I have distinct memories of watching America’s Funniest Home Videos with my family as a kid. My siblings and I would settle into positions on or around my parents' bed, and watch and laugh at the videos of people belly-flopping and tripping over themselves. It felt very American (my parents are not) to derive pleasure from the accidents of strangers on TV, and it was strangely comforting to get permission to enjoy mindless, schaudenfraude-based entertainment.
AFV, as the show is called, kicked off its 26th season on ABC (full disclosure: a Fusion parent company) last weekend with new host Alfonso Ribeiro, who is better known as Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The show's ratings have slipped in recent years, as cable clip shows like The Soup and Tosh.0 and YouTube's infinite supply of cat-does-blank videos have cut into its territory. Last year, the show didn’t break the top 100 primetime programs on ABC.
But a ratings decline may not matter much. That's because, over the last four years, America's Funniest Home Videos has quietly turned itself from a beloved TV franchise into a digital juggernaut. AFV’s Facebook page has an astounding 9.4 million likes—more than BuzzFeed and The Bachelor combined—and, notably, people are watching the videos they post. In August, AFV racked up 2.8 million Facebook video shares, according to NewsWhip, making it the 7th most shared video page on Facebook, ahead of much bigger digital operations like BuzzFeed Video, Vocativ, and The Huffington Post.
The show is enjoying digital success on other platforms, as well. Over the past few weeks, at least three Vines posted to AFV's official account have topped one million loops — numbers usually reserved for Vine stars, rather than big corporate brands.
How did AFV survive extinction at the hands of BuzzFeed, Ebaumsworld, Funny Or Die, and legions of social media platforms hosting phone-shot bloopers?
As it turns out, the story of AFV's social media makeover mirrors the story of lots of old-line businesses trying to compete against younger upstarts: The change arrives, then the fight against it, and finally, the embrace.
The first viral aggregator
AFV was supposed to be a one-off occurrence. In October 1989, a New York Times article mentioned as an aside that ABC would air a network special called "America's Funniest Home Videos" sometime in November. The Times reporter used ABC's executive Ted Harbert's words to categorize it as a "reality-based filler special."
The concept of the show was straightforward and original, at least in the U.S. The franchise was inspired by a segment on a Japanese variety show, Fun With Ken and Kaito Chan, and early clips were borrowed from Japanese home video shows. They served as models for American viewers, who would eventually send their own tapes in by the thousands. The pilot was so successful that ABC picked it up as a series. Show creator Vin Di Bona recalled those early days in a recent interview with The Wrap, saying "After the pilot aired, two days later, the network said to me, ‘We’d like you to do 11 more shows. Can you deliver them?'”
By 1990, the series was rated among Nielsen's top ten. That year, the New York Times called AFV the "hottest show on the schedule," but questioned how long it would be able to keep the nation's attention:
The times may be ripe for featherbrained entertainment, for aggressive escapism. Struggling with the inescapable realities of John Poindexter and Oliver L. North, growing debts on every possible level, drug wars and homelessness, Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken and failed savings-and-loan associations, American viewers - and this show is getting an ideal advertiser profile of teen-agers, and young adults and slightly older women -may understandably be desperate for fluff.
But the show was a mega hit for years and years after it debuted. The Museum of Broadcast and Communications described the impact of the show in 1995, during AFV's sixth season, noting that "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." According to the Museum, AFV beat out 60 Minutes for Nielsen's top spot in 1990. It peaked with an average of, a whopping 38 million viewers per episode that year — a figure nearly double what The Big Bang Theory raked in last year. And per the museum, still "regularly won its time period among children, teenagers, and women and men ages 18 to 34."
In 2006, Entertainment Weekly described the show bluntly: "It cannot be canceled." EW reported at the time that in the previous season, about 9 million viewers tuned in to AFV each week, adding that "it’s been scheduled on almost every night of the week… When it was yanked in 1999, subsequent specials did well enough that the network reordered it as a series in 2001." CBS executive VP Kelly Kahl told EW, "it's one of the greatest utility players in TV history.”
That was right around the time AFV's biggest challenge arrived, in the form of a video startup called YouTube.
