Extraordinary folks got their trendsetting television break when the show debuted on April 18, 1979

By Dan Snierson
Updated April 18, 1997 at 04:00 AM EDT

It was about a guy who ate soil. A one-legged man who ran across Canada. A forgotten troupe of women war heroes. As far as TV series go, this one was so unusual, it could have only been about real people.

Debuting on April 18, 1979, NBC’s cheeky-cheery ”variety” hour turned TV conventions upside down, or at least backward: It spun its cameras around 180 degrees, transforming common folk into celebrities. Peppered with Velveeta banter from its hosts and reporters (including Fred Willard, Skip Stephenson, Sarah Purcell, Byron Allen, and Peter Billingsley), Real People highlighted stories that fell through the cracks between network-news and circus-freak shows. Says executive producer George Schlatter, who also created Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, ”We celebrated overlooked accomplishments and ordinary people who overcame obstacles.”

The show had to do some obstacle hopping of its own. Kamikaze-scheduled on Wednesdays at 8 against ABC powerhouse Eight Is Enough, Real People, with its hokey charm, became NBC’s top-rated show by season’s end. While remembered for its wacko side, the series also prided itself on power-to-the-little-people agendas (recognition for Vietnam vets, missing kids) that even posed a scrappy threat to network news departments. Recalls NBC senior VP Rick Ludwin, ”There was a love-hate relationship between George and the news division.”

Real People‘s novel take on America would serve in part as its downfall. More exploitive clones like That’s Incredible! and Those Amazing Animals began sprouting up, while newsmagazine programs encroached on the unsung-hero-type profiles. The show ended its run in 1984, but reality TV has continued to mine every nook of American life (Cops, Unsolved Mysteries, America’s Funniest Home Videos). Recently the genre has mutated toward sensational ugliness: witness Fox’s When Animals Attack I and II, and The World’s Scariest Police Chases. (”I’d like to see all the hosts of these shows get hit in the nuts and then have weasels jump on their heads,” sighs Home Videos host Bob Saget.) But Schlatter, who’s trying to organize a Real People reunion, hopes for a return to warm-and-fuzzy voyeurism. ”After we visit every animal attack, car crash, and murder arrest, maybe we’ll realize this is the best place in the world to live,” he opines. ”Let’s focus on the good guy.”

Time Capsule

Three’s Company attracted crowds of TV viewers, while moviegoers ate up Love at First Bite. Readers gathered around Robert Ludlum’s The Matarese Circle, and Amii Stewart’s ”Knock on Wood” knocked out her competition.