. Look it up and tell me if you agree.

  5. “…the Kardashians… have the approximate educational credentials of Mike Tyson.”

    I’m not entirely sure that’s fair to Iron Mike.

  6. 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.

    As I often say this blog-piece traces out the surface and superficial picture of *something that happened* and offers no analysis as to *why it happened*. The metaphor that best describes this — rather appropriate in a media-obsessed culture as I think on it — is that of people chained in the lower level of a cave and unable to move their heads either to the left or to the right. They certainly cannot see, and are not aware of, the *projector* situated behind them — that which produces the flickering shadows and the light-play — but neither can they see the *directing intelligence* that produces the maya-like theatre.

    Though not very welcome, I assume, my observation has some merit. So, this entire world of *event* and *spectacle* playing out now in front of us is one in which no one has any idea about the causes, and no means to analyze the causes. If so neither do they have any means to ameliorate them. In fact this indicates a ‘passive’ relationship to social life. And that means an incapacity to act in any directive, intelligent way to *maintain civilization’. Chained in unfortunate posture in a subterranean cavern such *people* as I describe (I now describe *them* somewhat abstractly) can only witness, powerless, as their *world* is directed & engineered by forces & intelligences that they cannot see. Which remain hidden to them. Which resist being seen.

    Oh dear, oh dear . . . the potential realizations now begin to pile up. When an entire culture becomes subject to a powerful public relations industry that originally came to the fore to sell ciggies or beer, is transformed through war-machinations into a social engineering tool and this powerful tool infuses itself into all aspects of culture. Once one pulls at the thread (once one turns one’s head just a wee bit and notices the projecting beam behind one) it is then that the *situation* could begin to become clear.

    Richard Weaver wrote about The Great Stereopticon:

    ”Weaver gives the name “The Great Stereopticon” to what he perceives as a rising, emergent construct which serves to manipulate the beliefs and emotions of the populace, and ultimately to separate them from their humanity via “the commodification of truth”.

    Here, notably, Weaver echoes the sentiments of C. S. Lewis in his book The Abolition of Man (which was written nearly contemporaneously with Ideas Have Consequences), and anticipates the modern critique of consumerism.

    Let’s see here: “a rising, emergent construct which serves to manipulate the beliefs and emotions of the populace’. He must be talking of some place *over there*, no? Russia? Communist China? I am simply not quite comfortable with what he says if he talks about Noble America. This is the sole country in the entire world that is really dedicated to freedom and liberty and what these things mean in their most fundamental senses, right?

    But now I am getting upset! Anger rises up in me. I might vomit. What is he referring to? All those movies that I so much love? Where does it begin and where does it end? Is there some implication that business and government collude, even loosely, in *projects of the manipulation of populations* and the modifications and engineering of their values? A ‘stereopticon’ as a tool for social control? But who directs the control? And toward what?

    Oh for Heaven’s sake! Nothing here to see, move along. Why trouble myself in too meticulous seeing when there is just so much to look at? These are, of course, only mediations that are valid when a whole established order begins to come apart at the seams.

    Thank God we are in no such time as that. What’s on TeeVee by the way? Anything good? 🙂

  7. From the Wiki page on An American Family.

    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”.

    Reminds me of:

  8. Jack, I guess the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle might somehow be applied. It states that if the operators (for the properties) when applied to the system don’t mathematically commute, the two properties can’t be measured simultaneously without a degree of uncertainty. In other words, there are some things you just can’t know.

  9. Cops wasn’t too bad (Bad boys, bad boys…). Beyond that, pretty much forget it. Bridezillas, uber-conservative beardo weirdos selling duck calls, hick towing companies, nannies straightening out dysfunctional families, fat former strippers… you’d be better off spending your weekend afternoons asleep.

  10. People on these ‘reality shows’ have sickened me for decades, and the sick addiction of the viewers to watch other people debase themselves has led me to abandon much of prime time. The old reruns of Carol Burnette, Perry Mason, Carson, or even when she wrote murder don’t paint targets on the foolish. I was surprised the series that corrupted the lens was this early, I’d expected it to come from late 80s.

    I cannot understand how the people who love these abuse marathons have so lost any empathy and sympathy for people whose lives are being trashed for their amusement. What if it was your sister? What if it was your best friend? (The shows where pro actors are hired for the drama may be fake reality, but they reduce the cruelty)

  11. The only one I ever LIKED was “Who Wants To Be A Super-hero?” that ran quite a while ago on SciFi channel. Contestants basically invented and cos-played their own super-hero characters and host Stan Lee would set up challenges and judge them, ultimately deciding who would be sent home.

    Sounds pretty standard, right?

    Except that Stan expected people to act like heros, and dinged them for the back-biting, scheming and being cowardly. Where standard “reality shows” always try to bring out the worst in people, Stan Lee tried to bring out the best in people.

    I liked that. It was a refreshing change.

    I doubt we’ll ever see anything like it again.


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