Even as technology caught up to ABC’s “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” the 30-year-old clip show found a way to co-exist with online viral videos.
Since it began in 1989, “AFV” has been a showcase for funny videos — guys getting hit in their groins, wigs falling off, pranks caught on tape, pets getting into mischief — with each episode’s most-liked videos, as judged by the show’s studio audience, winning cash prizes.
“AFV” survived the dawn of YouTube and the existential threat it posed to the TV show by looking at such platforms as potential partners, rather than challenges. “The public loves it,” says Di Bona.
This started about seven years ago, although Di Bona admits it was an adjustment. When he first learned of YouTube — while watching a CBS News report — it looked not only like a competitor but also a thief. Out of the six clip examples on that news package, “four of them were from my show,” he recalls. “I went nuts. I was perturbed. For the next two to three years we kept saying, ‘We have to combat this, we have to protect our IP.’ We had stuff taken down when that was pretty next-to-impossible.”
However, the attitude soon shifted to “if-you-can’t-beat-em, join-em,” says Lisa Black, executive vice president of content, revenue and business development at Vin Di Bona Prods.
Black arrived at the company in 2012, when she says the official “AFV” online presence was limited to a Facebook page. Her background in digital media at Telepictures helped “AFV” embrace the increasingly digital world.
“I really couldn’t believe they were sitting on this gold mine of viral video and not exploiting it,” Black says.
Black focused on coming up with “a strategy that would allow us to connect with our audience and new audiences in different ways and in different experiences than they were used to [which was] the lean-back experience of watching the show in their living room.”
Now “AFV” has a YouTube channel, multiple Facebook pages and a presence on Instagram and TikTok.
“As new platforms have evolved, we have jumped on them,” Black says, noting that “AFV” now has 19 million fans on Facebook compared to 100,000 in 2012 and utilizes different pages on that platform to “go after different demographics” and “customize the content a bit more.”
“AFV” executive producer Michele Nasraway, who has worked on the series since the first season, says enthusiasm for user-generated content as entertainment, no matter the platform, has contributed to the show’s continued success.
“The other thing that the proliferation of viral videos has done for us is that it’s really perpetuated trends in technology or just the way people shoot things,” Nasraway says. “Slow-motion video, face-swapping and face filters and various apps like Snapchat and TikTok have really resulted in a boom of material for us.”
Nasraway says the TV show has adapted to the pace of short-form content, as well, by cutting videos much shorter than they did in the early years of the show. “People are used to seeing things happen very quickly,” she says. “As a result we use more videos per episode.”
The TV landscape has changed dramatically since “AFV” first hit the airwaves as a special in 1989, based loosely on a segment in the Japanese variety show “Fun TV With Kato-chan and Ken-chan.”
“At the end of the [Japanese] show they showed home videos and asked celebrities which of the three was the funniest, and that was the germ of the idea of what the show was going to be,” says Di Bona. “Certainly in America in 1989, variety was deader than a doornail. When I looked at it and saw the potential of these home videos and the contest, I said, ‘We don’t really need anything else.’”
A long-running TV staple was born, but it hasn’t been without bumps in the road. The series briefly ceased airing weekly, sitting out the year 2000 as a weekly show. It resumed in 2001 with Tom Bergeron taking over hosting duties. Prior to him, Bob Saget had originated the host role, staying with the show from 1989 to 1997, but Daisy Fuentes and John Fugelsang also had a brief stint in the position from 1998-99.
“I think what they found was a fallow period when Bob left,” says Rob Mills, ABC senior vice president of alternative series, specials and late night. “It left huge shoes to fill because he’s a comedy icon. They went in a different way by having more straight-down-the-middle hosts in John and Daisy. When Tom came in, he was a funny, warm presence, which is also what [current host] Alfonso [Ribeiro] is.”
Already renewed through the 2020-21 TV season, Mills credits executive producers Di Bona and Nasraway with keeping “AFV” on track, in part through the way they curate and order the show’s clips.
“What separates this show is that they know funny and funny videos better than anyone,” he says. “The fact that they rate every video and know how to shape a show [and order the videos] makes it impervious to anything that’s similar.”
As equally important as curating for funny, Di Bona says “AFV” intentionally targets multi-quadrant co-viewing.
“That’s the key to our show,” he says. “Parents can rest assured that if they go on the ‘AFV’ app on the iPad and select ‘dogs’ or ‘kids’ — you can actually select subject matter any time you want — they know it’s family-friendly, and they don’t have to worry about it and it’s the same thing within our show.”
Being welcoming to many demographics can be helpful with ratings, as well. Mills notes more viewers tune to “AFV” whenever an NFL game on a rival network ends.
“You’ll see this huge spike,” he says. “It’s the perfect show for anyone who was watching football to turn to. It moves quickly and it gives you the same kind of enjoyment as watching people get tackled on the field.”
As “AFV” enters its third decade, celebrated on-air with a docu-style anniversary special airing Dec. 8 on ABC, the show will continue to embrace new digital platforms as they develop. A new linear, quasi-spinoff is already in the works: Saget returns to host “Videos After Dark,” a slightly more risqué take on “AFV” that’s expected to air on ABC in 2020.
Producers say that in the current viral video era there’s no shortage of viewer interest in the type of short, funny video clips “AFV” accustomed viewers to watch, which only benefits the “AFV” brand.
Adds current show host Ribeiro, who took the reins in 2015: “Viral videos really started with ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos.’ ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos’ was YouTube before YouTube. One supports the other now. ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos’ doesn’t change, it just takes [viewers] out of their head-down-in-their-phone or computer or laptop or iPad [experience] and has them sit next to family members and bring it back to TV.”