Jewish World Review Jan. 10, 2003 / 7 Shevat, 5763

Jerry Nachman

Jerry Nachman
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Consumer Reports

Reality TV
now and then

The realization that the typical American family was not accurately presented by "Ozzie and Harriet" or "Ricky and Lucy" first appeared on television in 1971 with "All In The Family," but that was a sit-com. A couple of years later, a PBS series really slammed home the other side of the so-called nuclear family in "An American Family." The 12-part series took us into the world of the Loud family who lived outside Santa Barbara. Jerry Nachman interviewed Dalton Delan, the so-called father of Reality TV. |        Ten million people watched in voyeuristic fascination as, among other things, a marriage dissolved. It was reality TV long before the onset of “The Osbournes” and “The Real World.” The most dramatic revelation was that a son, Lance Loud, was gay. Lance Loud died in late 2001 of AIDS and hepatitis C. He asked the filmmakers to revisit him and his family.

       “It just came into my mind and I thought I cannot leave the planet without some form of closure from the series, because I didn’t think that when last seen in the series, we were a desperate group,” says Lance Loud in a videoclip from “A Death in An American Family,” a documentary produced recently about “An American Family.”
       “My parents were divorcing and I was heading toward drugs and slow destruction. Everyone was cut off from each other. And that’s not the case of what it has become. I mean we are still together, we still love each other very, very much,” Loud said.
       The sponsoring station for the new documentary is WETA in Washington. Its chief programming officer, Dalton Delan, talked about the new program, along with “New York Post” TV critic, Adam Buckman.
       Dalton, do you ever get accused— or do Alan and Susan Raymond, who produced the original Louds— of being effectively Dr. Frankenstein in what you began?
       “It was definitely the mother of reality television,” said Delan. “‘Surreality television’ or ‘mockumentary’ was what they used to call it. It’s fallen a long way from the tree. But ‘An American Family’ was the first, and Lance Loud was the first openly gay man on television,” he says. “The great anthropologist, Margaret Mead, said it the best. She actually said about the ‘American Family’ series, that it was, for our age, the equivalent of drama and the novel for another age. That it was a new way for us to look at ourselves. I think she understood that this program was going to transform the way we depicted life.”
       “When I was able to... old enough to appreciate it, I enjoyed the show,” says Buckman. “It’s kind of interesting that many years, decades in fact, lapsed between ‘American Family’ and the reality shows that we are here to talk about today. Now, if there had been a Loud family today, it would have been followed up immediately, if not sooner, by another family.”
       Today, there’s another Loud family and they’re called “The Osbournes.”
       “Yes, but that was about 30 years later,” says Buckman. “And I think it’s telling that television didn’t really catch up with whatever it is that ‘American Family’ pioneered back then for a long time.”
       When Lance Loud revealed he was gay, it was an incredible moment. Divorce was bad, but public admission of homosexuality was unthinkable.
       “I think that at that time, you have to remember that, in that year, in 1973, at that time homosexuality was still a disease, an illness,” says Delan. “And it was only that year that it was changed in the American Psychology Association textbooks.”
       “There’s no question that the surreality shows, the mockumentaries run the airwaves because they have hyped up drama,” says Delan. “They are paced to today’s pacing and they save a lot of money for the networks to put them on. But they are not documentary, they are a whole different creature.”
       Now, there’s literally going to be a show pitting animals versus people. It’s called ‘Man Versus Beast’ coming up a little while on Fox.
       “The thing that caught my eye was midgets would be in some sort of a tug of war competition with an elephant,” says Buckman.
       There’s also another show, “Westminster Kennel Club,” one of the most popular shows on television, cable and network, they are going to do a dog beauty pageant.
       “It’s kind of like a dog show, but I think that these dogs are being judged on other aspects. How well they are primped and beribboned and combed and groomed,” says Buckman.
       When you hear this stuff, it’s not exactly “Masterpiece Theater.” It’s not exactly “I, Claudius” or “Upstairs, Downstairs.” How does Delan feel about it?
       “We have to realize that we’re not going to be the blockbusters,” Delan says of his projects. “But we do all with our programs. But they have to stay true to their knitting. We can’t compete with the animals versus humans,” he says.
       Delan recounts that years ago, the producers who made “The Real World” came to him at another network.
       “The meeting was going fine until they said that they were the direct descendants and proud to say they were the next step in ‘American Family.’ That is when I did my John Kennedy speech, which is ‘You are no American Family.’ I was actually close to throwing them out of my office.”
       If they are the monsters who came off the embalming table to lurch through the village, he could be considered the Dr. Frankenstein that created them.
       “Well, I’ll tell you, you can’t be responsible for all your children. I say that as a parent,” says Delan.

JWR contributor Jerry Nachman is vice president and editor-in-chief of MSNBC, and the host of “Nachman,” which airs at 5 p.m. ET, weekdays on MSNBC. A former radio reporter, newspaper Editor-in-Chief, and even Hollywood screenwriter, he is the recipient of the prestigious Peabody Award, an Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio-Television News Directors Association and an Emmy Award, plus numerous others. He has served twice as a Pulitzer Prize Juror in the Journalism competition. Comment by clicking here.


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