The Construction of the Viewer: Media Ethnography
and the Anthropology of Audiences. Eds. Peter Ian
Crawford and Sigurjón Baldur Hafsteinsson. Denmark:
Intervention Press in association with the Nordic Anthropological
Film Association, 1996, 270-296.
a Documentary Be Made of Real Life?":
Reception of An American Family
reason I think so many people are talking about this program
is not only that it touches on real people's lives, but
it has made a lot of people aware of the fact that in a
television show there is an interaction between filmer and
I. Hayakawa, 1973.
An American Family
captivated the imagination of the American viewing public for
several months in 1973, generating considerable controversy.
The twelve-week observational documentary series, broadcast
on public television, chronicled seven months in the lives of
the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California, including the
divorce proceedings of the parents. Producer Craig Gilbert's
use of dramatic story-telling techniques in a non-fictional
account of family life blurred conventions of different media
forms. Like most serial television, An American Family
emphasized character over plot, concentrating on the different
personalities of the family members, especially Pat Loud and
her oldest son Lance. Unlike the documentaries of Frederick
Wiseman, which block identification with individual characters,
An American Family encouraged this focus, catapulting
the Louds to media stardom. 'Eventually', one critic admitted,
'we began to root for our favorite Loud' (Rosenblatt, 1974).
No less an authority than anthropologist Margaret Mead, a friend
of Gilbert, claimed that the series 'may be as important for
our time as were the invention of drama and the novel for earlier
generations: a new way to help people understand themselves'
The documentary received
widespread attention in the national press for three consecutive
months. People talked about the series endlessly; critics panned
and applauded it. The subjects, the Loud family, entered the
discussion vigorously, along with the producers, making An
American Family the most hotly debated documentary ever
broadcast on American television. The Louds gave interviews,
wrote articles, and appeared on talk shows such as The Mike
Douglas Show and Phil Donahue. The reception
of An American Family eventually took on a life of its
own, little concerned with the original twelve hours of images
and sounds; the series itself was left behind (Staiger, 1992,
p. 46). As reflected in reviews, the documentary became swamped
in controversies concerning the American family and sexuality,
the state of the nation, the role of television, and the representation
Gilbert wanted to
make a series about ordinary people in ordinary circumstances;
he ended up making celebrities of the Louds. Mrs. Loud wrote
and published her autobiography, Pat Loud: A Woman's Story.
Mr. Loud, for his part, was solicited to host a television game
show (Chicago Tribune, 1973b). The five children performed
as a rock band on The Dick Cavett Show, Delilah appeared
as a guest contestant on The Dating Game, Lance posed
in the nude for Screw magazine, and Mr. Loud modeled
in his bathrobe in Esquire.
The 12 March 1973
cover of Newsweek featured the Louds for a series of
articles on the American family. In the 1970s, the family became
the central arena for debates about the state of American culture,
epitomized in works like Theodore Roszak's The Making of
a Counterculture (1969) and Charles Reich's The Greening
of America (1970). Social theorists started to think of
the family as 'an intimate battleground' (Melville, 1977, p.
240). Arguments about the decline and renewal of American society
pivoted around particular visions of family life, fueled by
anxiety over the divorce rate, the women's movement, new sexual
mores, gay liberation, and the generation gap (Berger, 1983,
p. 16-17; Skolnick, 1991, p. 2-6). Reich's critique of mainstream
American culture included the role of the media, 'Many attitudes,
points of view, and pictures of reality cannot get shown on
television; this includes not only political ideas, but also
the strictly non-political, such as a real view of middle-class
life in place of the cheerful comedies one usually sees' (Reich,
1970, p. 79). Craig Gilbert was not the only producer who tried,
in the 1970s, to redefine the image of the American family inherited
from old television shows (Newcomb, 1983, p. 5; Taylor, 1989,
p. 2). Like many social critics of the time, Gilbert believed
that the American family was disappearing, becoming 'obsolete'
(Loud, 1974, p. 80).
The first episode
of An American Family was broadcast on Thursday, 11 January
1973, at 9:00 p.m., eastern standard time, the same evening
as the family drama The Waltons. PBS broadcast the next
eleven episodes each following Thursday at the same time, encouraging
ongoing viewer involvement with the characters. As the production
secretary, Alice Carey, noted, 'Viewers built their weeks around
An American Family, because it was like watching live
soap opera' (Ruoff, 1989). Viewing patterns, coupled with attitudes
about television in American life, played a crucial role in
the way the documentary was watched, interpreted, and criticized.
In the early 1970s, television did not have a reputation as
a serious art form, as movies did, in American culture (Ruoff,
1991, pp. 6-7). Recently, scholars have recognized the importance
of television in the dissemination of documentary film, without
fully considering the historical specificity of television audiences
(Hockings, 1988; Crawford, 1992, 1992a; Loizos, 1993; Colleyn,
reached an unusually broad audience for a documentary, especially
a series broadcast by PBS. Reviewers estimated an average audience
of ten million for each episode (Newsweek, 1973c), relatively
small for commercial networks, but undoubtedly the high point
for American public television. In the mid-1970s, audience ratings
for popular programmes on PBS, such as Masterpiece Theater,
were only 2.5 million households (Morrisett, 1976, p. 168).
While many reviewers
saw the series as the high point of film and television realism,
others compared it to fictional forms. Large segments of the
audience contested the impression of reality that the series
offered. On the one hand were critics who believed An American
Family was 'more candid than Allen Funt's wildest dreams'
(Rock, 1973) and that 'never was there greater realism on television
except in the murders of Oswald and Robert Kennedy' (Rosenblatt,
1974). On the other hand, some reviewers claimed that it was
'a most artificial situation' (Hayakawa, 1973), 'a bastard union
of several forms', and that 'the mirror is false' (The Nation,
and interviews appeared in a wide variety of mass circulation
magazines and newspapers including the New York Times,
Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune,
Variety, Vogue, Time, Ms., Harper's,
The Atlantic, Village Voice, Ladies Home Journal,
The Nation, New Republic, Society, Esquire,
Commentary, America, Newsweek, Commonweal,
and many others. A three-page article by Margaret Mead in the
6 January issue of TV Guide introduced the series as
a novel experiment in television (Mead, 1973). The WNET advertising
campaign, together with reviews that appeared before
the first episode was broadcast, set the agenda for responses
to the series. Reception studies of film and television, therefore,
should not be conceived in isolation of the publicity campaigns
that accompany those media (Bennett, 1987, p. 249).
This chapter examines
the responses of professional television and cultural critics,
of varying degrees of competence and specialization, who wrote
newspaper and magazine articles in the 1970s. The absence of
critical standards for documentaries, and the innovative style
of An American Family, made for a tremendous variety
of responses to the series; generic constraints were not fully
operative (Feuer, 1987, p. 118). Reviewers compared the series
to the real world, home movies, television commercials, talk
shows, variety shows, situation comedies, soap operas, novels,
plays, sociological studies, and documentaries.
reception studies suffer from the absence of ethnographic data
about ordinary viewers, ample evidence exists of the unusual
resonance An American Family had with the American public.
A reviewer from Esquire contended, 'I doubt if in the
history of the tube there has been so much talk about anything'
(Miller, 1973). In the words of the Chicago Tribune,
the series 'made the trials of the Louds a shade better known
than those of Job. Everybody wrote about them and dissected
them' (Sharbutt, 1973). According to Newsweek, An
American Family 'made household words out of Bill and Pat
and Lance and Kevin and Grant and Delilah and Michele Loud'
WNET's Press Release
WNET's press release
for An American Family attempted to channel audience
expectations of this landmark series. Many of the early reviews
amount to little more than publicity, confirming the cinematographer's
comment that 'Most television critics just take a press release
and run with it' (Ruoff, 1993). The press release contrasted
the series with the depiction of families on situation comedies
and soap operas, thus supplying intertextual references for
reviewers (WNET, 1973b). In addition, it promised a national
character study in the guise of a portrait of one upper middle-class
family, 'The series aim in focusing on one specific family was
to illuminate and reflect facets of behavior, feelings, and
attitudes common, in varying degrees, to all American families'
(WNET, 1973a). The idea that the series investigated the American
dream appeared first in the WNET portfolio, 'The members of
the Loud family have been shaped by the national myths and promises,
the American dream and experiences that affect all of us, whether
we be rich or poor, black or white, young or old' (WNET, 1973a).
The press release argued for a commonsense notion of shared
American identity that was, at the time, very much under attack
from revisionist critics and social activists (Wilkinson, 1988,
The press packet
established that the family was materialistic and rich, linked,
not by bonds of love, but by modern communications systems.
