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. Continue reading