Di Bona in tune with changing tastes

TV producer gave 'ET's' Hart her start

Vin Di Bona may not have the most instantly recognizable name in Hollywood, but television viewers are certainly familiar with his accomplishments.

His work on two popular programs — “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and “Entertainment Tonight” — made those programs into favorite television pastimes.

On the former, he established an avenue for the owners of camcorders to share some of their favorite clips with the rest of the country, and he remains its executive producer and creative force.

On the latter, during his stint as producer of the entertainment magazine in its early days, he hired Mary Hart, who is beginning her 25th season as the show’s anchor.

And as producer of “Battle of the Network Stars” in 1976, Di Bona became what many now consider to be one of the pioneers of today’s reality TV genre, along with Alan Funt of “Candid Camera,” Chuck Barris of “The Gong Show” and Ralph Edwards of “This Is Your Life” and “Truth or Consequences.”

Television wasn’t always Di Bona’s focus. For a time, he was a singer known as Johnny Lindy and was trying to make a name for himself in Nashville, where the teenager recorded “My Arms.” It became a regional success in his native New England.

“But I was a ballad singer trying to sell records when the Beatles broke, so it didn’t work,” Di Bona says.

At Emerson College, Di Bona became manager of the campus AM station, and he later earned a master’s from UCLA’s film school.

Returning to the East Coast, he worked nine years at Boston’s WBZ-TV, where he produced and directed documentary specials, public affairs programs and the first commercially sponsored African-American magazine show in the country.

“What doing documentaries taught me is to be flexible,” Di Bona says. “Don’t put on a script that locks you into something. You need to be flexible to get to where you want to be.”

That flexibility comes in handy with every new episode of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” Once the themes are picked and the segments are put together, they are screened for the producers and writers. Not enough laughs? They’re reworked. And when the segments clear that hurdle, some of the next judges are members of the studio audience.

“We overtape the show about four or five minutes longer than what we need so there’s plenty of material to choose from,” Di Bona says. “Once again, we have the flexibility to say, ‘This is what we wanted to do, this is what happened, here’s what we need to do to fix it.’ ”

Beyond “AFV” and “ET,” Di Bona has an eclectic list of credits that includes four TV movies, a bawdy sitcom for Showtime (“Sherman Oaks”) and the first year of the ABC adventure series “MacGyver” in which he dealed with Emerson frat brother Henry Winkler.

“The one thing about my career is that I never want to stay in one position, although, obviously, ‘Videos’ is one of those things that you become so blessed that you never look a gift horse in the mouth because this happens so infrequently. To have one, I feel I’m leading a charmed life. But I do like to do other things.”

Robert J. Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse U., says the contributions of Di Bona, Funt and Barris to American culture shouldn’t be glossed over.

“If you’re someone who’s looking at what entertained America, these guys did some really substantial work. On one set of criteria, it’s absolute trash, but when it comes to just-what-the-doctor-ordered entertainment, it’s brilliant.”

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