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Commentary: Reality television originated in early days of PBS



Fifty years ago this month, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, a law that eventually led to the formation of both National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System.

Although many Americans associate PBS with popular programs such as “Sesame Street,” “Antiques Roadshow” and Ken Burns documentaries, the network also aired other influential but largely forgotten shows that helped shape our contemporary media landscape — including one that was decades ahead of its time.

Long before E!, Bravo or MTV, PBS introduced the viewing audience to reality television.

The show was called “An American Family,” and, when it aired on PBS from January to March 1973, it offered an intimate and sensationalistic examination of a single family alongside a powerful critique of American society. Unlike commercial networks dependent on advertising revenue, PBS had the flexibility to broadcast an experimental program that challenged audiences without pressures from advertisers that preferred to sponsor comfortable, traditional content.

In fact, the program’s problem might have been that it was too realistic for a TV audience accustomed to sitcom perfection.

The media-savvy viewers of today largely understand the exaggerated and contrived aspects of reality television. And producers such as Mark Burnett prefer calling the genre “unscripted drama” over “reality TV” to acknowledge staging and forgo any claim to an honest portrayal of reality.

But whether it’s “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” or “The Real Housewives” franchise, our TV sets are flooded with manipulative and staged dramas designed to delight, shock and even outrage their audiences.

These shows amuse, entertain or provoke eye rolls, but they explicitly avoid raising larger philosophical, social, cultural or even existential questions about the human condition. They feature celebrities living in aspirational worlds, not mirrors on our own existence.

If anything, they offer an escape

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