AN AMERICAN FAMILY was television’s first reality show, shot documentary style in 1971 and first aired in the United States on PBS in 1973. The show was twelve episodes long, edited down from about 300 hours of footage, and chronicled the experience of a nuclear family, the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California, during a period of time when parents Bill and Pat Loud separated (in a infamous and powerful on-camera sequence) and Pat filed for divorce.
The parents had five children. One of them, Lance Loud, was a gay 20-year-old man who occasionally wore lipstick and women’s clothes and took his mother to a drag show in the second episode of the series. He lived in the Chelsea Hotel during its Warholesque heydey and this is captured in the second episode (Holly Woodlawn was his neighbor and appears in several scenes, along with Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis, and other famous drag queens of the time).
On airing, the show drew over 10 million viewers — phenomenal viewership for PBS in 1973 (or even presently) — and drew considerable controversy. The series was widely discussed in the media in 1973, and the Loud family appeared on the cover of the March 12, 1973 issue of Newsweek magazine.
--An American Family: The Story of the Louds (1973)
In the wake of the news that the Jon & Kate Plus 8 trainwreck last night was its (and TLC's as a whole) highest rated episode ever (no doubt giving fuel to what appears to be TLC and Kate's desires to not end the show) I find it interesting that this isn't the first time America has become captivated by a family in trouble.
What exactly does that say about us as a society? I'm not entirely sure.