David Zaslav, Montel Williams and the Man Behind 25 Years of AFV

Lunch At Michaels

LunchAtMichaelsWe’re still recovering from Michael’s 25th anniversary party last week, but this being Wednesday we had to make our rounds at 55th and Fifth and found there were plenty of moguls on the menu (David Zaslav, Matt Blank) and the usual suspects were present and accounted for. There must be something in the air with anniversaries because my lunch companion, prolific producer Vin Di Bona, was in town celebrating the silver anniversary of his signature creation, America’s Funniest Home Videos (AFV).

Vin Di Bona and Diane Clehane
Vin Di Bona and Diane Clehane

The dapper and affable Vin agreed to meet early for lunch today because this afternoon he was the keynote speaker at the NYC Television Week Next TV Summit at the Affinia Manhattan hotel. Tonight, he’s appearing on Bloomberg TV. With no time to waste, we got right down to it. In 2007, AFV became the longest-running primetime entertainment show on ABC. In 2012, AFV celebrated a milestone 500th episode, an accomplishment previously achieved by only three other primetime entertainment shows: Lassie, Gunsmoke and The Simpsons. How, I asked, do he and his team keep the show fresh after 25 years? “It’s the base of our audience. It’s a family audience. Ninety-three percent of our audience watch the show live.” No small accomplishment in this era of on-demand programming, I noted, to which Vin added: “Our show is a family event. People love to come together to watch it with their families.”

While over the years the show has been called a “relic of a bygone time” and “The uncoolest show on TV,” it seems to me that is, in fact, the essence of its appeal. And the show is getting the last laugh. It has remained a constant in a swirling sea of blink-and-you-missed-it television trends and wannabes, a true original that knows what it is, knows what the audience wants and delivers it — and then some.

Twenty-five years after unveiling its first piano-playing chickens, wedding disasters (my personal favorites), backyard trampoline bumblers and groin bashers (“We have to be careful not to do too many of those!”) — and nine years after YouTube seemed poised to dethrone the show as the go-to source for funny videos — AFV is still going strong. Last season, Nielsen ranked it the No. 1 show for family viewing. And, Vin told me, this summer reruns climbed 11 percent among young adults compared with last year.

That is due, in part, said Vin, to the show’s decision to embrace and leverage social media and extend the show into different platforms. “Three or four years ago, I spent a lot of time, money and energy trying to stop the sharing (of our content),” he told me. “Then I learned we could benefit from the eyeballs and the awareness and also by making people who watch the show part of the experience.” AFV is now a hub of Vine videos and gifs, active on Pinterest and is working with YouTube star Shay Carl (“His fanbase is incredible!”), airing his videos on the show after he’s premiered them on his own site. The show is now streamed on Netflix, Google and Amazon. All of this has been a boon to AFV, said Vin, adding: “Sponsors are lining up to get on the show.”

As for the presumed threat of YouTube, said Vin: “Anyone that goes to the site knows that you can click on 12 or 13 videos before you actually find one that is really funny. We curate our videos. Every one of them is funny.”

And that’s no easy task. Vin told me there’s a whole army of screeners, who do nothing but watch the submissions (3,500 a week!) and “they can’t fast forward or they’ll miss something” and after the show’s writers have gone through a series of five passes on the show, Vin reviews everything. “Sometimes we disagree” — but he’s the final say. One thing the team agrees on is every video must be vetted for safety. In this era of daredevil acts designed solely to guarantee the participants overnight fame or infamy, Vin told me there is no place for that kind of video on the show. “There are other places and shows for those, and we tend not to get them because the audience knows what we stand for.” What’s his all-time favorite clip? “The next funniest clip — because then I know we have a show.”

It was recently announced that host Tom Bergeron, who has hosted the show for the past 14 seasons, is stepping down at the end of this milestone year. Vin declined to discuss who might be in the running as his successor but revealed that “we’ll begin making some choices in March or April.”

While AFV is Vin’s most famous property, as CEO of Vin Di Bona Productions and chairman of FishBowl Worldwide Media (Hey, catchy company name!), Vin is a four-time Emmy-award-winning producer and eight-time Emmy nominee, as well as recipient of the prestigious Peabody Award for his work in documentary programming. His other reality-based specials and series include America’s Funniest People, I Survived a Disaster, The Big Moment, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Show Me the Funny, Extraordinary World of Animals, Meet the Marks, The Dating Experiment and Animal Crack-Ups, the first show produced under his own banner in 1986. Animal Crack-Ups, like AFV, was based on a show from the Tokyo Broadcasting System, making Di Bona the first television producer to import a Japanese format to the United States.

In addition to executive producing and directing AFV, Di Bona is currently executive producer on several FishBowl Worldwide Media television show, including Upload with Shaquille O’Neal for truTV and Bravo’s Toned Up. He currently has nine projects that have been given the greenlight for pilots. Reality television is his niche, he said, explaining while he’s tried scripted programs, he’s leaving that for the other Hollywood suits. “I learned I could swim upstream pretty fast, but not against a waterfall.” As long as there are talking dogs, talented babies, bridezillas run amok, I’m sure there’s more than enough fodder for Vin to draw from to make it to another milestone anniversary a few years from now.

Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:

1. Mickey Ateyeh feting designer Angela Cummings. Among the table full of power gals: Cindy Lewis and Colleen Caslin

2. Andrew Stein

3. Sony’s Steve Mosko

4. Heiress Kate Johnson, who is Burt Reynold‘s ex, so we’re told

5. Stan Shuman

6. Dr. Gerald Imber, Jerry Della Femina and Michael Kramer

7. Vin Di Bona and yours truly

8. New York Social Diary‘s David Patrick Columbia and Alex Hitz

9. PR maven Lynn Tesoro

11. Showtime’s Matt Blank who, last week told me, The Affair would heat up considerably starting this week and was true to his word. We’re hooked!

12. Montel Williams

14. Discovery Communications’ honcho David Zaslav who, of course, was wearing requisite mogulwear: a signature logoed vest

15. Patricia Kluge and Kip Forbes

16. Stewart Resnick and his wife, who, we’re told, are “billionaires.” How nice for them.

17. John Sykes

18. Ed Rollins and Ron Dozoretz

20. Author Wednesday Martin

21. Discovery ID’s Henry Schleiff

22. David Corvo

23. Jack Kliger

24. The Wall Street Journal’s David Sanford and Lewis Stein with a mystery guest…

25. Tom Goodman and Arthur Sando

26. Gannett’s Maryam Banikam

27. Marshall Brickman

28. Chris Pierce of The New York Jets

81. WWD‘s Alexandra Steigrad

Diane Clehane is a contributor to FishbowlNY. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Please send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.