The 'Profile of the William C. Loud Family' accentuated the
wealth of the family to the point of caricature,
The Louds live
in a modern eight-room stucco ranch house. Set on a scenic
mountain drive amid the lush shrubbery and trees of southern
California, the Loud home serves as the headquarters for the
well-traveled family. (Pat may be in Eugene, Ore., while Lance
is in Paris and Kevin is in Australia, but all seven Louds
remain very much in touch with each other through regular
phone calls to the Santa Barbara 'message center.') When the
family is home, they are often joined by friends for gracious
dinner parties, rock-group rehearsals, class meetings or a
swim in the pool. When they leave their house, the Louds are
able to choose a means of transportation from among the four
vehicles they own: a Jaguar,
Volvo, Toyota and
Datsun pickup truck. In addition to its seven human inhabitants,
the Loud household is alive with a pack of family pets including
a horse, three dogs (a large crossbreed and two standard poodles),
two cats and a bowl of goldfish (WNET, 1973e).
The use of the words
"headquarters" encouraged reviewers to see a modern corporation
or military outpost, rather than a family. The 'Profile' suggested
that the house was a soulless corporation rather than a home,
while the emphasis on travel hinted at a highly mobile, rootless,
nuclear family, unattached to other social institutions. The
sheer number of cars underlined the family's affluence, as did
the notices about the pool and the horse. The press portfolio
linked the American dream, through the medium of the Loud family,
to the pursuit of wealth and the consumption of material goods.
The WNET press packet
included a portrait of the Louds, with all the family members
dressed up for the occasion, together with two of their dogs,
smiling directly at the camera. The Louds made this family photograph
for their 1972 Christmas card and, as such, it represented the
antithesis of observational cinema, a style that attempted to
record spontaneous behavior without acknowledging the presence
of the camera. The photograph offered a view of happy middle-class
family life that An American Family deliberately challenged;
its circulation in the press packet presented an ironic juxtaposition
of competing views of the Louds. The family portrait was widely
reprinted in the publicity campaign for the series--it appeared
with the advertisements in the New York Times--and was
eventually featured on the cover of Newsweek for an article
devoted to divorce and the American family.
Gilbert wanted viewers to watch the series without the benefit
of an on-camera host and the voice-over commentary that accompanied
most documentaries, the press release provided an explanatory
framework for An American Family. The press materials,
in fact, contained a more explicit statement of purpose than
the series itself and, in this way, contradicted the producers'
desire to show family life without telling viewers what to think,
to present what the associate producer Susan Lester called 'the
discomfort of the real' (Ruoff, 1989). Although the press release
established a horizon of expectations, one of the novelties
of the series for a mass television audience was, unquestionably,
the absence of a surrogate authority figure who explained the
events, a commonplace of television documentaries (Silverstone,
1985, p. 170). The observational style of the film suggested
that viewers could decide for themselves about the Louds; the
press packet, however, made clear that the family was in trouble.
The WNET Advertising
The advertising campaign
that ran in the New York Times and in newspapers across
the country served a similar function as the press packet. (The
publicity department at WNET developed the ad campaign in consultation
with an independent firm run by Lawrence Grossman.) The first
ad appeared in the 11 January edition of the New York Times
for that evening's broadcast of episode one. Bold capitol letters
asked, 'ARE YOU READY FOR AN AMERICAN FAMILY?', underneath
the family photograph, suggesting that something outrageous
and bizarre was coming on PBS. The ad quoted Margaret Mead's
claim about the novelty of the series. By this time, the Louds'
divorce was no longer a secret. The 6 January issue of TV
Guide simply noted, 'By way of introduction, the series
opens with scenes from the last day's filming--at a New Year's
Eve party in the Louds' California home. It is an affair mainly
for the children--the Louds have separated. (Eight months after
the filming was completed, the marriage had ended in divorce.)'
(TV Guide, 1973a). Of course, the press portfolio provided
this information, 'During the filming of An American Family,
the Louds' 20-year marriage collapsed, ending in a separation'
(WNET, 1973b). Viewers, then, were liable to know the general
outline of the series before ever tuning in to the broadcast.
The publicity materials served to limit the polysemic quality
of the twelve-hour observational documentary (Bennett, 1987,
in the New York Times for the second episode on 18 January
was considerably more inflammatory. Bold capitol letters proclaimed,
'HE DYED HIS HAIR SILVER', for the episode that focused on Lance
Loud. Lance's face appeared torn out of the family photograph
and the ad called attention to his difference from the rest
of the family, 'He lives in the Chelsea Hotel on Manhattan's
lower West Side. And lives a lifestyle that might shock a lot
of people back home in California'. The advertisement exploited
Lance's sexuality, noting that he dyed his clothes purple 'As
a personal expression of. . . something. . . something he wasn't
fully aware of at the time'. (The wording of the ad may explain
why most critics claimed, erroneously, that Lance came out of
the closet during the making of the series.) The advertising
campaign gave clues as to the events to come, enticing audiences
to stay with the programme. The New York Times ad teased
on 15 February, 'Next week problems between the couple begin
to reveal themselves, and their son Grant has a car accident.
The following week Pat decides to file for divorce. Follow the
drama of TV's first real family'. Clearly, the serialized broadcast
schedule helped build audience loyalty, keeping An American
Family in public view. In fairness to WNET, later advertisements
were less sensational, conceivably even in response to criticisms
of earlier ads. However, the first ads were more important
than the subsequent ones in establishing a horizon of expectations.
By 8 February 1973, the advertising campaign included quotes
from reviews from the New York Times, Saturday Review
of the Arts, Harper's Bazaar Magazine, TV Guide,
Cue, and Vogue. The 8 February ad stated, 'Newsweek
described this series as 'a starkly intimate portrait of one
family struggling to survive a private civil war.' See for yourself'
(New York Times, 1973). By this time, however, the advertising
campaign was becoming less significant in comparison with reviews
that appeared in newspapers and magazines. Articles in the national
press continued to set the agenda for
in the months that followed, often being quoted in other reviews
as well as in advertisements.
Critics relied heavily
upon the press portfolio for rhetorical strategies to describe
An American Family. The roll-call of material wealth,
lifted verbatim from the press release, cropped up in many reviews.
The New York Times noted that '[the Louds found in Santa
Barbara] their approximation of the American Dream--an eight-room
ranch house, a horse, three dogs, a pool, a Jaguar, a Volvo,
a Toyota, and a Datsun pickup' (Harrington, 1973). The reviewer
synthesized the idea of the American dream as a series of material
goods. The press packet simplified the reviewing process; critics
would have had difficulty piecing together this string of possessions
just by watching the twelve episodes. Indeed, the absence of
this kind of detail was one of the principal weaknesses of the
The press release
helped establish the Louds as the wealthy but discontented Californians,
the inverse of the poor but virtuous Waltons of Virginia. John
J. O'Connor described the family in the New York Times,
'Besides five children, they have three dogs, a horse, two cats
and a bowl of goldfish. Their house is equipped with a pool,
a small recording studio and four cars, all foreign makes. The
overall image is of toothpaste-bright affluence, California-style'
(1973b). This symbiotic relationship between the reviews and
the press portfolio suggests that early articles were little
more than an extension of WNET's publicity campaign. This dependence
may plague reception studies that rely on newspaper and magazine
reviews, such as Janet Staiger's Interpreting Films: Studies
in the Historical Reception of American Cinema (Staiger,
1992). This essay has been haunted by the prospect that it should
be properly called 'newspaper studies'. Reviewers of An American
Family, if not viewers, were constrained not only by the
original episodes but especially by the written press
materials that accompanied them.
At the time the first
reviews appeared, episodes nine, ten, eleven, and twelve were
still in the editing stage. Many early reviews were written
on the basis of the press portfolio, a screening of several
episodes, particularly episode one, and, in some cases, conversations
with the production team. The emphasis on the first episode
was significant because it was the most didactic, and least
representative, of all the shows, making use of a flashback
structure, parallel editing, on-camera narration, and a 'day
in the life' approach rather than the basic chronology of the
rest of the series (Ruoff, 1992, pp. 230-1). In particular,
the first show primed viewers to read all the subsequent episodes
for signs of the imminent decline of Pat and Bill Loud's marriage.
