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Even in the age of YouTube, ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos’ is still an ABC hit

After 27 years, “America’s Funniest Home Videos” is still a hit. (July 18, 2017)

After Megyn Kelly’s NBC News interview with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones generated a week of publicity-drawing controversy, radio host Howard Stern poked fun at the program’s modest ratings.

“She got beat by cats on a skateboard and little kids slipping in pools,” said Stern, noting how Kelly’s program June 18 had been topped by “America’s Funniest Home Videos” on ABC.

Vin Di Bona, the longtime executive producer of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” said there were no cats on skateboards on his show that week. But he certainly could have come up with one from the vast library of clips from the 27-year-old series that has depended on user-generated content since before most of the public had even heard of the Internet.

Although it’s not the mammoth audience draw that it was in the 1990s, “America’s Funniest Home Videos” remains a surprisingly popular show for millions of families every Sunday night. Even though videos of mischievous kids, wedding receptions gone awry, pet mishaps, and yes, people getting hit in the crotch, are ubiquitous on YouTube and other online sites, an average of 5.5 million people tuned in each week to watch “AFV” during the 2016-17 TV season. During the summer, it wins the 7 p.m. hour Sundays in the 18-to-49 age group most sought by advertisers, even against repeats of the other TV institution in the time period, the CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes.”

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In May, ABC renewed “AFV” for two more years, which will bring it to 29 seasons, making it the network’s longest running entertainment series. The show is now hosted by actor Alfonso Ribeiro.

We have people who say they watched the show as kids showing up at the tapings with their own children.
Vin Di Bona

“We have people who say they watched the show as kids showing up at the tapings with their own children,” Di Bona said.

Family viewing is probably what has sustained “AFV” over the years. Di Bona noted how at the end of a weekend, people are still in the habit of settling down in front of a conventional TV set. Of all the prime-time shows on broadcast TV last season, “AFV” had the highest percentage of adult viewers under age 50 who watch with a child or a teenager, which makes it attractive to advertisers.

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Although a growing number of viewers delay watching their shows through DVR or streaming, 93% of “AFV” viewers watch the show when it airs in its time period, which means they are not zipping through the commercials.

“It’s a throwback to another time where the family would all sit together and everybody can enjoy it,” said Ted Harbert, the former chairman of NBC Broadcasting.

Preston Beckman, a TV consultant and former network executive, said when the program first launched it was a precursor to the current age in which everyone with a smartphone can create video content. “All of a sudden people controlled the means of communication, not just a small group of professionals,” he said. “It’s the beginning of what Snapchat and social media is. You needed a broadcast network to send it to everyone but that is pretty much what it was.”

“America’s Funniest Home Videos” was born just as the camcorder and VCR machine reached critical mass in U.S. households in 1989. Di Bona was a TV producer whose credits included a game show called “Animal Crack-Ups” and an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning documentary about the glory days of the Dunbar Hotel in Los Angeles. He approached Harbert, then an entertainment executive for ABC, with some amusing home video clips that appeared on a Japanese TV variety show. Harbert recalled how the network bought ads in TV Guide and People asking for people to send in their home videos to be used in an adaptation for a U.S. audience.

The tapes came in and Di Bona and his crew of editors went to work. With comedian Bob Saget providing wise-cracking commentary and made-up dialogue during the clips, “America’s Funniest Home Videos” aired as a special on a Sunday night in November 1989 and was watched by 32 million people.

Di Bona still recalls the terror he experienced when Harbert and his boss at the time, Bob Iger, now chairman of Walt Disney Co., fast-tracked an order for 11 more episodes that season. “After the meeting Bob Iger told Ted Harbert, ‘He’ll never be able to make 11 episodes,’” Di Bona said. “And l looked at my agent and said, ‘How am I going to make 11 episodes?’”

Di Bona did make them — followed by 600 more episodes — as the program became a Sunday TV tradition. Along with its run on ABC and in syndication, “AFV” currently airs in 193 territories throughout the world. About 25 more territories have their own local versions of the format. Di Bona said he gets special treatment when he travels to overseas locations where the show is a hit.

After “America’s Funniest Home Videos” became a top-five program in the Nielsen ratings in 1990, the Hollywood post office received 1,500 bags of videocassette entries daily from camcorder-wielding fans seeking a weekly $10,000 prize and a $100,000 grand prize given each season.

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The emergence of YouTube and other sites have only increased the amount of content available to “AFV.” (“AFV” has its own YouTube channel and Facebook page where fans can deluge themselves with clips on demand.) Snail mail entries are down to a trickle, but 5,000 video entries are now uploaded to the producers each week.

There is no built-in life span for this show. The video revolution assures a constant product flow.
TV analyst Larry Gerbrandt

That people still send their clips into “AFV” to compete for a moment of network TV glory and a chance at a $10,000 cash prize fulfills a prediction that TV analyst Larry Gerbrandt made about the program to the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “There is no built-in life span for this show,” he said. “The video revolution assures a constant product flow.”

“AFV,” which is co-owned by Di Bona and ABC, was staggeringly profitable in its early years, earning as much as $100 million annually, according to Harbert, who believes the show has made more than $1 billion over its run. The show’s audience peaked in the 1991-92 TV season with an average of 25 million viewers an episode, a number well out of reach of most prime-time shows in today’s fragmented TV environment.

Even with much lower ratings and revenue, “AFV” is still a profit center for the network. Advertisers spent $27 million on “America’s Funniest Home Videos” last season, according to data from Standard Media Index. ABC would not disclose the program’s profits or costs, but the budget is substantially less than that of a scripted TV show.

“It does great for us,” said Robert Mills, senior vice president of alternative series, specials and late night programming for ABC Entertainment. “It’s the first example of user generated content so there are not huge salaries to pay and it’s relatively low cost, although they make it look as good as any studio show on television.”

Some of Di Bona’s producers have been with the program since its launch and understand what clips will make the audience laugh. “They are doctors of humor and they’ve put in their 10,000 hours,” Mills said.

Di Bona and his staff of around 40 people pay close attention to details. He directs the program himself and sees that the audiences for the tapings at Manhattan Beach Studios are filled with young people who look presentable enough to be guests in anyone’s home on a Sunday night. Many of them arrive as part of church groups who are recruited to fill the seats. A cash prize is offered at each taping for the best-dressed man and woman in attendance.

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Harbert said that Di Bona is a pretty decent dresser himself after being a partner in a hit show that’s lasted for nearly three decades.

“I’ve always said Vin Di Bona has the softest sports coats of anybody in the world,” Harbert said. “He’s done quite well.”

stephen.battaglio@latimes.com

Twitter: @SteveBattaglio

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