"America's Funniest Home Videos" drew nearly 33 million viewers when it debuted in 1989.
Its amateur footage of adults, children and pets captured in pratfalls made the show ABC's longest-running prime-time entertainment program, and created the concept of "user-generated videos" long before the advent of YouTube.
But after 24 years on the air, "AFV's" audience has dwindled to 6.3 million viewers per episode, according to Nielsen.
So Executive Producer Vin Di Bona and former ABC executive Bruce Gersh have created an independent production company, FishBowl WorldWide Media, to look for new ways to mine "AFV's" massive video library. FishBowl has digitized the 1 million home videos submitted to "AFV" over the last quarter-century, categorized them and deposited them into a digital media warehouse so the clips can be recycled and reused online, and in other ways.
Some of the "Funniest" staples — those adorable pet and baby videos, and the spectacular trips, falls and collisions that Internet denizens now describe as "fail" videos — are reaching new screens and audiences.
These homegrown video shorts now form the foundation of five YouTube channels: Petsami, Toddletale, CuteWinFail, Lindo Victoria Fracaso and AFV, which together have drawn nearly 78 million online views. That doesn't include the viewership from fan channels such as Best AFV on U2be, which posts clips of home improvement projects gone awry, animal mishaps and "flat-out strange behavior," and which has logged more than 63 million views. All told, these slapstick snippets have garnered about 130 million views on YouTube.
"It's kind of cool and interesting that this brand, well before YouTube was born, was steeped in this fan-sharing of content and moments," said Malik Ducard, YouTube's director of content partnerships. "It's appropriate that we should be really working together today."
FishBowl has partnered with the digital media company Fullscreen to help identify people using "AFV's" clips on YouTube without permission and to help capitalize on these videos. Fullscreen also plans to draw from its pool of emerging YouTube talent — which includes filmmaker Devin Super Tramp and Andre Meadows, star of "Black Nerd Comedy" — to produce original programming that incorporates "America's Funniest Home Videos" clips.
"I think the potential is pretty massive," said Fullscreen Founder and Chief Executive George Strompolos.
FishBowl also created a video licensing library to make its vast catalog of amateur videos available for use in feature films, Internet marketing, national TV campaigns and even live events and trade shows. Gersh described the business as the home-video equivalent of Getty Images, which sells stock images and footage.
"It's the first time that we've actually put it out on a platform, as opposed to the way it's been handled over the course of time — which is 'Brand X' needs a clip for their baby commercial, they call us, we then license that clip," Gersh said.
Gersh and Di Bona met at ABC, where Gersh was a senior vice president responsible for identifying and managing digital business opportunities for network shows and those produced by ABC Studios. "America's Funniest Home Videos" was a centerpiece of ABC.com's early Web strategy, Gersh said.
The duo launched FishBowl in January 2010 and assembled a creative team with experience developing scripted and reality programs. FishBowl has sold several original series for the Web and television, including the digital series "Ultimate Proposal" to Yahoo; a VH-1 reality show about unconventional couples, called "I'm Married to a ..."; and "Tone It Up," for Bravo, featuring best friends and roommates who become the unlikely "it girls" of fitness after launching their own popular YouTube channel.
At the same time, FishBowl began the process of exploiting "America's Funniest Home Videos'" massive catalog of videos — which grows by 3,500 new submissions a week — for the Web. It modernized the process for obtaining the rights to use the material in fresh ways, reshaped the clips to make them shorter (and appeal to the abbreviated digital appetite) and re-categorized them.
"The show was looking for specific funny things," Gersh said. "Whereas in digital ... we're now able to tap into it for things that would never be part of any of these TV shows."
John Saade, ABC's executive vice president of alternative series, said distributing some "America's Funniest Home Videos" clips online will doubtless "give a little bit of a tail wind to the show." However, the secret to the show's enduring success is its careful curation and the way one video is juxtaposed against the next, to heighten the humor.
In the show's earliest days, Di Bona's television production company would receive 30 mail bags a day filled with VHS tapes. Now, 40% of the submissions come via mobile upload from smartphones.
But the mechanics of producing "America's Funniest Home Videos" hasn't changed much since its debut.
Screeners watch every clip in its entirety, rate it on a scale of 1 to 10 and describe the funny bits in meticulous detail on an index card. Every card is categorized, then grouped with similar video segments. These paper-clipped piles of homegrown humor are stuck with pushpins into a gray corkboard wall that rings three sides of the writers room, and gradually form the comedic spine of individual shows.
After the reel of clips is finalized, writers develop a script for host Tom Bergeron, and each show is taped in front of a live audience. The clips that fail to produce a laugh are pulled from "America's Funniest Home Videos" before it airs.
Even though viewers can watch these clips on new screens and in new ways, the essence of what people find funny hasn't changed with the times, Di Bona said. Audiences seem to connect to these unfiltered, unrehearsed vignettes of everyday life.
"We capture the American lifestyle," Di Bona said. "Whether it's a birthday party or a picnic, a pinata, a ball game, unfortunately, a hit to the crotch, weddings, bullfights. The reason the show still is a mainstay is ... how we put together what's captured."
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