‘America’s Funniest Home Videos’ is Stronger Than Ever in Digital Era

AFV Storng in Digital Era
Michael Lewis for Variety

Pratfalls and goofs caught on camera made Vin Di Bona’s career. But that doesn’t mean the creator of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” is an ideal videographer.

“When my daughter graduated from high school, I panned over the stage and she’d already walked by,” sighs the onetime documentary filmmaker. “I got a great picture of my grandson’s first birthday, where he’s singing ‘Happy Birthday,’ but I was on pause. They don’t let me near a video camera any more.”

Fortunately Di Bona’s facility, or lack thereof, with a camera has nothing to do with the way he’s been able to make — and keep — “AFV” a success. The show, which starts its 25th season Oct. 5 on ABC, is a remarkable example of the way an old-fashioned clip show concept can evolve in the new millennium whirl of digital platforming, social media and the Internet.

It’s easy to think that a show of amateur-shot clips would have begun its slow decline the moment the first cat video was uploaded to YouTube circa 2005, but “AFV” retains enviable stats: It is the No. 1 show for family co-viewing on broadcast TV; summer 2014 ratings were up 11% over summer 2013; and 93% of its viewership is live, an unheard-of number outside of sports or special events programming.

Many of those things would not matter in the long run, however, if “AFV” hadn’t been able to update with the times. During much of the show’s lifespan, tech advances had been to its advantage: Shrinking cameras and the option to record digitally meant more people could record more footage for less money — and thereby capture more classic moments for “AFV.”

But once videos that at one time would have been ripe for “AFV” viewers bypassed the show by appearing online — and worse, when classic unlicensed “AFV” moments appeared on YouTube — technology no longer seemed the show’s ally.

“Vin fought it,” says Lisa Black, exec VP of content, revenue and business development for Vin Di Bona Prods. and FishBowl Worldwide Media (another of Di Bona’s companies, which focuses more on original transmedia production). “He hired all these lawyers and had takedown notices on YouTube. But he got with the program relatively quickly; I have to give him credit.”

Di Bona admits: “There was a time when my blood would boil at the mention of YouTube. But it’s not going away, so we may as well use it to our advantage.”

Exec producer Michele Nasraway preps finalists before a taping; below, show creator/exec producer Vin Di Bona laughs with show staffers. Photo Credit: Michael Lewis for Variety

By turning “AFV” into a brand and not just a TV show, new worlds opened up. Di Bona and Black took back ownership of the show’s digital platforms from ABC, whose focus had shifted to more long-form programming in the digital space, and made their own Web page a hub for submissions and content.

Next, they branched out into social media, with significant success: Since 2013, “AFV’s” YouTube channels (AFVOfficial, AFV Kids, AFV Animals) have seen a 14% growth in subscribers (to 16 million), a 1,000% growth in impressions on AFV.com (which sees 1.5 million monthly views) and “AFV” is regularly one of the most talked-about TV shows on Facebook.

A fourth YouTube channel, AFV Approved, launches in October.

“AFV” recently inked a partnership with image-hosting site Imgur to feature content from classic episodes and the current season packaged into looping GIFs, which will also be promoted on air.
Meanwhile, “AFV’s” mobile app has been downloaded more than 1 million times, and allows for streaming of thousands of videos; in November an Android app will include customizable playlists and the ability to send “AFV” content as part of a message to friends.

It’s a classic example of not just thinking outside the box, but of re-envisioning the box itself: Over 24 seasons, the show has taken in thousands of hours of content, so why not repurpose that content to fit a modern, younger audience that wants to do more than just watch videos?

“We live in a creator culture today,” says Black. “Why not put the content out there for people to do what they want with it? There’s such a strong desire these days for people to touch the content; even if that person doesn’t tune in, they’re touching the brand and that’s meaningful. This brand has such positive recognition; it means you’re guaranteed a laugh.”

That creator culture brings the brand to its next logical permutation: original content. A recent partnership deal with Maker Studios has led to shortform programming for YouTube celebrities like Shay “Shay Carl” Butler, whose “Shay TV” show will appear on his own channel and “AFV’s,” while other online talents have filmed “AFV Do Overs” segments that will appear online and in the broadcast show.

Much of this expansion has been made possible thanks to “AFV’s” healthy business in monetizing its 1 million strong clip library, which over the past two years has been digitized and assembled into an online database called Media Bowl and made available for, among other endeavors, marketing and advertising projects around the world. More than 3,000 clips get processed and meta-tagged through Media Bowl each week, which lets foreign producers assemble their own playlists.

“We’re always looking for ways to expand and use platforms and create other offshoots of the brand,” says Black. “We’ve really just scratched the surface.”

Michael Lewis for Variety

Another way to maximize the library and create new content for other outlets is FishBowl Worldwide Media. Di Bona established FishBowl,  an independent production company, in 2010, and it’s had lots of success.

In the past year production has increased more than 60%, and produced such shows as “Toned-up” for Bravo, “Upload With Shaquille O’Neal” for truTV and “I’m Married to a ….” for VH1. Other projects in development include a real estate series for HGTV, a comedy sketch series for Sundance, a competition show for Oxygen, plus  productions for LMN, Bravo and WE.

Not that “AFV” is being neglected. The skein, which, says ABC alternative series VP Robert Mills, “still sets the table better” than any other piece of Sunday night programming, is a powerful core asset. In addition to its wide U.S. syndication, the show airs in 193 territories around the world, with 15 local versions being produced.

And the show itself is geared for a major change once its anniversary season has passed — host Tom Bergeron is exiting after 15 years.

But in many ways, no matter how many changes “AFV” goes through, on any platform, it will remain what it has always been: Possibly the most American show ever created.

“As long as people have kids and like to laugh, I see this show being on,” Mills says. “It’s really the show parents want to watch with their kids.”

That’s been Di Bona’s goal all along. “Other shows are more risqué, more challenging, more rough — that’s their marketplace,” he says. “That’s not who I’m going for. I’m going for mom, dad, and the kids sitting on a couch. That’s who I want and that’s who I respect. I just roll with the punches, show up, direct the show and go home. I love what I do.”

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