An American Family: A Televised Life

An American Family: A Televised Life

An American Family: A Televised Life

An American Family: A Televised Life

Excerpt

An American Family was the most significant American documentary of the 1970s and among the most influential television programs of that decade. It reached an unusually broad audience for a nonfiction program; Newsweek estimated ten million viewers for each episode, the high point for public TV in the 1970s. The size of the viewing public astonished the program’s production staff. “No one ever looked at public television,” coordinating producer Jacqueline Donnet recalled. “We thought that we were working on a little series like The Working Musician. Of course, there was an audience out there, but we didn’t think the family was going to make the cover of Newsweek.” But the program had unusual resonance with the general public. In the words of a Chicago Tribune reviewer, the documentary “made the trials of the Louds a shade better known than those of Job. Everybody wrote about them and dissected them.” Journalist Merle Miller, writing in Esquire, concurred, “I doubt if in the history of the tube there has been so much talk about anything.” Cartoonists such as Garry Trudeau and Jim Berry lampooned An American Family. To not watch the show was an act of defiance. Novelist Elie Wiesel’s refusal to join fellow New Yorkers in front of a living room TV set was cited in the New York Times Magazine. “One written sentence,” Wiesel steadfastly maintained, “is worth 800 hours of film.”

The first episode was broadcast by PBS on Thursday evening, January 11, 1973, at 9:00 P.M. (EST), at the same time as Ironside (1967–75) on NBC, The Thursday Night Movie (John Frankenheimer’s The Gypsy Moths, 1969) on CBS, and an ABC premiere of Michelangelo Antonioni’s documentary China (1972). During its twelve-week run, An American Family went against Ironside and Kung Fu (1972–75) and subsequent movies on CBS, including Mark Robson’s Valley of the Dolls (1967) and Mike Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Despite the . . .

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