A peculiar variant of reality-based television programming, America's Funniest Home Videos (AFHV), first aired as a Thanksgiving special in 1989, and later debuted on 14 January 1990 as a regular series on ABC. The show still maintains respectable ratings in its sixth season and is due for syndication in 1995 by MTM Television Distribution. The program's simple premise--to solicit and exhibit a series of humorous video clips shot by amateurs who compete for cash prizes--has had a surprisingly enduring run in its half-hour slot at 7:00 P.M. in the Sunday night schedule.
Rooted generally in the sub-genre of its comical, voyeuristic predecessors, such as Candid Camera, TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes, and Life's Most Embarrassing Moments, AFHV more particularly owes its genesis to a weekly variety show produced by the Tokyo Broadcasting Company, Fun with Ken and Kato Chan, which featured a segment in which viewers were invited to mail in their home video clips. Vin Di Bona, who had earlier success with other TBC properties, eventually purchased U.S. rights to the Japanese concept. As executive producer, Di Bona expanded the segment into a half-hour hybrid of home video, variety show, stand up comedy, and audience participation synthesized to fit the ABC profile of family viewing.
Although indebted to a prevalence of reality-based programs when it debuted, AFHV had a far greater and more immediate impact on weekly ratings than any of its predecessors or imitators. Cracking the Nielsen Top 5 after only six episodes, by March of 1990 it had become the number one ranked series, temporarily unseating CBS's 60 Minutes, a feat no other ABC program had been able to achieve in twelve years. Since then, it has regularly won its time period among children, teenagers, and women and men ages 18 to 34.
At the series' peak of popularity, producers reported receiving close to 2,000 video submissions a day. These tapes, eventually sorted out by screeners for broadcast approval, must meet criteria that render them suitable for family audiences. First and foremost, qualifying videos should portray funny, amazing, or unexpected events in everyday life, such as animal antics, blunders at birthday parties, bloopers during wedding ceremonies, and fouled plays at sporting events. Because the series emphasizes the supposed universality and spontaneity of slapstick humor, tapes that depict extreme violence, offensive conduct, and serious physical injury, or that encourage imitative behavior, are strictly forbidden. Deliberately staged videos, such as parodies of advertisements or lip-synching of popular songs, may be accepted, but in general events rigged to look accidental or spontaneous are disqualified (or were reserved for Di Bona's follow-up program, America's Funniest People, now defunct, but created especially to accommodate staged video performances).
Once a clip is approved, its creators and performers must sign releases for broadcast authorization. Then follows a process during which clips are adjusted for uniform quality and matched in terms of production values; are embellished with sound effects and wisecracking voice-overs by host Bob Saget; are organized as a montage related to a loose theme (e.g. dogs, talent shows, skiing); and finally, are nestled into the format of the program. Each episode is first taped before a live studio audience, during which the clips are broadcast upon studio monitors so that the series' producers can gauge audience reaction. After subsequent reviews of the taping, producers pass on their recommendations to the staff, who edit out the less successful moments before the program is broadcast nationwide. Although labor-intensive, this method of television production is a relative bargain, costing less per episode than the average sitcom, and of course was soon imitated (for example, by Fox's Totally Hidden Video).
Television critics have been somewhat puzzled by the continued success of AFHV, many having panned the series as yet another illustration of the American public's increasing willingness to broadcast their most private and embarrassing moments. Several hypotheses for the series' popularity have been cited: the urge of the viewing public to get on television in order to secure their fifteen minutes of fame; the possibility of winning a $10,000 cash prize; the all expenses paid weekend trip to Hollywood to attend studio tapings; the charisma of host Bob Saget, the first performer since Arthur Godfrey to star in two concurrent, high-rated series (the other being Full House); the universal identification with everyday life fundamental to home movies and home video; and the sheer fun of producing television about and for oneself. The series' producers, however, cite the program's humor as the key to its success. Taking the "Bullwinkle approach" that provokes different kinds of laughter from both children and their parents, AFHV not only seeks to attract a wide demographic, but self-consciously mocks itself as insignificant, harmless fun.
Despite its overt lack of pretension, AFHV remains significant on several accounts, especially its international origins and appeal. Banking upon the perceived cross-cultural universality of home video productions, Di Bona had conceived of the series as international from its inception. AFHV can be seen in at least 70 countries and in more than a dozen languages (it is rumored to be the favorite show of the Sultan of Brunei). Di Bona has subsequently sold the format rights to producers in other nations, at least 16 of which have created their own versions, while others merely replace Saget with indigenous hosts. Most international affiliates also have clip trade agreements; AFHV itself liberally blends domestic and imported clips (blurring the title's emphasis on "America" and pointing to television's partnership in global capitalism).
Also significant is the series' premise that the typical consumers of television may become its producers--that the modes of television reception and production are more dialogic than unidirectional. This inversion, as well as the format's unique hybridization of genres, results in peculiar effects worthy of investigation: the professional's commissioning of the amateur for commercial exploitation; the home video's simultaneous status as folk art and mass media; the promise of reward through competition that re-inflects the home mode of production's typical naiveté and non-commercial motivation with formal contrivance and financial incentives; the stress on comedy which excludes the banal everyday activities most typical of home video; and, finally, the format's allowance for a studio audience to vote for and reward their favorite video clip, maintaining the illusion of home video's folksy character, while the ten thousand dollar first prize reifies the slapstick conventions which the producers seek and that keep home viewers tuning in.
Bob Saget, Tom Bergeron
Vin Di Bona, Steve Paskay
January 1990-- Sunday 8:00-8:30
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