HRTS Member Profile: Vin Di Bona
Vin Di Bona is Chairman of Vin Di Bona Productions and is one of the pioneers of reality television. I recently had a chance to sit down with Vin to discuss reality television, Steve Jobs and a unique perspective on YouTube.
Q: Can you tell us about your background and what made you want to work in entertainment?
-I started when I was nine or ten years old. I was enrolled in a dramatic group for youngsters in Rhode Island. I really enjoyed being on stage, the group also did a live dramatic radio show Saturday mornings on WPAW in Pawtucket. We must have had five listeners, but it was live radio and it was really exciting. I started singing at 11 and later, at 15, I took lessons in New York with Carlo Menotti at Carnegie Hall. That same year, 1959, I recorded my first record in Nashville with Floyd Kramer, The Jordanaires and The Anita Kerr Singers as backup. The record, My Arms, became a regional hit in New England, New York and Pennsylvania. To promote My Arms, I became involved in doing television shows much like local versions of Dick Clark’s AMERICAN BANDSTAND.
When I decided to go to college, Emerson in Boston was my first choice. As a freshman, I was a radio major. And in my sophomore year I got to do television. My first assignment was to produce a simple 30-second commercial, it was one camera with music, announce, super-graphic and then Fade To Black-- scared the living bejesus out of me. I was convinced that I was never going to get into television, until I did the second assignment and found it much easier…even enjoyable. My friend Jeff Goldstein and I created a dance party show on our local college TV station and we called it THE HELP SHOW, based around the Beatles song. It got me loving directing television both from the standpoint of a performer and producer.
For graduate school, I chose UCLA; however, I didn’t feel comfortable directing dramatic, scripted pieces but I really enjoyed studying about and making documentaries. There at UCLA, I was lucky enough to meet one of the world’s greatest documentarians, Basil Wright. He had done some great work for the British documentary unit, the GPO. He befriended me and I really began to develop a knack for documentaries. My thesis film was about hobos that lived in the Santa Barbara area. I spent three weeks living at the rescue mission and out at campsites by the railroad tracks. With four other hobos, I hopped a freight train with the camera rolling on my shoulder and rode the rails in an open flat bed car up to San Luis Obispo.
Directly after grad school, I landed a job as a documentary cameraman in Boston at WBZ-TV. During the nine year stint at ‘BZ, I produced and directed over 75 documentaries and hundreds of live shows. I came back to Los Angeles in 1977 and, after nine months of pounding the pavement, landed a job at KNXT, now KCBS, to do their live specials and documentaries. It was a great experience: also, I was never afraid to, in off times, take on other work in different areas of production like stage manage WHEEL OF FORTUNE or A.D. for Bob Bowker with Dick Clark Productions on the AMERICAN MUSIC AWARDS.
My first major break was producing ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT, I was brought in about five months after the show launched and, along with Executive Producer Jim Bellows, brought more credibility and cohesiveness to the show. ET had an incredible staff already in place, a staff that had been brought on by Andy Friendly and John Goldhammer. Jim and I tweaked the show and made it a bit more newsy, with story content not so fluffy, and also created special events within the show during sweeps.
Henry Winkler and I are Emerson fraternity brothers, he sent me a script and said “what do you think of this?” It was gangbusters, it was a show called MACGYVER and it was big. Henry asked me to be Line Producer for the pilot and first year… soon after, in 1986, I started my own company and produced ANIMAL CRACKUPS for ABC for three years, which then led, beginning in 1989, to a long partnership with ABC on AMERICA’S FUNNIEST HOME VIDEOS.
Q: How did you first get involved with the HRTS?
-very early on in my career, even before AFV hit, I would attend the luncheons and would almost hang on every word that came out of the Network Chiefs panel. Over the years, I’ve learned not to hang on quite so tightly! I’m still a firm believer in the fact that as a cohesive unit working together to make the best product possible, we can offer each other a lot. What makes the luncheons so positive is that you get to hear from the real buyers, the decision makers and hear firsthand what they’re looking for, what’s working for them, what frustrates them. I thought that Jeff Probst was phenomenal on this year’s panel. He used no hand cards for notes, yet he was very cognizant of all of the issues that affect our business. He didn’t let up and it was very refreshing to watch him interview the Chieftains. We’ve always had good moderators but I think Jeff brought it to a new level.
Individually we’re islands but collectively we’re a planet and it’s good to hear all of the frustrations and foibles that we all deal with on a daily basis.
Q: What are some of the factors in the continuing success of America's Funniest Home Videos?
-I think the show has surprises in every episode but the format’s been very stable. Families know that it’s both safe for their kids to watch and funny for both adults and kids to laugh at. There are key elements in the show that have not changed since Day One yet there are certain elements that we try and update to re-jigger and make more unique to every show.
Having done AFV for 22 years, collectively as a group of writers, producers, myself as Executive producer/director, we have the knowledge of what’s been on the show and how that translates to a clip that just came in today. We recently saw a clip that is a virtual pile-up of football players on the field, we all laughed and then asked “how many other pile-ups do we have?” then we went through the database and we probably had about 75 pile-ups…motor cross, hockey players, relay runners, skaters at an ice show, so we decided to do a pile-ups montage. Not a lot of shows can do that on a whim! There’s the freshness to the show, there’s the ability to create new ideas in packaging within the show and because of the longevity with the great staff that I have, we don’t just rely on the database to create new comedy composites. We’ve been together ten to twenty years …we know all the clips that have aired. The ability to tie a clip that came to us in 1989 with a clip that just came in yesterday is key to keeping the show fresh while not forgetting the history of our comedy.