Following the work
of Liebes and Katz in The Export of Meaning: Cross Cultural
Readings of Dallas, this essay divides the responses
of reviewers into categories of referential and critical readings
(Liebes, 1990, p. 100). All documentaries invite referential
readings and they were by far the most common responses to the
series. Most reviewers speculated at length about the actual
Loud family, lending credibility to Jay Ruby's thesis that viewers
of documentaries misread the representation for reality itself
(Ruby, 1977), though referential readings were also predominant
in the reception of Dallas (Liebes, 1990, p. 111). A
comment on An American Family in Newsweek was
typical, 'At school, at home, at work and at play, these nice-looking
people act like affluent zombies. The shopping carts overflow,
but their minds are empty' (Alexander, 1973). For Shana Alexander,
the documentary provided not only a window into the Louds' ranch
house, but also a view into their innermost thoughts, or lack
Anne Roiphe's nine-page
article in the New York Times Magazine provided the most
sustained referential reading of An American Family;
her review was actually about
the Louds, hardly
about the series at all. Of Mr. Loud's extramarital affairs,
Roiphe speculated, 'Why the infidelities? The camera doesn't
tell us, but we can guess' (Roiphe, 1973a). Referential readers,
regardless of whether they believed the family was representative
or not, attacked the Louds for all kinds of personal shortcomings.
In some instances, criticisms of the family members reached
absurd proportions, as in Roiphe's characterization of the fifteen-year-old
daughter, 'Delilah, like the rest of the Louds, never grieved
for the migrant workers, the lettuce pickers, the war dead;
never thought of philosophy or poetry, was not obsessed by adolescent
idealism, did not seem undone by dark moods in which she pondered
the meaning of life and death' (Roiphe, 1973a). Although semiologist
Sol Worth pointed out that 'pictures can't say ain't' (Worth,
1981, p. 173), Roiphe based her conjectures about Delilah entirely
on the absence of certain scenes in An American Family.
Roiphe was most critical of Lance, whom she referred to as an
'evil flower', an 'electric eel', and a 'Goyaesque emotional
dwarf' (Roiphe, 1973a).
did not go unanswered; a letter to the New York Times Magazine
from the president of the Gay Activists Alliance supported Lance
and his family (Voeller, 1973). As O'Connor recently noted,
Roiphe's article survives primarily as an example of homophobia
(O'Connor, 1988). Roiphe's criticisms of the family members
epitomized the responses of many reviewers who found the Louds'
lifestyle objectionable. Roiphe's remarkable essay ended with
the nostalgic wish that the country could 'return to an earlier
America when society surrounded its members with a tight sense
of belonging' (Roiphe, 1973a), a feeling which Roiphe found,
ironically, in the family drama The Waltons, which she
reviewed nine months later in the same magazine (Roiphe, 1973b).
of the real was paramount, even for critics who compared the
series to fictional works. The production secretary underlined
this dimension of the reception, 'I think when one watched An
American Family one knew that somewhere in Santa Barbara
they were watching the same thing' (Ruoff, 1989). The
notion of liveness, an important dimension of television viewing,
cropped up in many of the reviews. These reviewers failed to
acknowledge any distinctions between representation and reality.
An article in Newsweek, 'The Divorce of the Year', announced,
'This week, in the presence of 10 million Americans, Pat Loud
will tell her husband of twenty years to move out of their house
in Santa Barbara, Calif.' (Newsweek, 1973c). By the time
episode nine was aired, in which this scene occurred, Pat and
Bill Loud had already been divorced for six months. The review,
like many others, collapsed the difference between story time
and broadcast time, implying that viewers saw the events not
as they happened, but as they were happening. Similarly, a reviewer
in Commonweal asked, 'What is it like to live on television?'
(Murray, 1973), while the New York Times entitled its
first review, 'An American Family Lives Its Life on TV'
(Harrington, 1973). Clearly, by 1973, reviewers associated television
not only with the real world but especially with the simultaneity
of the live broadcast.
A further indication
of the role of television in the reception concerned the relationship
between entertainment, reality, and broadcasting. Some critics
saw the Louds' willingness to share their private lives in a
television series as an indication of a therapeutic society
that thrived on the 'compulsion to confess' (Time, 1973b),
an indication of the weakening of America's moral fiber. (Years
later, writing in the New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann
counted this compulsion as the main sociological insight of
the series (Kauffmann, 1979).) With this in mind, reviewers
attacked the Louds for simply taking part in the documentary
(The Nation, 1973). The accusation of exhibitionism,
on the part of the Louds, and invasion of privacy, on the part
of the producers, led to a denunciation of television in American
life. Critics saw the celebrity of the Louds, famous for having
their lives televised, as a sign of a society increasingly based
on spectacle (Woods, 1973). Indeed, some reviewers saw the Louds
as a family created by the media. Sara Sanborn contended
in Commentary, 'Lance seems to have been literally brought
to life by television; it is hard to believe that he exists
when no one is watching' (Sanborn, 1973a).
about, and hostility towards, television led some reviewers
to speculate about the medium swallowing the real, anticipating
post-modernist theories, 'A delightful only-in-America scenario
presents itself: will the Louds eventually appear on TV to promote
the book they'll write about having been on TV?' (Woods, 1973).
Critics envisioned various paranoid scenarios about the encroachment
of television in everyday life, 'TV critics will become involved
in broadcast debates with the Louds and will thus themselves
become participants in the drama. Margaret Mead herself may
be sucked in, explaining her anthropological interpretations
to Pat and Bill on TV and then, as they react to her theories,
becoming inexorably a part of what she is analyzing' (Murray,
1973). To other reviewers, the only possible response was parody.
In the Chicago Tribune, Jay Sharbutt described a new
series about the Scrimshaw family of Florida, 'We'll start filming
the family just as soon as Everett Jr. gives my documentary
crew its camera back and apologizes for throttling the producer'
(1973). These referential readings saw television as a debased
and dangerous substitute for the real world.
were the most prevalent responses to An American Family.
They were, of course, counseled by the press release and the
advertisements that insisted that the series was 'actually lived
by the Loud family of California' (New York Times, 18
January 1973), allowing Americans to see their lives reflected
in 'the mirrors provided by these real people' (New York
Times, 11 January 1973). Referential readers took the series
as real, using it to talk about the Louds. (Others used it to
talk about television engulfing reality.) Still today, during
lectures about the series, someone always asks about what happened
to Pat, Bill, Lance, Kevin, Grant, Delilah, and Michele. In
1988, at a Museum of Broadcasting symposium devoted to the documentary,
Grant Loud tried to stem the tide of curiosity about the family--and
to counsel a critical read-
American Family is not about us; it's about you. I don't
want to tell you about what we're doing in our lives today'.
combined referential and critical frames. Critical readings
paid particular attention to the conventions of television,
the message of the programme, and the making of the series (Liebes,
1990, p. 115). Looking for generic comparisons, reviewers cast
about for categories to describe adequately the twelve-part
series. Occasional reviewers referred to An American Family,
as a 'home movie' (Sharbutt, 1973; Newsweek, 1973c),
usually as a way of discrediting the documentary. Several critics
commented that the Louds seemed to step right out of the idealized
world of the television commercial (Alexander, 1973; Sanborn,
1973a; O'Connor, 1973c). Similarly, Erica Brown noted in Vogue
that 'The manufacturer of Barbie dolls could not have typecast
a family better' (Brown, 1973). For these critics, the Louds
possessed the surface characteristics of commercial, fabricated,
representations of American life.
Few reviewers compared
the series to sociological studies of the family, although the
press release quoted Margaret Mead and referred to the work
of Oscar Lewis (WNET, 1973b). Reviewers did use the series as
a springboard to discuss the family in general (Newsweek,
1973b). Time magazine solicited comments about An
American Family from a psychotherapist, a psychologist,
a psychiatrist, and two sociologists (1973b). A roundtable discussion
broadcast by WNET on 5 April, in the same weekly time slot as
the series, aired the opinions of Margaret Mead and a panel
of academic experts of literature, drama, history, psychiatry,
Virtually the only
tradition the series was not compared to was, finally, documentary.
The press release referred to the series as a documentary, but
failed to provide other examples of the form, other than noting
that An American Family was not a 'survey type
of documentary' (WNET, 1973b). Taking their cues from the press
packet, most of the reviewers did not mention other documentaries.
