Tuned In: 'Cinema Verite' revisits origins of reality TV

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PASADENA, Calif. -- With all the reality shows on the air today, HBO's "Cinema Verite" reminds viewers of just how much the genre has and has not changed by depicting the making of PBS's "An American Family."

When "Family" aired on PBS in 1973, it was groundbreaking and controversial for its depiction of a warts-and-all real-life family that was falling apart as viewers tuned in.

The Louds of Santa Barbara, Calif., were the first family to go under the reality TV microscope for a docu-series that chronicled the demise of a marriage and a mother's acceptance of her oldest son's homosexuality.

"Cinema Verite" (9 p.m. Saturday) dramatizes the making of "An American Family," but it dwells too long on the setup and doesn't spend nearly enough time on the public response to the program and the impact that reaction (much of it negative) had on the Louds.

Clocking in at just about 90 minutes, the film feels like it ends too quickly.

Written by David Seltzer ("Punchline") and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini ("American Splendor"), "Cinema Verite" begins as "An American Family" filmmaker Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini, "The Sopranos") meets Pat (Diane Lane) and Bill Loud (Tim Robbins) and their five children and persuades the family to participate in the program, which filmed over seven months in 1971.

Gilbert hires the film crew of Alan (Patrick Fugit, "Almost Famous") and Susan Raymond (Shanna Collins) to roll the cameras, but Gilbert clashes with them on technique (they want it to be a true documentary; Gilbert is willing to meddle by interacting with Pat Loud off-camera). In the aftermath, the Raymonds befriended the Louds, who cast Gilbert as the bad guy in their spotlight drama.

Re-created scenes in "Cinema Verite" are pretty faithful to the PBS series, but the real drama gets short shrift once the show airs on PBS and draws more than 10 million viewers. While it's somewhat interesting to see how these reality TV pioneers "act" in front of the camera in ways today's more savvy reality stars would not (by dint of watching hours of reality shows before appearing on one), the fallout from the telecast and its impact on the family seem like a better story even though it's clearly of less interest to the makers of "Cinema Verite."

At a January HBO press conference, Ms. Lane said what's remarkable about "An American Family" is that it was "the first domino to fall" in the reality TV genre.

"When I read Pat Loud's book, she still wants to know why she did it herself because if she could undo it, she would have, but she can only be innocent once," Ms. Lane said. "That was what drew everybody's amazement, shock and disdain because you can't get your innocence back, and America was angry.

"[The Louds] were vilified as much as anyone would ever hope not to be for participating in this experiment," Ms. Lane said. "They thought they were sold a bill of goods for believing it was going to be educational television."

Ms. Berman said the film and family were judged in the time the program aired.

"The oldest son, Lance, was openly gay, and that was perhaps the first time that was ever done in television, where someone was openly gay," she said. "People wouldn't blink any eye at that now. In those days, it was incredibly scandalous."

In the early 1970s, Pat was criticized for accepting her son's homosexuality; today she more likely would be criticized if she was not a loving and accepting mother. Some viewers also took Pat to task for divorcing her husband despite his infidelities.

"It really says a lot about our culture and our time to look back on it with some hindsight now and see where we've come culturally," Ms. Berman said.

But at the time, Ms. Lane said there was no way "for the psyche of America to process what they were seeing. They held the family accountable for the editing that was done."

The film doesn't address the issue of why we get sucked into reality shows, but Mr. Robbins said he hopes "Cinema Verite" will encourage viewers to consider the appeal of the genre.

"If there's a divorce or if there's an argument on a reality show or two friends are furious at each other, it tends to increase ratings," he said. "So it's kind of a deeper question about the whole society -- why are we drawn to the train wrecks?"

Since "An American Family" first aired, two follow-ups have been made: 1983's "An American Family Revisted: The Louds 10 Years Later" and 2003's "Lance Loud: A Death in the American Family." The Raymonds made both follow-up films and consulted on "Cinema Verite."

The original "American Family" will air on some PBS stations or their digital subchannels that carry WorldCompass programming, but Pittsburgh's WQED does not have that digital subchannel. One full episode and clips from the original show are available online at www.thirteen.org/american-family.

Anchor change at WPXI

WPXI news director Mike Goldrick Thursday announced a tweak to the station's anchor lineup: Beginning next week, evening anchor Peggy Finnegan will add the noon newscast to her duties, allowing morning and noon anchor Jennifer Abney more time to work on special projects for the evening newscasts.

Ms. Abney and 11 p.m. anchor Darieth Chisolm are the most obvious heirs to Ms. Finnegan's anchor chair, and this move suggests Channel 11 management may have begun laying the groundwork for an eventual succession. It's important to note that Ms. Finnegan will remain as anchor of the 5 and 6 p.m. newscasts, but the decision to give Ms. Abney more of a presence in those broadcasts is a way to familiarize the evening audience with Ms. Abney so that if the time comes to move her to the evening news it will be an easier transition for viewers.

Mr. Goldrick said the change was inspired by Ms. Abney's work at the Super Bowl in Dallas.

