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YOU COULD ALMOST feel the societal shock waves as 10 million TV viewers watched Pat Loud tell her husband their 20-year marriage was over.

”I have spoken to a lawyer and this is his card,” Pat icily informed the philandering Bill as cameras rolled inside their well-appointed ranch house in Santa Barbara, Calif. ”And he would like to have you get in touch with him, and I’d like to have you move out.”

By this point, Bill and Pat’s son Lance had already affirmed his homosexuality on camera.

America wasn’t used to people baring their souls on television when PBS’ An American Family debuted Jan. 11, 1973, just as Watergate was about to inflict its own mark on the national psyche.

Led by producer Craig Gilbert, crews had spent seven months in 1971 shadowing the Loud family — Bill, then 50; Pat, 45; Lance, 20; Kevin, 18; Grant, 17; Delilah, 15; and Michele, 13. The resulting 12 one-hour shows dealt with such topics as Grant’s insolence, Bill’s mining-equipment-business problems, and a brush fire that came within inches of destroying the family’s home. Anthropologist Margaret Mead deemed it all ”as significant as the invention of drama or the novel.” The Louds became instant, widely vilified celebs. Pat wrote a tell-even-more book, Albert Brooks’ 1979 movie Real Life satirized the series, and HBO’s American Family Revisited caught us up with the family 10 years later.

Today, four of the Louds live in Southern California: Pat works for an ad design firm; Lance is a free-lance journalist; Grant is an actor; and Delilah is director of advertising for a TV syndicator. Bill, who married and divorced again, works for a Texas real estate firm. Kevin and his family live in Colorado, where he’s a vice president of Rocky Mountain Internet. Michele is a technical clothing designer in New York City.

And attitudes toward public revelation have changed. For example, in each of the past two seasons some 25,000 people have offered themselves up as fodder for The Real World, the MTV docu-soap inspired by An American Family.

As for the Louds, what motivated those unlikeliest of pioneers? They said they just thought it would be ”fun” to be on television.