The Television Writers Vault is honored to welcome legendary television producer, Vin Di Bona, for a personal interview with Scott Manville in our continuing series of conversations with key Industry executives
Mr. Di Bona is a pioneer in television programming, producing reality-based formats long before it became ”Reality TV”. Hit franchises created and produced include; “Battle of the Network Stars”, “America’s Funniest People”, “Entertainment Tonight”, “MacGyver”, and “America’s Funniest Home Videos”. In the midst of today’s reality TV boom, he has continued to rise above the commonly exploitative reality stunts, to deliver quality family entertainment with fun and clever content, often blending reality and game elements.
Vin Di Bona is a four-time Emmy Award-winning producer and recipient of the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award for his work in documentary programming. We hope all of our members enjoy the privilege of his perspectives, as he truly knows good entertainment.
Scott Manville: It’s wonderful to have you with us. I know that many in the industry, including our Writers and Producers at the TV Writers Vault, will find your perspectives truly valuable. And many Producers and Format Creators could only dream of the success you’ve had with America’s Funniest Home Videos.
Vin Di Bona: I should say at the start, the success of AFV is due much in part to the writing. Todd Thicke and his staff add smart, often, counterpoint comments that make an inherently funny video twice as funny.
SM: Collaboration in creativity always helps. If I can roll back a bit- I loved growing up watching “Battle of the Network Stars” on the weekends with my Dad. Or hearing the “Entertainment Tonight” theme playing in the evening… Mom was cooking dinner, Dad was home from work, the family was together… it was a good feeling. A lot of us who grew up in the 70’s should say thanks for the good feelings.
VDB: I produced the last big Battle [“of the Network Stars”] (Battle 19) and had the luxury of using clips from all the previous shows…it was a blast to produce. With Entertainment Tonight, it was like being in The Wild West…a lot by the gut, and a lot of experimenting.
SM: I’d love to know how you came to developing and producing reality-based TV back then, in a time when programming must have been very narrow… with only scripted series’, or live sports coverage, and news. How did you discover what was essentially “reality tv” in a time where you really had no reference to work from?
VDB: I started a WBZ-TV in Boston…I was responsible for producing a four hour special every month for two years. The first hour was a documentary on changing community needs followed by a live three hour call-in show based on the issue of the evening. I produced and directed both the documentary and the live call-in as well. It was a great experience. First and foremost, our formats had to entertain. I did an hour documentary for KCBS about the play Zoot Suit and I convinced Gordon Davidson to let me shoot parts of the play to include in the documentary.
SM: Seeing how far reality programming has evolved, with shows often pushing the envelope of privacy and appropriateness, what do you feel about reality tv today?
VDB: Many thrive on obnoxious people in outrageous situations…not my cup of tea…I believe in a great format that offers tension and ways to solve problems.
SM: Do you have any favorites?
VDB: “Battleplan” (Military Channel), “Shark Tank” & “Iron Chef”.
SM: One of my favorite shows that you produced and aired right at the thrust of the new reality boom was “The Big Moment.” [A family is given a limited amount of time to master unique stunts or talents that they must successfully perform on live TV to win cash]. I loved it. You had the reality aspect of it, seeing the families at home with all the frustration and fun of practicing, then the pressures of the live performance, and the variety of it all. Was it as fun to Produce as it was to watch?
VDB: It was a favorite of mine…loaded with challenge, fun and tension….my favorite moment of all time is the housewife who hasn’t been able to pull the table cloth out from under the dishes all week and gets it right on the show.
SM: I remember that! Comedy being universal… if I can ask about foreign markets. During the past decade we’ve seen a healthy exchange in formats- Developing shows for foreign territories, and adapting proven formats in foreign arenas for domestic distribution. Have you taken any of your shows overseas? Is that an area of exploitation that you pursue with projects?
VDB: We have been to London several times…offering formats…some have sold, but none really successful.
SM: We’ve seen a huge evolution in television over the decades, with so many changes. What hasn’t changed?
VDB: A good idea still makes a breakthrough show! Copycats always fade quickly.
SM: What advice can you give to the aspiring format Writer or Producer starting out in this Industry?
VDB: Look at trends…check out the newsstands to see what popular magazines report about.
SM: How would you measure the amount of opportunity there may be in Hollywood for new writers today, versus aspiring writers and producers of decades past?
VDB: In our business, it has become increasingly more difficult to become an entrepreneur…and to own one’s own material & format. The sad news is that today’s young writers have much less chance to succeed than writers in the past…ideas have to be sharper and more unique to cut through the maze.
SM: So much of success is a result of overcoming great challenges, or failures, especially in this industry. Can you share with us any monumental challenges you may have had to overcome, that we may not know of, but that may have been a catalyst in your ultimate success?
VDB: When I sold my first network series (Animal Crack-ups), that sale was the result of 138 pitches. My second show (AFV) was sold in four minutes on the first pitch!
SM: What do you look forward to experiencing, as your career continues?
VDB: Staying current, creating new family shows and continuing to have fun.
SM: Mr. Di Bona, It’s been a true pleasure. Thank you so much for sharing your time with us. I can’t wait to see more great shows from you.
VDB: Good luck to all…if you believe in your projects…never give up!
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