Almost none cited the history of observational cinema; this
was the first time the style had reached a mass audience. Writers
who looked for non-fictional comparisons mentioned such works
as The Selling of the Pentagon (O'Connor, 1973c), Sixty
Minutes (Miller, 1973), But What If the Dream Comes True
(Blake, 1973), and Titicut Follies (Menaker, 1973). A
reviewer in the Chicago Tribune suggested that the series
was 'a sort of non-fiction novel' (1973a).
reviewers in film magazines mentioned documentary precedents
with greater frequency. Writing in Media and Methods,
Robert Geller cited the work of Wiseman, Arthur Barron, Allan
King, and the Maysles brothers (Geller, 1973). The narrative
basis of the series, combined with a lack of familiarity with
observational cinema, led most critics to other forms. Stephanie
Harrington commented in the New York Times that, 'Unlike
most documentaries, An American Family does not proceed
from a premise and then
marshal the evidence
to dramatize that premise' (Harrington, 1973). For many critics,
then, the series was not a documentary, but rather a non-fiction
soap opera or a non-fiction situation comedy.
readings believed that the series had as much in common with
fictional forms as with the documentary tradition. For many
reviewers, the interest of An American Family came from
the novelty of portraying the intimate life of an actual family
in serial form, 'You find yourself sticking with the Louds with
the same compulsion that draws you back day after day to your
favorite soap opera. The tension is heightened by the realization
that you are identifying, not with a fictitious character, but
a flesh and blood person who is responding to personal problems
of the kind you yourself might face' (Harrington, 1973). Harrington
evoked referential and critical frames, even suggesting that
the particular attraction of the series lay in the combination
of these readings. Many reviewers likened the series to soap
opera, on the basis of the form, serial narrative, and of the
content, intimate personal relationships. As Robert Allen pointed
out in Speaking of Soap Operas, many critics considered
soap opera a low form of melodramatic entertainment, targeted
primarily at a female audience (Allen, 1985). Like soap operas,
An American Family left room for active involvement of
spectators through multiple stories drawn out through multiple
episodes. In between episodes, viewers had time to speculate
with friends about the character developments to come. The serial
form, coupled with the actuality material, fostered an unusually
intense relationship between viewers and characters. The Louds
received substantial amounts of mail from fans, like the fictional
characters on daytime serials (Intintoli, 1984).
articles, critics compared the series to a variety of mostly
fictional television shows, movies, novels, and plays, including
The Waltons, The Forsyte Saga, Secret Storm,
Father Knows Best, The Partridge Family, My
Three Sons, The Brady Bunch, Ozzie and Harriet,
Marty, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The
Godfather, Scenes From a Marriage, A Doll's House,
and Death of A Salesman. Often critics invoked these
fictional intertexts, especially the situation comedies, for
contrast, i.e., 'no Ozzie and Harriet confection' (Time,
1973b), 'a lot more fun than Peyton Place' (Rock, 1973),
'scarcely the Forsyte Saga it is billed to be' (Alexander,
1973), and 'Maybe it's better to be a Corleone than a Loud'
(Roiphe, 1973a). For many reviewers, An American Family
offered a corrective to idealized representations of family
life on television, 'the reality of the Louds has no connection
with the fantasy of The Brady Bunch' (O'Connor, 1973c).
These critical readings frequently equated documentary with
truth and fiction with falsehood.
focused obsessively on the personalities of the family members,
some intuited that the Louds stood for more than themselves,
as in Alexander's comment that the series was a 'genuine American
tragedy' (Alexander, 1973). Critical readings recognized that
the series had a message and a point of view beyond simply showing
family life. For example, short plot summaries in TV Guide
attributed authorship to the producer rather than to reality,
'Producer Craig Gilbert shows the communications gap between
[Pat and Lance] by focusing on their uneasy small talk, telling
glances and painful silences' (1973b) and 'Producer Craig Gilbert
hints how the family's summer separation may have deeper roots'
(1973c). Critical readers took An American Family as
a statement about contemporary society, supporting Bill Nichols'
claim that documentaries are films that make arguments (Nichols,
In thematic terms,
reviewers asserted the series was 'a scathing commentary on
the American domestic dream' (Newsweek, 1973a), 'a statement
about the values of marriage and family' (Rock, 1973), and 'the
American Dream turned nightmare' (America, 1973). (Clearly,
reviewers did not see the divorce as a positive step towards
ending an unhappy marriage, nor as a message, for example, of
liberation.) The series documented 'the erosion of traditional
values' (O'Connor, 1973b), 'the generation gap' (Woods, 1973),
the inability 'to communicate' (Alexander, 1973), spiritual
emptiness (Donohue, 1973), 'conspicuous consumption' (Menaker,
1973), the disappearance, according to anthropologist Gloria
Levitas, of 'a central core of belief' (Roiphe, 1973a), while
the Loud family was 'a symbol of disintegration and purposelessness
in American life' (McCarthy, 1973). A viewer who wrote to the
editor of the New York Times Magazine quoted Thomas Jefferson
to buttress her interpretation of the series, 'Material abundance
without character is the surest way to destruction' (Aruffo,
1973). The dominant interpretation of the series was that it
chronicled the breakdown of American culture; the centre, Robert
Geller noted, quoting Didion quoting Yeats, will not 'hold'
There were critics
who agreed that An American Family made an argument about
the demise of Western civilization, but who questioned the evidence
the series provided to support this contention. Sociologists
were quick to note that the Louds constituted a 'Sample of One',
as an article in Time asserted (1973b). Reviewers argued
that the Louds were not statistically representative nor could
any one family adequately portray the diversity of American
family life (The Nation, 1973). Gilbert had tried to
circumvent this line of criticism by noting in the press release
that the Louds were 'neither typical nor average' (WNET, 1973b).
In an intriguing twist, critics argued that participating in
the series somehow placed the Louds outside the mainstream of
American life. Sociologist Irving Louis Horowitz claimed that
'The very act of being filmed for public television makes the
Louds untypical' (Time, 1973b). Newsweek paraphrased
Horowitz' reasoning for the conclusion to its cover story on
the documentary, 'The minute Craig Gilbert's cameras began to
roll in May 1971, the Loud family became anything but typical'
(1973c). Horowitz' contention was tautological: any family that
appeared in the series would automatically have been excluded
from the sample of representative families, by dint of having
participated in the documentary.
The Making of
Many reviews discussed
the making of the series: the duration of the shoot, the number
of hours recorded, the rapport with the family, the motivations
of the producers and the Louds, and the influence of the camera.
Some were devoted entirely to providing the backstage details
of the production, such as 'Looking Thru the Lens at One Man's
Family' (Kramer, 1973a). In 'Finding-and Filming--an American
Family' in the Los Angeles Times, Gilbert admitted that
Ross MacDonald's detective novel, The Underground Man,
described ''with absolute accuracy the kind of family [he] was
looking for'' (Smith, 1973), a detail not provided in the press
packet. An entire episode of The Dick Cavett Show explored
the making of the documentary. As a result, O'Connor complained
in the New York Times that 'The content of An
slowly began sinking into a mindless ooze about the making of
An American Family' (O'Connor, 1973c). At first, Gilbert
maintained that the series had no point of view, stating in
the press release, 'I didn't set out to prove anything' (WNET,
1973b). Only during the ensuing controversy did Gilbert make
more explicit claims, 'We were using the film to say something
about this country and what it means to be a man and a woman.
The divorce was simply used as a dramatic device' (Newsweek,
1973c). About the Louds, Gilbert noted, 'They communicate. But
they don't communicate about the bad stuff. That's the way we
are as a country, and that's what the series is about. We can't
ever admit that we have made a mistake' (Time, 1973b).
Critical readers seemed disappointed to discover that producer
Gilbert had a point of view (Sanborn, 1973a; McCarthy, 1973;
the backstage details that the series itself kept in the shadows.
Melinda Ward wrote in Film Comment, 'The audience knows,
especially after all the publicity, how long the crew was there,
how many hours were shot, etc.' (Ward, 1973b). Commentary
noted, 'As all the world must know by now, a production crew
from WNET in New York spent two years and over $1,000,000, plus
a prodigious amount of talent and energy pursuing the William
C. Loud family through better and worse' (Sanborn, 1973a). Many
believed that the production of the series held clues as to
its legitimacy as a representation (Staiger, 1992, p. 8). The
emphasis reviewers placed on the making of the series derived
from referential expectations but ultimately led to critical
frameworks. Recognizing that the documentary was produced represented
the beginning of a critical reading (Liebes, 1990, p. 115).
An American Family may best be remembered as the non-fiction
series haunted by the presence of the camera, an unwittingly
reflexive work, even though Gilbert wanted to make 'a series
of films about the Louds and not about how the Louds interrelated
with a film crew from NET' (Gilbert, 1982, p. 34).
Rare is the review
that did not speculate about the influence of the camera on
the family, exemplified by a comment from America, 'As
this journal of deterioration unfolds, one must ask continually:
'Might it have been otherwise if there were no camera and no
microphone?'' (1973). Cultural critics like Benjamin DeMott
pointed out that the series offered only 'the truth of how people
behave in front of a camera' (Donohue, 1973). One review of
An American Family pointedly asked 'Can a Documentary
Be Made of Real Life?' (Hayakawa, 1973). The reviewer's response
to his own question was 'no', putting him in the company of
Brian Winston and other critics of the 'documentary illusion'
(Winston, forthcoming). Reviewers had a hard time believing
that family members could learn to act naturally under these
artificial circumstances. In anticipation of this issue, the
press portfolio addressed this vexing problem,
It is undeniable
that the presence of the camera affected the family. Although
the production crew went about their business as unobtrusively
as possible, they were there. In fact, the Louds recognized
that it might be difficult, at first, to behave normally
in front of the
camera. As it turned out, with seven individuals--each with
the usual assortment of friends and acquaintances--wandering
in and out of the house, the camera was less of a presence
than it might have been in a smaller household. If reactions
were modified because of the camera, those reactions are still
valid. Since there were no roles assigned to each member,
each individual's response expressed what was felt about himself
or herself, which was, of course, one of the basic goals of
the project (WNET, 1973a).
