Decades before the advent of American broadcasting networks' ubiquitous reality programming, a story unfolded on public television that changed television history by spotlighting the true complexities of post-modern middle class family life. The cinema vérité documentary series An American Family premiered in 1973. An audience of 10 million viewers watched with fascination the unfolding real-life drama of the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California. The program challenged conventional views and depictions of middle-class American family life, documenting marital tensions leading to divorce, a son's gay lifestyle and the changing values of American families.
Lance Loud, the charismatic eldest son of the family, emerged as the leading personality of the series, making no secret of his gay lifestyle in episode two. A gregarious, free-spirited youth, he was the first openly homosexual person to appear on television as an integral member of American family life. Loud became a very public personality, inspiring legions of young people, both gay and straight, to feel free to be who they were and who they wanted to be.
Having his life scrutinized on television had its benefits and it burdens. Loud, emerging as a gay icon overnight, became a television star simply by being himself, and for a time he reaped the benefits of fame, becoming a rock and roll performer and, later, a writer and columnist for Interview, American Film, Details and The Advocate. On the other hand, Loud's most famous quote was "Television ate my family," referring to scars left on the Louds after having their lives laid bare before a national audience. In the end, Loud reportedly found that celebrity was hollow. Nothing could ever measure up to that initial burst of notoriety and he spent years trying to find himself again, struggling through substance abuse and other dark episodes.