The YouTube threat arrives
There's no logical reason for AFV to exist in the age of YouTube. The video platform allows would-be viral stars to do on their own what AFV would have done for them years ago. If you think you've got a hit on your hands, you can upload it to your channel, share it from your social network, and wait for the internet to sweep it up and make you famous. Why submit it to a network television show and leave your fate in the hands of faceless executives? And, for young viewers, YouTube is an immediately satisfying, natural watching experience. It would be weird for anyone who grew up with the internet to rely on TV for user-generated content.
Last year, as AFV celebrated 25 years on the air, Di Bona told The Wrap that when YouTube become popular, he was scared: "We fought YouTube tooth and nail for the first three or four years when it first came out." Di Bona said in a 2011 interview that some of his early battles against YouTube involved fightings its claim to fair use of AFV clips. In his words:
I was very angry about all of the ripping off of our clips on the web. I think there’s a place for discussion in which “fair usage” makes sense; however, if mishandled and overindulged, “fair usage” can destroy and dilute our products. I’ve swung both ways, I used to say “let’s sue the bastards”, but recently I’ve created little webisodes with people who had been “borrowing” material from AFV.
I asked Michele Nasraway, an AFV executive producer who has been with the show since 1990, if there were times when she feared for the show's future. She told me in an email that "there were moments of concern when technology changed and when YouTube became a household name," adding, "we started to see our unattributed content all over the platform and we couldn’t control what we felt was rampant thievery at the time. And we were worried that the popularity of YouTube as a competitor."
Lisa Black, Executive Vice President of Content, Revenue, and Business Development at Vin Di Bona Productions —which produces the show — told Variety last year that "He hired all these lawyers and had takedown notices on YouTube." But Di Bona soon changed his tune.
Don't beat the viral internet, join it
Eventually, Di Bona said, the AFV team realized YouTube wasn't going away. And the only way to beat them was to join them. He told The Wrap in 2014, "About three years ago, we decided there’s never going to be a way we can fight it. So, instead, we decided to learn how to engage our audience with some of these new platforms." Di Bona worked with YouTube, and went hard on other platforms, signing a deal with Imgur to deliver AFV moments as branded GIFS and one with Disney's Maker Studios to bring YouTube celebrities into the AFV fold. Shay Carl, for example, hosted a 17-episode series called ShayTV. On the first show, he pulled a prank seen in an old AFV clip on his kids:
Other YouTube stars recreated old clips themselves in a segment called "AFV Do Overs," which appeared on AFV's own YouTube channel. Some appeared on air.
AFV didn't have to embrace the new platforms, however.Variety reported last year that they could have taken another route:
Instead of approaching the image-hosting site with demands to remove its content, “AFV” opted to try to harness the viral user trend. “They’re coming at it from the right perspective, saying, ‘Let’s figure out how we retain attribution, and be part of the conversation,” said Imgur COO Matt Strader.
Di Bona recognized the importance of committing to social media. That, plus a lucky Facebook quirk, helped keep AFV alive.
A gift from Facebook's algorithm
AFV did not always have such a mammoth Facebook page. Black told me over the phone that AFV's Facebook presence was negligible when she joined the team four years ago. "I don’t even know if there was a Facebook page," at the time, she told me, adding that if there was one, it had a fraction of the fans it does today — maybe 100,000.
Growing a Facebook fan base from 100,000 to more than 9 million over the space of four years is an unbelievable achievement, and it's possible some of that growth can be attributed to a change in Facebook's product. In 2010, Adweek reported that Facebook planned to convert "interests" to likes on Community Pages. So people who signed up for Facebook before 2010 and listed "America's Funniest Home Videos" as one of their favorite TV shows would have almost automatically become fans of the AFV community page set up by Facebook. That page would most likely have been absorbed by the official AFV page, which could explain the exponential expansion.
Plus, AFV is drawing from a well of evergreen content that other social media managers usually have to scour the web for. AFV's digital team has access to an AFV clip library that has, over the years, amassed roughly one million submissions, says Black. And users are sending in videos of themselves doing possibly viral things at incredible rates, as well — Black figures the show gets between 3,500 and 5,000 videos per week. Each clip, she says, is optimized per platform. "You can take [one] clip and put it on another platform and… cut it a different way, and it’ll feel different. [You can] cut it with different music, use faster editing, use different graphics, or you could cut it a different way." That way, the Facebook demographic (mostly moms, says Black) sees a different video than, say, the Vine demographic (younger, evenly split between male and female, per Black) even though the source clip is the same.