The press release
raised this issue to dismiss it, a tactic that clearly backfired.
Indeed, the emphasis on the making of the series in reviews
was another reflection of the centrality of the press portfolio
in the reception of An American Family.
Reviewers who called
attention to the presence of the camera usually dismissed the
idea of observational cinema, rather than discussing
specific examples from the series. To buttress their arguments,
critics, writing for such publications as Harper's, The
Nation, and New Republic, paraphrased Werner Heisenberg's
Principle of Indeterminacy to challenge the notion of simple
observation--'the process of conducting certain kinds
of experiments alters the very properties under investigation'
(Menaker, 1973), 'intervention in the life of a social microcosm
significantly changes the phenomena under observation' (The
Nation, 1973), 'the observer is never wholly independent
of the observed' (Woods, 1973)--claiming that 'the medium has
created the phenomenon it now purports to study' (Sanborn, 1973a).
Others, such as Dick Cavett and S. I. Hayakawa, cited their
own experiences being filmed as proof of the intrusiveness of
the camera (Hayakawa, 1973).
by and large, ignored comments from the Louds that contradicted
their arguments. Furthermore, few critics looked at the series
itself to find evidence to support their claims, although there
were many ways of inferring the presence of the crew. In episode
ten, after an argument with Pat, Grant turned to the camera
for support; 'Nothing like a sympathetic mother!', he remarked
with a grin. Every episode contained dozens of asides to the
camera, subdued references to the presence of an internal audience,
self-conscious demonstrations to the crew, and other unintentionally
reflexive gestures. (In any case, the influence of the camera
on the family was minuscule compared to the influence of the
broadcast of An American Family and the celebrity
it brought them.)
the cameras would inhibit the Louds' actions for a limited time
until the family grew accustomed to the presence of the crew.
This was the rationale for the extremely long shooting period.
Comments from the family and crew confirmed this intuition,
as when Mrs. Loud noted that she gradually accepted the camera's
presence, ''After some months the crew was like family', explains
Pat. 'I acted as if they were part of us. I just forgot about
the camera'' (Time, 1973b). Lance recalled the same process,
'It wasn't like letting a camera person and sound person in
to film us; it's just that Susan and Alan were in the room'
(Ruoff, 1990). The Raymonds developed filming techniques to
minimize their impact on the family (Raymond, 1973, 1973a).
Mr. Loud recalled the most controversial scene in which his
wife asked him to move out of the house, ''When Patty told me
about the divorce, I could have said, 'Get this
camera crew out of
here.' But we had gotten used to them'' (Newsweek, 1973c).
Gilbert asked the Louds to behave 'as if' the camera were not
there, an arrangement with which they, according to their personalities
and the situation, complied (Loud, 1974, p. 119-120). Gilbert
asked the audience to watch the series 'as if' the camera were
not there; large segments of the viewing public refused this
In their discussions
of the making of the series, most critics focused on the production
stage rather than on post-production, under-emphasizing the
function and importance of editing. Editing came under scrutiny
primarily because this was the stage of the production that
the Louds believed manipulated the story of the family. For
some critics, the simple fact that the series was edited implied
manipulation. They considered editing not as a process of making
meaning but rather as means of possible distortion and falsification
(Woods, 1973; Donohue, 1973; Hayakawa, 1973; Sanborn, 1973a).
In this sense, reviewers faulted the documentary for literally
failing to reproduce reality, a referential standard borrowed
for a critical reading.
More thoughtful reviewers,
those who had more time and more space to develop their ideas,
called attention to the principles of selection of An American
Family. An ability to recognize the series as a construction
often engendered nagging doubts about its status as non-fiction.
Some reviewers had difficulty reconciling the strong narrative
emphasis of the actuality material, as if documentary were,
by definition, a non-narrative form. The Saturday Review
of the Arts critic noted that the 'most striking narrative
moments seem to conspire against seeing the film as true-to-life',
a comment that suggested tightly organized story structures
must be fictional (Gaines, 1973). Clearly, the narrative
drive of the series grated against the realism of the handheld
camera and direct sound. A reviewer in Newsweek speculated
that 'their impromptu remarks seem improbably articulate, as
though they had been scripted ahead of time' (1973c). Use of
continuity techniques, suspense, and foreshadowing implied a
fictional basis to the series. One reviewer found it implausible
that a tarot-card reader in episode two accurately hinted at
Pat's coming separation from Bill, neglecting to mention that
the series was edited with the divorce in mind (Gaines, 1973).
The editor, looking over seven months of footage, had the power
the tarot-card reader lacked, to accurately predict the future.
The narrative thrust
of An American Family influenced its reception in other
ways. Stories require change from one state of affairs to another.
The parents' separation provided the momentum necessary for
narrative development; some critics attributed this change to
the presence of the camera. Pat, for her part, maintained that
she and Bill stayed together longer than they otherwise
would have because of the filming (Loud, 1974, p. 115). For
similar reasons, reviewers typically stated that Lance 'came
out' during the filming, attributing Lance's sexuality to narrative
progression and, again, the influence of the camera. Lance,
however, made clear in statements to the press that he was gay
before, during, and after An American Family. He mentioned
on WLS-TV's Kennedy and Co., 'The sexual preference has
always been there. When I went thru puberty, I wanted to have
sex with boys' (Petersen, 1973b).
Lance didn't come
out on American television; American television came out of
the closet through An American Family.
The Louds Strike
The Louds themselves
eventually became reviewers and critics of the series, influencing
its reception, an uncommon occurrence for a documentary and
a seeming impossibility for a fictional work. During the editing,
the Louds viewed and gave their approval, both tacitly and explicitly,
of the twelve episodes (Loud, 1974, p. 124). Before the broadcast,
their responses to An American Family were positive.
Pat Loud told Vogue that ''Divorce happens to so many
people that I really don't mind having it televised'' (Brown,
1973). Bill Loud mentioned to a journalist from Newsweek
that 'he thought the series would make them look like the 'West
Coast Kennedys'' (1973a). Shocked by the hostility of so many
of the reviews, the Louds entered the debate shortly after the
broadcast of the first episodes. They took exception to the
advertising campaign for the series, arguing that it sensationalized
their lives for entertainment purposes. When Pat Loud complained
to Craig Gilbert about the publicity for An American Family,
he remarked that these aspects of promotion were out of his
control and not normally the responsibility of a producer at
WNET (Loud, 1974, p. 142). The family members felt antagonized
by the publicity for the series and were scandalized by the
critical reception of the documentary.
Throughout the controversy,
the Louds tried to direct attention towards the point of view
of the series, especially the editing. They never denied having
said and done the things that appear in An American Family,
as occurred, for example, with some of the people who appeared
in Hearts and Minds (Davis, 1973). Although they claimed
that the series misrepresented their lives, they never implied
that events were staged or that they were encouraged to do certain
actions by the producers, accusations that were leveled against
Jeff Kreines and Joel DeMott, the makers of Seventeen
(Hoover, 1992, p. 111). Nor did the Louds maintain that they
were performing in a spurious manner or that the camera radically
transformed their behavior. They simply asserted that the editors
had a cynical view of humanity. Responding to critics who harped
on the family's inability to communicate, Pat Loud accused Gilbert
and the editors of having ''left out all the joyous, happy hours
of communication and fun'' (Time, 1973a). Bill Loud accused
the editors of being New York radicals opposed to the traditional
family and added, on The Dick Cavett Show, that if the
Louds had been able to edit the series they ''would have done
more of a Laugh-In type of thing''. (Mr. Loud evidently
saw greater possibilities for humor and comedy in the footage
than the producers did.)
Although the Louds
were referential readers of An American Family, they
disagreed with reviewers about the sources of bias. They tried
to put out improved referential images of the family. The premise
of their appearance on the 20 February 1973 episode of The
Dick Cavett Show was to give viewers a chance to meet the
real Louds, not mediated by the series, as if the setting of
the television talk show were more believable than the scenes
in An American Family. During the talk show, the Louds
had the oppor-
tunity to state their
position that they had 'lost their dignity' as a result of actions
taken by WNET, the station's publicity agents, Gilbert, and
the editors of the series. Similarly, the Chicago Tribune
published interviews with the family members in an article entitled,
'Real-life Louds recall their days as TV's Louds', implying
that television, unlike newspapers and magazines, packages reality
(1973c). Subsequent representations of the family in the media
promised glimpses of the Louds themselves, ironically standing
the rhetorical claim of the observational style on its head.
