It was YouTube before YouTube existed.
The longevity of “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” now marking the 20th anniversary of its debut on ABC, proves that America never tires of vid clips of cute babies, men getting hit in the groin, women making fools of themselves at weddings and the anthropomorphic antics of household pets.
“AFV” (ABC drops the ‘H’ in acronym form) rode the wave of the late-’80s camcorder boom, serving as the national showcase for the new generation of families with the ready ability to capture every soccer game and backyard get-together on videotape. And now that kids reared on smiling for the camcorder are starting to have families of their own, “AFV” steward Vin Di Bona figures the show’s got another 20 years in it, easy.
“In the last two years since we’ve allowed people to upload (videos) onto our website, our submissions have increased from about 300-700 a week to about 1,500 a week,” Di Bona says. “It’s kind of amazing.”
Also impressive is the show’s durability at a time when there’s no shortage of places to find all manner of oddball vid clips — funny and otherwise. Yet “AFV” still generally wins its Sunday 7 p.m. slot in the 18-49 demo (so long as it’s not facing football), probably because it’s the most family-friendly network TV show on a night when many families, including tykes, still gather together in front of the set.
Di Bona recalls with amusement how some ABC technicians grumbled at the outset of “AFV” — which was born as a special in November 1989 and upgraded to a weekly series in January 1990 — about the low resolution of the vids compared to their lofty broadcast-quality standards. Di Bona dug in his heels about funny trumping fuzzy, and the ratings for that first special quickly ended those discussions.
After the special bowed, then-ABC chief Bob Iger called Di Bona to ask if he could quickly deliver 10 more hourlong episodes. “Absolutely, ” Di Bona replied, utterly unsure if he would actually have enough material.
But he needn’t have worried. An avalanche of submissions arrived at ABC within days.
The production process on “AFV” hasn’t changed much in 20 years. Three to five producers spend most of their day reviewing submissions, culling the gems from the everyday pratfalls and practical jokes.
Nowadays, some of the digital vid that is submitted comes awfully close to broadcast quality. Cell-phone vid can be kind of sketchy at times, but if the clip is laugh-out-loud good, Di Bona and the producers find a way to make it work.
“If there’s funny in it, it goes on the air,” he assures.
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the first “AFV” special, original host Bob Saget is coming back to co-host the Nov. 29 edition with Tom Bergeron, the show’s frontman since 2001. Di Bona calls the affable Bergeron “the reason we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary.”
“AFV” hit its lowest ebb in 1999, when a network-forced makeover with youthful hosts John Fugelsang and Daisy Fuentes flamed out. The show was axed as a regular series but continued as specials hosted by various ABC stars. But by mid-2001, the series was revived with Bergeron and its tried-and-true format, where the clips are the star.
“AFV” has become such a mainstay of the smallscreen that it will soon be immortalized with a display in the Smithsonian Institution. The show recently donated a bunch of memorabilia to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, including a greatest-hits reel and the camcorder that shot the show’s first top prize- winning vid — a clip of an Ohio housewife getting her head caught in a dishwasher.
Di Bona got his start in TV as a news and docu producer. As far as he’s concerned, he’s been working in the same milieu for the past 20 years.
“What we’re presenting every week is 20-second documentary glimpses of America,” he says.