"I knew we wanted to tap into her energy and her storytelling abilities on a more consistent basis," Mr. Goldrick wrote in an email. He said Ms. Finnegan "graciously agreed" to come in and anchor at noon, freeing up Ms. Abney, who will continue to anchor in the morning, to become part of the station's "specials team" to develop stories that will "become a much more permanent (and promotable) part of the 90"-minute evening newscast. Ms. Chisolm will continue to anchor at 11 p.m.

Mr. Goldrick said he has no intention of moving Ms. Finnegan off the evening anchor desk.

"No, that's not part of the plan right now at all," he said in a follow-up phone interview. "We're in a [ratings] dogfight every day at 5 and 6, and we're trying to get the best coverage and content in our newscast to get people to watch our shows. This is freeing up another tool in our toolkit. Jennifer is a real star, and we want to give her more time to work on good stuff. That's all it is."

Ms. Finnegan will anchor with Todd McDermott at noon most days, but Mr. Goldrick said the new configuration also will allow for Ms. Finnegan to anchor solo while Mr. McDermott covers a story for later newscasts on occasion.

"One of the things viewers have said is they want to see our anchors reporting sometimes," Mr. Goldrick said. "Doing this frees up all three of them to get out there and do some reporting."

Ms. Finnegan said she's happy and content and doesn't feel threatened by the change.

"They have been asking me for years, before Jennifer ever came here, to do the noon show," she said. Because her children were younger then, she never felt comfortable doing it. Now her youngest child is 12. "As much as it grieves me that my kids are growing up, they don't need me as much anymore. If I'm going to be sitting at home doing nothing or have the option of adding more money and a half-hour show, I'll take the half-hour show and make some more money and be on the air more.

"And just the economic climate at the station is such that everybody is being asked to do more, and anchors aren't exempt from that," Ms. Finnegan added.

And unlike Sally Wiggin, who was taken off the evening anchor desk at WTAE, Ms. Finnegan is not being removed, just adding another half-hour.

"If they said, 'We don't want you to do 5, 5:30 and 6,' that would be very concerning to me, but they've made it very clear to me that, 'No, no, we love you and we want to see more of you,' " she said. "And I'm not going to work here forever. They'd be foolish not to be nurturing young talent, that's what every newsroom does. If someday Jennifer replaces me, I think she's lovely. I think Darieth would be a wonderful replacement, too.

"It will happen someday. I'm not going to be working when I'm 60. I don't want to do that, and I'm not anywhere near that age," she hastened to add with a laugh.

'Chaos' canceled

CBS canceled lighthearted Friday night drama "Chaos" after less than a month. It will be replaced on May 6 with new episodes of "Flashpoint" airing at 8 p.m. Fridays.

New announcer

George Gray ("Junkyard Wars") is the new announcer for CBS daytime mainstay "The Price Is Right." Mr. Gray had been one of several rotating announcers this season before landing a permanent gig on the show. He replaces previous announcer Rich Fields, whose contract expired last season.

Is 'Locke' a lock?

The Fox pilot "Locke & Key" filmed in Pittsburgh earlier this year and seemed like a lock for Fox's prime-time schedule given the creative auspices behind the show (the executive producers of "Fringe," the showrunner of "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles") and a significant penalty payment that would be required to the studio if the network does not pick up the show.

This week Deadline.com reported that reaction to the "Locke" pilot has been mixed, with some describing it as "a bit long and slow." If "Locke" makes the schedule, it is expected to film its first season of episodes in Pittsburgh beginning this summer.

Fox and the other broadcast networks will announce their new fall series the week of May 16.

Channel surfing

The 15th season of "South Park" premieres at 10 p.m. Wednesday on Comedy Central. ... Two days after it premiered to more than 2 million viewers, HBO renewed "Game of Thrones" for a second season. ... Actress A.J. Cook, who played JJ, will return to "Criminal Minds" as a full-time series regular next season after appearing in May's season finale. ... If you were a fan of Fox's "Running Wild" last fall -- anyone? anyone? -- the remaining four episodes will be burned off on FX at 10 p.m. Thursday starting next week. ... TV Land will add Cedric the Entertainer to "Hot in Cleveland" this summer with tentative plans to spin his character off into his own series. ... HBO has ordered "Veep" to series. The political satire stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as an American vice president. ... Logo will spin-off its "The A-List" reality show with a new edition set in Dallas to air this fall. ... BET has renewed scripted shows "The Game" and "Let's Stay Together" for 22 episodes each, debuting in early 2012. ... Science Channel has renewed "An Idiot Abroad" for a second season to air in early 2012. ... Discovery Networks will rename its HD Theater network Velocity and will target an upscale male audience when the change occurs late this year.

Tuned In online

Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about the decline of daytime dramas, "Body of Proof" and BBC America's "Being Human." This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on "Upstairs Downstairs," "Game of Thrones" and "Bad Girls Need Love Too." Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.

This week's podcast includes conversation about "Happy Endings," "Game of Thrones" and the demise of daytime soaps. Subscribe or listen at post-gazette.com/podcast.

Portions of this story first appeared in Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.


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