As Jeanne Hall has shown, the early observational films of Drew
Associates promised greater access to the real and questioned
the verisimilitude of 'more traditional forms of documentary'
(Hall, 1990, p. 21).
Eventually, the members
of the Loud family swallowed the critics' appraisals of the
series, just as the reviewers followed the lead of the press
releases. In the Chicago Tribune, Bill Loud parroted
the terms offered up by a reviewer to characterize his family,
''We had a great family, really great people, a lot of ambitious
people, and the children looked like affluent zombies looking
into a pit'' (Petersen, 1973a). They accepted the designation
of the genre of soap opera, as Mr. Loud's comments testified:
''We let Gilbert and his crew into our house to do a documentary,
and they produced a second-rate soap opera'' (Time, 1973b).
Since critics viewed soap opera as a low form of entertainment,
broadcast by an already discredited medium, Mr. Loud condemned
An American Family by association.
The celebrity of
the Louds continued well beyond the second broadcast in the
summer of 1973. Pat Loud: A Woman's Story appeared in
March 1974, one year after the broadcast of the series and,
again, in paperback several months later. The marketing of the
autobiography capitalized on issues related to single motherhood,
divorce, sexual liberation, and the women's movement. Sales
figures for the book industry are notoriously hard to obtain,
but Alan Raymond has estimated that over a hundred thousand
copies of the book were sold (Ruoff, 1993). An American Family
vaulted Pat Loud to the status of every woman, whose tale spoke
to just about everyone, as the book jacket proclaimed, 'Whether
you're single, married or divorced--Pat Loud's story will touch
your life'. During the promotion of her book, she claimed to
speak for the anonymous American wife and mother, 'Every housewife
I know has a story they are dying to tell but never do' (Kilday,
1974). Fulfilling Crawford Woods' prediction, Pat Loud did appear
on television to promote the book she wrote about appearing
The chapters that
detailed the Louds' participation in An American Family
offered the most remarkable testimony by the subject of a documentary
in the history of the medium (Loud, 1974, pp. 79-163). Pat dedicated
most of her book to answering the critics, especially the perpetual
question of why the family agreed to take part in such an unusual
experiment in non-fiction television. Most viewers, seeing only
the result of that pact on their home screens, could not imagine
the small steps that led to it. The Louds' biggest fault, to
many reviewers, was simply the foolishness of participating
in the project (The Nation, 1973; Time, 1973b).
normal American family would have sent Gilbert packing. 'Why
We Did It' explained for the inquiring minds who wanted to know,
'There seem to be three groups of people--the ones like Craig,
and Abigail McCarthy in The Atlantic Monthly, and I think
me, who think anybody would have done it--the ones who
think Californians would do it because they're exhibitionists
and Easterners wouldn't because they're paranoid--and the ones
who think anybody who would do it has got to be nuts,
like Organized Psychiatry' (Loud, 1974, p. 83-4).
Certain details in
the autobiography suggested ways in which Mrs. Loud came to
view her life according to the commentary the series generated.
For example, the story of the family's arrival in Santa Barbara
is entitled 'The American Dream' (Loud, 1974, pp. 60-79). The
first chapter, 'Aftershock--Summer of '73', opened with comments
that picked up where the series ended, 'I still live in the
house, but the pool is empty now', an off-the-cuff reference
to Roiphe's designation of the Louds' swimming pool as a 'fetid
swamp' (Roiphe, 1973a). This conspiracy of familiarity with
the reader continued with the disclosure of intimate details
of their ongoing lives. The book relied entirely on the notoriety
of the television series, and Pat Loud's subsequent celebrity,
as its raison d'être, assuming familiarity with
'TV's first real family'.
Celebrity was not
the inevitable result of being the subject of An American
Family. To my knowledge, no one has ever gone on to become
a celebrity from appearing in a film by Wiseman, although he
has made over twenty-five feature length documentaries. Although
his films have been seen widely and often have engendered bitter
controversy--especially Titicut Follies, High School,
and Primate--they portrayed individuals in their social
roles, not as personalities. Wiseman was explicit about his
intent, 'I think the star of each film is the institution' (Mamber,
1974, p. 240-1).
An American Family
was based largely on the different personalities of the family
members and their daily activities, and the serial structure
encouraged viewer identification with the Louds over a span
of several months. The WNET press packet facilitated this identification
with individual characters through capsule biographies, 'Fashionably
dressed and casual in appearance, Pat Loud is an attractive
brunette who looks younger than her 45 years' (WNET, 1973d).
An American Family offered character-centered narrative
drama to an audience well acquainted with the form (Bordwell,
1985, p. 13) A comment from The Atlantic best expressed
this audience response, 'Their impact as individuals is what
lingers in the viewer's memory' (McCarthy, 1973). In her auto-
biography, Pat Loud
mentioned 'boxes and boxes of letters' sent by viewers to the
family (Loud, 1974, p. 8). Letter writers were referential readers,
saw a split between newspaper and magazine reviewers, primarily
representative of the East Coast intelligentsia, and ordinary
viewers, whose responses to the family were not so hostile (Ruoff,
1989). Most, though not all, of the mail the Louds received
was sympathetic towards their family. Brief citations of the
letters in Pat Loud: A Woman's Story hinted at some differences
between the ways in which ordinary viewers responded to the
series and the reactions of professional critics. Letter writers
did not relate An American Family to other works of art,
such as plays and books, as reviewers often did. Ordinary viewers
tended to compare their own personal experiences to those of
the Louds. Pat summarized the two thousand letters the family
received, 'Most of them said, We watched the series, we have
a family like yours; don't pay any attention to the critics,
hang tough' (Loud, 1974, p. 158).
Most viewers wrote
to the family after their first appearance on The Dick Cavett
Show. These letters didn't really represent a reaction to
An American Family itself so much as to the Louds subsequent
appearances in the media. Some wrote to assure Pat of her convictions,
'Please try not to be upset by the obtuseness of certain critics
& viewers . . . it really angers me that you are being criticized
for the crimes of your honesty and openness' (Loud, 1974, p.
156). Many women identified strongly with Pat as a mother, 'Your
private feelings for Lance are also nobody's damn business.
Forsaking your child because he is not what you dreamed he would
be is unthinkable. Many women admire you enormously on this
point alone' (Loud, 1974, p. 157). Others wanted to discuss
their own problems and how watching the series illuminated them,
'One of the things women have always done was deprive themselves
all their lives 'for the sake of their family' and to the detriment
of themselves' (Loud, 1974, p. 156). Unlike the professional
critics, these writers admitted their own faults, 'I have also
gotten drunk and regretted my words later. I bet 95 percent
of the audience has, too' (Loud, 1974, p. 158). Some of the
writers seemingly fulfilled Gilbert's hope that the series would
be watched as a tool for self-analysis, 'If I delve emotionally
into your life it is more to understand myself and those around
me than to criticize you' (Loud, 1974, p. 158-9). Still others
offered advice, and the benefits of their own experiences, 'Stay
and keep the family . . . most men will come home and rock after
a few flings' (Loud, 1974, p. 157).
A letter to the editor
of Commentary referred to An American Family as
'essentially a woman-oriented series' (Conn, 1973), providing
some explanation for the nature of the letters Pat Loud received,
many of which expressed solidarity with her as a woman. Apart
from the fact that reviewers noted that Pat was the lead character
in the series, that An American Family was favorably
and sympathetically reviewed in Ms. and Vogue,
and that it was, mostly disparagingly, compared with soap operas,
there were no other references to the documentary as a woman's
picture. Interestingly, many of the reviewers of the series--including
writers such as Shana Alexander, Sara Sanborn, Abigail McCarthy,
Anne Roiphe, and Stephanie Harrington.
Bill Loud, for his
part, received a number of marriage proposals in the mail, as
he mentioned on The Dick Cavett Show, including a letter
from a woman in Georgia who wrote, ''If she doesn't want you,
I do'' (Loud, 1974, p. 155). Lance, too, received many letters
in the mail, 'I got three Bibles from different religious factions;
of course, they just burst into flames the second I opened the
pages. And I got a lot of letters from gay guys, gay suburban
kids, who thanked me for being a voice of outrage in a bland
fucking normal middle-class world' (Ruoff, 1990). Writing in
Esquire magazine in November 1987, Frank Rich singled
out Lance's television appearance as one of the defining images
of a period Rich referred to as 'The Gay Decade' (Rich, 1987).
