The Dark Side Of 'Funniest Home Videos' Hit Show Has The Potential For Fakery

Posted: March 12, 1990

WASHINGTON — Life is about falling down and getting up again, but "America's Funniest Home Videos" only shows you the falling down. That's one of the few discouraging things about "Videos," one of the TV season's few true smasheroos.

The series, which airs Sunday nights on ABC (Channel 6 in Philadelphia), has scored such big ratings that it is making CBS, which has long owned Sundays, very nervous. Not only does the show outscore "Murder, She Wrote" in its regular 8 p.m. slot, but recently, when the one-hour "Videos" premiere was repeated an hour earlier, "Videos" beat champion war horse "60 Minutes."

In many ways, "Videos" is a programming inevitability, just as color TV was a technological inevitability. Somebody was bound to do it sooner or later. "Videos" has many antecedents in TV history, too. Among the more obvious: Allen Funt's "Candid Camera" and Fox TV's laborious ripoff of it, ''Totally Hidden Video."

Other inspirations include David Letterman's "Stupid Pet Tricks" and ''Stupid Human Tricks."

But "Videos" lets viewers be their own Allen Funts (as well as their own stars and directors), and their own stupid humans. It takes advantage of the fact that there are nearly 9 million camcorders now in use throughout the country by moms, dads, brothers and sisters.

The series brings home video home, and certifies that we are living in a new age of grass-roots television. How it works is simplicity itself: viewers send in funny shots of brides losing their petticoats or dads getting beaned by tennis balls or dogs doing flip-flops. A studio audience watches them in Los Angeles and laughs and laughs, prodded by comic Bob Saget, the host.

It's good, clean and funny. But in their zest to cram in as many pratfalls and bean balls as they can, the producers concentrate on the mishap and almost never on the aftermath. Everything is edited down to tiny bites.

We are occasionally reminded by Saget that no one got hurt in the accidents shown on the screen. In a recent interview, Saget said that if there's any evidence of serious injury, a video won't be used on the air. We have to take it on faith that the producers investigate thoroughly enough to know whether anyone got hurt.

But even with these assurances, the sight of a toddler getting conked by a swing, accompanied by shrieks of laughter, has an ugly side to it. If only Saget could occasionally produce the victim to prove he or she is OK, that there's been no harm done except to pride.

Already, the producers have been answering charges that the some of the wacky pratfalls are faked so the family can see itself on TV. There's also a weekly best-video prize of $10,000 and a best-of-season jackpot of $100,000 - powerful inducement to phony things up.

And it leads to the ugliest possible scenario: mom and dad pushing grandma off the porch swing to come up with a funny video. We can only hope such abuses never occur, or that the producers will know them when they see them.

Because much about "America's Funniest Home Videos" is positive. At its best, it invites us to laugh not so much at our neighbors as at ourselves.

When we see people doing goofy things and suffering the consequences (the touch-football player who knocks an entire fence over as he runs to get the ball), we're reminded of our own foibles and limitations, of the klutziness that lurks beneath the surface of even the most seemingly graceful of souls.

"Videos" drives merrily and bumpily over the potholes of life. It's a reminder of the everyday predicaments that help unite a population which seems to grow increasingly fragmented and decreasingly homogeneous.

The popularity of the show may also be telling TV executives that viewers are sick and tired of the stale formats that are recast and recycled year after year - hopelessly synthetic fluff like "His & Hers," the smutty sitcom that premiered recently on CBS, or "Grand Slam," the same network's thick- headed and short-lived action caper.

How many times can people be expected to watch the same old stars going through the same old motions? No wonder a recent survey by the Barna Research Group found that 44 percent of American adults think TV programming is worse today than it was five years ago. In the same survey, 26 percent of those responding said they did not think the quality will improve much in the next five years, and 33 percent said they think it will actually get worse.

"America's Funniest Home Videos" is not as brilliantly original as it might appear. In addition to all the domestic precedents, the series is based on a Japanese show. But it does have a freshness that makes it seem brand-new, and it offers "stars" who are real people, not blow-dried Hollywood androids.

If only it would feature as many gettings up as fallings down.

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