PASADENA, Calif. - PBS is looking at ways to make its 1973 documentary "An American Family" publicly available again to coincide with an upcoming HBO film that shows how television cameras changed the life of the Loud family.
The HBO film, set to air in April, stars Tim Robbins and Diane Lane as Bill and Pat Loud. The Santa Barbara, Calif., couple invited filmmakers to document their lives for a 12-hour series, and the HBO production promises a behind-the-scenes look at how cameras tore the family asunder.
The original documentary is increasingly looked upon as ground-breaking, probably television's first reality series. PBS prefers to look upon how the series inspired observational documentaries, but it's also possible to draw a line from "An American Family" on traditionally staid PBS to MTV's "Jersey Shore."
"There was no precedent for this," said Robert Pulcini, a director of "Cinema Verite" on HBO. "This was a big experiment, and it was kind of a birth of a genre that no one saw coming."
The stars and producers of the HBO film remarked on how difficult it was for them to do research for their jobs because the original series is not readily available on DVD or other formats.
"It's obviously worth looking at," PBS' chief programming executive, John Wilson, said. "We'll have to see if it's possible to take advantage (of the HBO film) and make the most of the opportunity."
It is already being studied at one of PBS' larger stations, WNET in New York City, said Stephen Segaller, that station's vice president for content. He said he believed the series had been repeated only once on PBS, and that was more that 20 years ago.
Clearing all that airtime for a 12-hour rerun may not make sense, he said. One possibility is to do a special with highlights of the series and stream full episodes online, Segaller said.
Making a DVD of "An American Family" could help raise money for the perenially cash-strapped public broadcasting service. Doing so would take research into who holds the rights to the material, including whether permission is needed to use any music that appeared, Wilson said.
More than 10 million viewers followed the series, which documented the Louds' marriage falling apart and oldest son Lance's lifestyle as a gay man, then a relative novelty in prime-time television. Lance Loud, before his death at age 50 in 2001, famously said that "television ate my family."
"They were the first virgins thrown into the volcano," actress Lane said. "Did they jump? And were they pushed?"
Besides Robbins and Lane, the HBO film also features a bearded James Gandolfini as the filmmaker behind "An American Family."
In the years after the documentary's airing, PBS produced a 10-year anniversary special, "An American Family Revisited," that ran in 1983, and another special on Lance Loud's life that ran in 2002.
PBS may soon test whether there is a public taste for the original, a time capsule of family life in the 1970s.
"It is not available anywhere except in some libraries and it's unfortunate, because it's a really important historical document," said Shari Springer Berman, another director of "Cinema Verite."