Pat was not the only member of the family to remain in the limelight
after the series had faded from the television screen. The Loud
children performed several songs on a televised fundraising
event for PBS, which auctioned 'A weekend with the Louds' (Loud,
1974, p. 11). Meanwhile, Lance formed the Mumps, a punk rock
group that played original music in clubs in New York throughout
the 1970s. Rock and Roll comme çi, Rock and Roll comme
ça was their biggest hit.
In 1991, Santa
Barbara Magazine featured Pat and Lance Loud on the cover
for an article on An American Family twenty years later.
Forevermore, the Louds would be grist for the entertainment
mill. Stand-up comedian Albert Brooks' Real Life (1979)
mercilessly caricatured many of the popular conceptions of An
American Family, opening with a crawl that promised to extend
original research undertaken by Margaret Mead in 1973. A more
serious venture, but equally entertaining, Susan and Alan Raymond's
An American Family Revisited: The Louds Ten Years Later
(1983) recounted the story of the documentary, focusing on the
image of the family as it was packaged, criticized, and manufactured
by the media.
On The Dick Cavett
Show Craig Gilbert admitted, against his own inclinations,
that a producer cannot control the reception of his work. An
American Family amply illustrates this point. The novel
aspects of the series provoked a wide variety of responses.
Margaret Mead anticipated
this generic confusion in her article in TV Guide, 'I
do not think An American Family should be called a documentary.
I think we need a new name for it, a name that would contrast
it not only with fiction, but with what we have been exposed
to up until now on TV' (Mead, 1973).
Through the publicity
campaign, WNET set the agenda for responses to the program.
Reviewers mostly read the series referentially, criticizing
the Loud family. As Grant pointed out, "Any jerk with a pencil
or a typewriter, who had the audacity to write about us, sat
in judgment of these people that he had never met" (Raymond,
1983). If this reception study provides a definition of documentary,
it may be films when they are read referentially (Staiger, 1992,
p. 96). Referential readers framed the series as if it were
real while critical readers framed the series as if it were
fiction. Mixing standards as the series mixed forms, critics
compared An American Family primarily to fictional models
of drama. Interpretive readers took the series as a moral tale
about the decline of American culture. Others argued that intimate
family life couldn't (and shouldn't) be recorded on film, preferring
the trusted conventions of television talk shows and investigative
vocal minority focused on the idea of the series; troubled by
the premise of an observational cinema, many concluded that
a documentary could not, in fact, be made of real life.
comments on earlier versions of this essay, I am indebted to
Rick Altman, Glenn C. Altschuler, Dudley Andrew, Richard P.
Horwitz, and Lauren Rabinovitz.
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Alexander, S. (1973),
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Alter, D. (1973),
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Aruffo, N. (1973),
New York Times, 11 March, VI, p. 99, (letter to the
Avery, H. (1973),
New York Times, 11 March, VI, p. 99, (letter to the
Blake, R. (1973),
'Families: Loud and Clear', America, 16 June, 128,
Boeth, R. (1973),
'Connubial Blitz: It Was Ever Thus', Newsweek, 12 March,
Brown, E. (1973),
'An American Family: Alive on the Screen', Vogue,
January, 161, p. 68.
Carlin, S. (1973a),
'Seeing the Loud Family', Village Voice, 1 March, p.
Carlin, S. (1973b),
'Louds Sink Slowly in the West', Village Voice, 5 April,
Carlin, S. (1973c),
'Bye, Patty. Bye, Bill. Bye, Margaret', Village Voice,
(1973a), 'An American Family', 11 January, 2, p. 9.
(1973b), 'And Another American Family', 3 March, 1, p. 17.
(1973c), 'Real-Life Louds Recall Their Days as TV's Louds',
22 April, 2, p. 2.
(1974), 'Pat Loud: A Woman's Story', 10 April, 91,
Monitor (1974), 'Pat Loud: A Woman's Story', 27
March, p. F4.
Conley, R. B. (1973),
Newsweek, 9 April, p. 7, (letter to the editor).
Conn, F. M. (1973),
Commentary, October, 56, p. 16+, (letter to the editor).
De Fantini, B.
(1973), Newsweek, 9 April, p. 7, (letter to the editor).
Donohue, J. (1973),
'Afterthoughts on An American Family', America,
28 April, 128, p. 390.
Ellman, N. L. (1973),
New York Times, 11 March, VI, p. 99, (letter to the
Fozard, J. L. (1973),
Newsweek, 9 April, p. 6, (letter to the editor).
Fraser, J. T. (1973),
New York Times, 11 March, VI, p. 99, (letter to the
Friedman, J. (1973),
'Every Loud Has a Silver Lining', Village Voice, 18
January, p. 59.
Gaines, J. (1973),
'TV: The Decline and Fall of an American Family', Saturday
Review of the Arts, January, pp. 47-8.
Geller, R. (1973),
'Coming of Age in Santa Barbara: An American Family',
Media and Methods, March, 9, 7, pp. 50-2.
Hamernick, J. M.
(1974), 'Pat Loud: A Woman's Story', Best Sellers,
1 May, 34, p. 71.
(1973), 'An American Family Lives Its Life on TV',
New York Times, 7 January, 19, p. 5.
(1974), 'Of Loneliness and Publicity', The Nation,
14 September, 219, pp. 219-20.
Hayakawa, S. I.
(1973), 'Can a Documentary Be Made of Real Life?', Chicago
Tribune, 11 March, 2, p. 6.
Horowitz, C. (1973),
'Reality Check', People, 22 March, pp. 61-63.
Insley, D. A. (1973),
Newsweek, 9 April, pp. 6-7, (letter to the editor).
Julian, J. (1973),
New York Times, 11 March, II, 34, p. 5, (letter to
Kauffmann, S. (1979),
'Filming Filming', New Republic, April, p. 24.
Kilday, G. (1974),
'The Rerun Life of Pat Loud', Los Angeles Times, 2
May, IV, p. 1+.
Kirsch, R. (1974),
'Pat Loud: A Part of the Age of Exposure', Los Angeles
Times, 28 April, p. 62.
Kleiman, B. (1973),
Newsweek, 9 April, p. 6, (letter to the editor).
Kramer, C. (1973a),
'Looking Thru the Lens at One Man's Family', Chicago Tribune,
1 February, pp. 1-2.
Kramer, C. (1973b),
'How the Louds Have Used the Limelight', Chicago Tribune,
25 March, 2, p. 1.
Krueger, E. (1973),
'An American Family: An American Film', Film Comment,
November/December, 9, pp. 16-19.
Loud, P. (1973),
'Some Second Thoughts From An American Family', Los
Angeles Times, 4 March, VI, p. 7.
Lueloff, J. (1974),
'Materfamilias: Another Close (Off-Screen) Look at Pat Loud',
Chicago Tribune, 24 March, 7, p. 3.
Mabley, J. (1973),
'There Goes the Case for Gay Liberation', Chicago Tribune,
25 March, 1, p. 4.
McCarthy, A. (1973),
'An American Family & The Family of Man',
The Atlantic, July, 232, pp. 72-6.
McCaskey, M. (1973),
Newsweek, 9 April, p. 7, (letter to the editor).
Mead, M. (1973),
'As Significant as the Invention of Drama or the Novel', TV
Guide, 6 January, pp. A61-63.
Menaker, D. (1973),
'An American Family', Harper's, March, 246,
Miller, M. (1973),
'Dear Pat, Bill, Lance, Delilah, Grant, Kevin and Michele',
Esquire, May, 79, pp. 239-40+.
Murray, M. (1973),
'The Louds of Santa Barbara', Commonweal, 23 March,
98, pp. 60-2.
(1973), 'Spy Drama', 5 March, 216, p. 293.
(1973a), 'An American Family', 15 January, 81, p. 68.
(1973b), 'The Broken Family: Divorce U.S. Style', 12 March,
(1973c), 'The Divorce of the Year', 12 March, pp. 48-49.
(1974a), 'He Feels Like a Kid Again, But His 'American
Family' Is In Ruins', New York Times, 1 March,
34, p. 1.
(1974b), 'The Loud Family A Year Later: Scarred But Proud',
Chicago Tribune, 18 March, 2, p. 1.
O'Connor, J. J.
(1973a), 'TV: Arguments Over An American Family Are
Smothering Its Contents', New York Times, 22 January,
60, p. 3.
O'Connor, J. J.
(1973b), 'TV: An American Family Is a Provocative Series',
New York Times, 23 January, 79, p. 1.
O'Connor, J. J.
(1973c), 'Mr & Mrs. Loud, Meet the Bradys', New York
Times, 4 March, p. 19-20.
Petersen, C. (1973a),
'Loud Family May Be Broken--But It's Not Broke, Chicago
Tribune, 21 March, 1, p. 1+.