Q: How did Reality TV change during the 90s? How has it changed during the 2000s?
-in the 90s, reality shows swung more towards the competition/race shows. Reality today focuses on unique people in odd situations or odd people in unique situations, you can flip it, doesn’t make any difference. The competition shows have been very popular, probably starting with SURVIVOR but especially the music competition shows. If someone would’ve said to you in the 90s that the old Ted Mack show of the 1940’s & 50’s would be the most popular show on TV in 2011 you would have said “you’re nuts” and then along comes AMERICAN IDOL and changes everything. There was STAR SEARCH, which was a great show but it was in syndication and didn’t have the viewing power of a network mega hit. A show in syndication might be viewed by maybe 2.5 million people as opposed to 15 to 20 million people on network TV, that’s a big difference.
What has really changed the entire viewing landscape has been the absolute power of the Web and the ability for people to share things socially. We have a new app that’s doing extremely well and we’re making it even stronger. My pet peeve is that we’re receiving tons and tons of phone videos that are shot vertically…we actually had a directive on the show: “stop holding the camera vertically, hold it horizontally”, it’s a better picture for flat screen TV! Everyone has been talking about the passing of Steve Jobs, he really did change a tremendous amount of the daily language that we associate ourselves with, technically, verbally and visually, and that’s trickled down to our business and to individual shows.
Q: What are your thoughts on YouTube?
-I think the internet is a very, very powerful tool. At one point, 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 realized it made more sense to partner with them than fight an impossible battle. There’s a quandary here, if any of us could look ahead and forecast what’s going to happen in the next three to four years, hire that person now…but guess what, they don’t exist! Know what you want, but be flexible. That’s the key right now…flexibility. You’re going to have some successes and you’re going to make some mistakes, hopefully the balance works in your favor. I think it’s the ability to react quickly and regroup that will make the difference between success and failure.
Q: With FishBowl, what is your decision-making process when considering a potential new project?
-on the scripted side, we want to create an atmosphere where both new writers and proven writers can come to get a fairer creative and financial handshake with us than anywhere else. Sometimes it’s frustrating because people will come in and pitch a one-sentence idea and expect to become show runners...it doesn’t work that way. We look for great premises from great executers. We’ve had remarkable success recently with a webisode we’re doing on Yahoo called ULTIMATE PROPOSAL, it’s a hidden-camera wedding show and in the first couple of hours after its launch we had a few thousand hits…then 50,000 hits then it went viral and we had 1.8 million hits in 40 hours.
What ULTIMATE PROPOSAL proves is that if you create a show that people have a need for - guys haven’t the foggiest idea how to ask someone to marry them - people will come. Our goal, as we develop network and cable shows, is to start with a five minute episode and stack enough of them up to make a half-hour show. We’re experimenting with that formula and building toward that next layer of digital success.
Q: Where do you want your companies to be five years from now?
-in five years, I’d like both companies to be known as great entertainers, I enjoy entertaining people. For me, the excitement of sitting on a couch at my daughter and son-in-law’s house and observing my three grandkids watch AFV as I take on the role of “fly on the wall” watching them laugh, that to me is the most wonderful and rewarding experience in the world. It’s a laugh experience that happens with a lot of families around the country and around the world.
The entertainment portion of my career is very important to me, I like to be out first and infront with things. Certainly, SHERMAN OAKS, a show Chris Bearde and I did at Showtime, was way ahead of its time and probably a spark that was in the minds-eye of the creators of MODERN FAMILY, except we had an EARTHQUAKE in every show. Being ahead is sometimes rewarding; sometimes, it’s taking a spin around the block and watching someone else refine your original idea and that’s fine, that’s what our business is about. I cherish the idea of being a guy who, sometimes, was first to peer around the corner.
Q: Anything you would like to add?
-what’s important for young people entering the fray, young producers, young directors, is being committed to your project. When I sold ANIMAL CRACKUPS it was a Japanese format, I had a sizzle reel that was taken from the Japanese program, but it was funny. It had very funny animal segments on it that were created for both factual information and comedy…so, I’d walk into an office, people would laugh then comment “but it’s Japanese, how can that work?” I pitched that show 136 times before I sold it. I heard laughter in the room after each pitch, I knew it was funny and I could not take ‘no’ for an answer. When you look at the benchmark of 136 pitches and realize I sold AFV to Hank Cohen at ABC -- four minutes into a ten minute sizzle reel, you begin to see how topsy-turvy the whole process can be.
You have got to be committed. This is such a great business, where else in the world can you go to work every day and have this much unadulterated fun? Sometimes after a long production day your body aches and your head is about to explode, but you walk away with this euphoric sense when you complete a great show, that you have actually created something that people will both watch and really like. The most frustrating part of the equation for young producers is to own a piece of something they’ve created, that’s the most difficult road block in our world now; but, I think if projects for the Web are designed correctly then young minds, creative minds can catch lightning in a bottle and own a portion of their projects. To be able to pass that IP down to their children and grandchildren, that’s my wish for the future for young people entering our business.
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