For now, she says, Facebook remains AFV's "largest and most engaged," platform, and Vine its most creative. This year, Black says, her team will launch Snapchat, and "do a lot more" on YouTube.
Protecting the legacy
Still, old fans don't explain the rich engagement AFV sees on Facebook today. Black says she thinks the show has seen such marked success on social platforms because AFV clips are inherently shareable. "Folks wanted to pass it along to show that they found it first or for some type of social currency, or just to share with family members."
Di Bona also, however, saw the internets' shortcomings. He told The Wrap, "You can look through YouTube and one out of 10 clips is funny. If you want to laugh for an hour, good luck.”
In a panic to stay relevant, AFV could have ditched any number of its tenets: It could have tried to be more serious, tried to be more edgy, strayed from the model of short funny clips. But though AFV has expanded its offering on different platforms, it hasn't strayed from its stated goal. "[Vin's] guarantee is you'll get ten belly laughs per episode," Black told me, adding, "that is always our mission across digital and social platforms, how do you give people a piece of content that really is a belly laugh."
And economically, AFV jumped on the user-generated content (UGC) bandwagon years before it was common. That means it was relying on viewers to produce long before Buzzfeed Community invited readers to generate their own posts, HuffPost turned to unpaid bloggers for page views or Jukin helped license viral videos. AFV blurred the line between viewer and participant when those lines were still sharp, predicting the industry-wide breakdown still happening today. The show was welcomed by ABC as a cheap win, with low production costs, limited on-air talent, and a cash prize that amounts to a pittance for the network. Last year, Di Bona told Bloomberg the company is raking in some cash from YouTube, as well:
Di Bona declined to share revenue numbers for AFV. But the digital investments, he says, are paying off by tapping into new sources of revenue such as the ballooning advertising market on YouTube—where net global advertising revenue is expected to reach $3.4 billion this year, according to EMarketer—and driving viewers back to the TV show. “We’ve had a big resurgence this year because of the digital,” he says.
Seeking Alpha has pointed to the partnership with Makers as a turning point for AFV's financial position on YouTube, noting that "since placing clips on YouTube via Maker Studios and its management took over, the number of people viewing America's Funniest Home Videos has skyrocketed from a decent two million to an extraordinary 20 million views a month."
Today, the show has streamlined its submission process. Rather than send in VHS tapes by mail, users can update their clips directly to AFV's website. The clip must be free of music and graphics, and cannot contain illegal or copyrighted material. And, per the site's terms of service, uploading your content means "perpetual royalty-free, exclusive worldwide grant of rights."
Sometimes, the show reaches out for content itself, tracking down a video gaining steam on YouTube. In these cases, the rules remain strict. Wired explained a few years ago:
If a video is starting to gain traction but has yet to hit 50,000 views, AFV will ask the uploader to take it off the web (or at least set it to private) and submit it to the show… To amateur videographers, such an offer presents a dilemma. Do you turn your clip over to the AFV vaults, where it could very well languish forever? Or do you set it loose on the web in hopes of selling a few T-shirts and maybe earning the honor of being razzed on Kimmel?
Handing over exclusive rights to a clip is a gamble for users—but a gamble that could lead to a $100,000 prize and, of course, the chance to appear on a network TV show.
Everything old is new again
It's hard not to see traces of AFV in most of how we consume media today. Wired noted in 2011 that the show's success has inspired a number of spinoffs:
The AFV format has proved so enduring, it has spawned a slew of aggressive competitors. There are now sites like FAIL Blog and the Daily What, as well as TV shows like Jimmy Kimmel Live, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and Tosh.0,scouring the web for hits.
If AFV had become irrelevant, the way many of its contemporaries have, we we would ourselves have memorialized it, in GIF or list or Tumblr-to-coffee-table-book form by now. Instead it remains alive, chugging steadily along year after year, a reminder not of how different things used to be, but of how much they've stayed the same.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.