Petersen, C. (1973b),
''We Were Very Naive About A Lot'', Chicago Tribune,
22 March, 1, p. 1+.
Petersen, C. (1973c),
''We Haven't Changed', Says The Family's Father', Chicago
Tribune, 23 March, 1A, p. 14.
Pfeffer, S. B.
(1974), 'Pat Loud: A Woman's Story', Library Journal,
15 April, 99, p. 1123.
Raymond, A. and
S. Raymond (1973a), 'Filming An American Family', Filmmaker's
Newsletter, March, 6, pp. 19-21.
Raymond, A. and
S. Raymond (1973b), 'An American Family', American
Cinematographer, May, 54, pp. 590-1+.
Rich, F. (1987),
'The Gay Decade', Esquire, November.
Rock, G. (1973),
'All in a Real Family', Ms., February, 1, 8, pp. 22-3.
Roiphe, A. (1973a),
'An American Family: Things Are Keen But Could Be Keener',
New York Times Magazine, 6, 18 February, pp. 8+.
Roiphe, A. (1973b),
'Ma and Pa and John Boy in Mythic America: The Waltons',
New York Times Magazine, 6, 18 November, pp. 40+.
(1974), 'Residuals on An American Family', New Republic,
23 November, 171, pp. 20-4.
Rydwansky, K. C.
(1973), Newsweek, 9 April, p. 7, (letter to the editor).
Sanborn, S. (1973a),
'An American Family', Commentary, May, 55, pp.
Sanborn, S. (1973b),
'Sara Sanborn Writes', Commentary, October, 56, p.
16+, (reply to letter).
Sharbutt, J. (1973),
'The Drama of TV's Last Real (?) Family', Chicago Tribune,
27 February, 2, p. 9.
Smith, C. (1973),
'Finding--and Filming--an American Family', Los Angeles
Times, 11 January, VI, p. 1+.
Terry, J. (1973),
'An American Family In Super-8', Filmmaker's Newsletter,
March, 6, pp. 22-3.
'Ultimate Soap Opera', 22 January, 101, p. 36.
'Sample of One?', 26 February, 101, pp. 51-2.
(1973a), 'An American Family', 6 January, p. A61.
(1973b), 'An American Family', 13 January, p. A60.
(1973c), 'An American Family', 3 February, p. A58.
M. (1974), 'En amerikansk familj', Chaplin,
January, 16, 1, p. 17.
Voeller, B. (1973),
New York Times Magazine, 4 March, p. 4, (letter to
Ward, M. (1973a),
'Pat Loud: An Interview', Film Comment, November/December,
9, pp. 20-3.
Ward, M. (1973b),
'The Making of An American Family', Film Comment,
November/December, 9, pp. 24-31.
'Background Production Information', pp. 1-5.
'Press Release', pp. 1-3.
'Episodes', pp. 1-2.
'The Family', pp. 1-7.
'Profile of the William C. Loud Family', p. 1.
Woods, C. (1973),
'The Louds', New Republic, 24 March, 168, p. 23.
Young, C. (1974),
'The Family', Sight and Sound, 43, 4, Winter,
Books and Articles
Allen, R. C. (1985),
Speaking of Soap Operas, Chapel Hill.
Bennett, T. and
J. Woollacott (1987), Bond and Beyond: The Political Career
of a Popular Hero, London.
Bordwell, D., J.
Staiger and K. Thompson (1985), The Classical Hollywood
Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, New
Berger, B. and
P. L. Berger (1983), The War Over the Family: Capturing
the Middle Ground, New Jersey.
Colleyn, J. P.
and C. de Clippel, eds. (1992), 'Demain, le Cinéma
Ethnographique?', CinémAction, 64, 3ème
Crawford, P. I.
and J. K. Simonsen, eds. (1992), Ethnographic Film, Aesthetics
and Narrative Traditions, Aarhus.
Crawford, P. I.
and D. Turton, eds. (1992a), Film as Ethnography, Manchester.
Feuer, Jane (1987),
'Genre', Allen, R. C. (ed.), Channels of Discourse: Television
and Contemporary Criticism, Chapel Hill.
Gilbert, C. (1982),
'Reflections on An American Family', Studies in
Visual Communication, 8, 1, Winter, pp. 24-54.
Hall, J. L. (1990),
'Refracting Reality: The Early Films of Robert Drew and Associates.'
Ph.D. Dissertation. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin,
Department of Communication Arts.
Hockings, P. and
Y. Omori, eds. (1988), Cinematographic Theory and New Dimensions
in Ethnographic Film, Osaka.
Intintoli, M. J.
(1984), Taking Soaps Seriously: The World of 'Guiding Light',
Liebes, T. and
E. Katz (1990),The Export of Meaning: Cross Cultural Readings
of Dallas, New York.
Loud, P. (1974),
Pat Loud: A Woman's Story, New York.
Loizos, P. (1993),
Innovation in Ethnographic Film: From Innocence to Self-Consciousness,
Mamber, S. (1974),
Cinema Verite in America: Studies in Uncontrolled Documentary,
Melville, K. (1977),
Marriage and Family Today, New York.
Morrisett, L. N.
(1976), 'Rx for Public Broadcasting', Cater, D. and M. J.
Nyhan (eds.), The Future of Public Broadcasting, New
York, pp. 163-184.
Newcomb, H. and
R. S. Alley (1983), The Producer's Medium: Conversations
With Creators of American TV, New York.
Nichols, B. (1991), Representing
Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Bloomington.
O'Connor, J. J.
(1988), 'And Then for Something Truly Different', WNET
Thirteen Retrospective: Twenty-five Years on the Air,
New York, pp. 55-62.
Reich, C. (1970),
The Greening of America, New York.
Roszak, T. (1969),
The Making of a Counterculture: Reflections on the Technological
Society and Its Youthful Opposition, New York.
Ruby, J. (1977),
'The Image Mirrored: Reflexivity and the Documentary Film',
The Journal of the University Film Association, 29,
4, pp. 3-13.
Ruoff, J. (1993),
'Interview with Alan Raymond'.
Ruoff, J. (1992),
'Conventions of Sound in Documentary', Altman, R. (ed.), Sound
Theory/Sound Practice, New York, pp. 217-234.
Ruoff, J. (1992a),
'Interview with Craig Gilbert'.
Ruoff, J. (1991),
'Home Movies of the Avant-Garde: Jonas Mekas and the New York
Art World', Cinema Journal, 30, 3, Spring, pp. 6-28.
Ruoff, J. (1990),
'Interview with Lance Loud'.
Ruoff, J. (1989),
'Interviews with Alice Carey, James Day, Jacqueline Donnet,
Craig Gilbert, David Hanser, Susan Lester, Alan and Susan
(1985), Framing Science: The Making of a BBC Documentary,
Skolnick, A. (1991),
Embattled Paradise: The American Family in an Age of Uncertainty,
Staiger, J. (1992), Interpreting
Films: Studies in the Historical Reception of American Cinema,
Taylor, Ella (1989),
Prime-Time Families: Television Culture in Postwar America,
Wilkinson, R. (1988),
The Pursuit of American Character, New York.
(forthcoming), Claiming the Real: The Griersonian Documentary
and its Legitimations, London.
Worth, S. (1981
(1975)), 'Pictures Can't Say Ain't', Gross, L. (ed.), Studying
Visual Communication, Philadelphia, pp. 162-184.
Films and Television
Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. U.S.A., 30 minutes.
Brady Bunch. U.S.A., 30 minutes.
Dating Game. U.S.A., 30 minutes.
Dick Cavett Show. U.S.A., 60 minutes.
Three Sons. U.S.A., 30 minutes.
Partridge Family. U.S.A., 30 minutes.
Place, U.S.A., 30 minutes.
Life. U.S.A. Colour.
U.S.A., 60 minutes.
Knows Best. U.S.A., 30 minutes.
Waltons. U.S.A., 60 minutes.
Selling of the Pentagon. U.S.A. Colour, 52 minutes.
and Minds. U.S.A. Colour and B & W, 110 minutes.
of the North. U.S.A. B & W, 55 minutes.
MAYSLES, A. and
Shelter. U.S.A. Colour, 80 minutes.
& Martin's Laugh-In. U.S.A., 60 minutes.
Forsyte Saga, Britain, 26 episodes.
Mike Douglas Show. U.S.A., 90 minutes.
RAYMOND, A. AND
American Family Revisited: The Louds Ten Years Later.
U.S.A. Colour, 60 minutes.
Follies. U.S.A. B & W, 89 minutes.
School. U.S.A. B & W, 75 minutes.
U.S.A. B & W, 84 minutes.
Primate. U.S.A. B & W, 105 minutes.
Death. U.S.A. B & W, 358 minutes.