||AMERICA'S FUNNIEST HOME VIDEOS
Members of the public send in their funniest video-captured moments.
It’s rare when modern technology makes a television series format possible. But that’s what happened with the camcorder and its ability to make anyone feel like Steven Spielberg. The all-in-one video camera and recorder was responsible for one of ABC’s longest running hits, a show that remains on the air to this day.
'America’s Funniest Home Videos' owes a debt of thanks to the late Alan Funt’s venerable 'Candid Camera', which caught people “in the act of being themselves”. But in the case of AFHV, Funt and his production crew was replaced with Middle America and its fascination with gadgets.
Until the 1980's, families that wanted moving records of their lives had to turn to home film cameras from Kodak and its competitors. The advent of the “Instamatic”cartridge format in the 1960's eliminated the need to thread a camera by hand, but you still needed a projector to show the film. Processing the film was relatively expensive compared with still pictures. And only a few camera makers allowed you to record dialogue along with the picture; those systems cost more to buy and edit compared with silent flicks.
The advent of the home video cassette recorder in the mid-1970's paved the way for a portable version. Early home systems required you to buy a camera (generally black and white) and hook it up to the home VCR, which limited your range considerably. Then came the two-piece “docking” system, allowing you to cart a heavy but battery operated VCR with your camera to shoot videos outdoors.
In the early 1980's, television newsrooms were being revolutionized by Electronic News Gathering (ENG). A one-piece camera and recorder allowed crews to shoot news and interviews instantly and play them back quickly, without the need to wait until film was processed and edited. (That delay led to the now-quaint catchphrase “Film at 11".) Sony–which dominated the ENG field–came out with the first camcorder for home use in 1985; others soon followed. Early models used the relatively bulky Beta or VHS format; they eventually gave way to eight millimetre tape formats, along with a smaller version of VHS called VHS-C (you had to use an adapter to play it on your home machine). But falling prices, good colour picture quality, cheap videotape and sound capability quickly made camcorders a hot item, and sent the old movie camera and projector to many an attic. (Today, the advent of recordable video discs are making videotape all but obsolete.)
In 1983, NBC aired a special featuring home videos, with 'Family Ties' star Michael J. Fox and Angie Dickinson co-hosting. The ratings were low, but then, relatively few people had home video equipment; it was simply ahead of its time.
By the late 1980's, Japan’s Tokyo Broadcasting began airing a popular variety show called 'Fun With Ken and Kato Chan'. It featured a segment that aired funny home videos from viewers. American television producer Vin Di Bona bought the rights to the video segment for the U.S. and convinced ABC into giving the format a try. Airing as a special in November 1989, Di Bona aired segments of various home videos (pets gone wild; humans hit with balls in the lower extremities; babies making messes–you get the idea). All the videos were “sweetened” with dialogue, sound effects and music as a live studio audience chose the best of the bunch to win a $10,000 prize. The special won high ratings and ABC quickly launched a half-hour series. America’s Funniest Home Videos made its debut on Sunday night, January 14th, 1990, replacing a short-lived sitcom called 'Free Spirit.'
With Bob Saget, the star of the popular ABC family comedy Full House as host–plus a catchy theme song and flashy production values–'America’s Funniest Home Videos' became the perfect family show for television’s most watched night. Within a few weeks, it reached the top ten; by March, it was television’s highest-rated series despite strong competition from CBS’ venerable Angela Lansbury mystery hour 'Murder, She Wrote.' Saget also benefitted from the show’s success; the stand-up comic and sitcom star became the first individual since CBS’ Arthur Godfrey to appear in two high-rated series in prime time every week.
By the fall of 1990, AFHV was joined on the ABC Sunday schedule by another Di Bona show 'America’s Funniest People.' Co-hosted by yet another 'Full House' cast member (in this case, Dave Coulier, joined by Arleen Sorkin), AFP was a more direct copy of 'Candid Camera' as producers staged stunts on unsuspecting people; others were invited to show off their unusual “talents”. During the 1991-92 season, both shows were among ABC’s highest-rated series (“Home Videos” ranked 20th; “Funniest People” was not far behind in 25th place). But as with so many fad programmes, the initial interest waned; by the fall of 1993, both series were moved an hour earlier to Sundays at 7:00, against CBS’ news magazine 60 Minutes. “Home Videos” did well against Mike Wallace and company, but “Funniest People” lost audience and was gone by the end of the season.
AFHV was a cheap show to produce, which made it easy for the network to plug in whenever a new series failed in another time slot. Saget left as host in 1997; the team of Daisy Fuentes and John Fugelsang took over from 1998 through August 1999, when ABC cancelled the series.
But in the summer of 2001, ABC brought the show back, this time with former morning show personality Tom Bergeron doing the hosting honours. With some minor tweaks in the format, AFHV did well enough to continue on the ABC schedule; it has since returned to its old Sunday at 7:00 PM timeslot, where it remains as of this writing.
At the show’s peak, viewers sent in about two thousand videos every day. Screeners make sure the contents are suitable for broadcast viewing (slapstick and animal antics are fine; extreme violence, vulgar situations and actual physical injury are not). If the clip is approved, the sender must sign a release allowing its broadcast. Producers then tweak the picture quality if necessary; add music or sound effects; and the hosts then records wisecracking voice-overs written by a team of writers. A live studio audience then views the resulting videos; producers gauge reaction and weed out the less-funny clips. The best of the bunch become part of a future AFHV episode. It’s a lot of work, but relatively cheap compared to a 30 minute sitcom–one reason ABC keeps the show on the schedule; the fact it draws younger viewers and adults also allows the network to charge more for advertising on “Home Videos” than many higher-rated series.
Critics may not like the show all that much, but 'America’s Funniest Home Videos' is truly a democratic programme in the best sense of the word–shot by average people and judged by their peers. As the theme song goes, “America, America, this is you!”
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