SCENE: Third-floor cubicle at ABC studios, where the lights from a dozen-plus TV monitors reflect off studious faces. In one corner, a video of a man photographing children in the snow concludes with the man taking one step backwards, collapsing on a sled. The sled carries him in reverse - hands and legs flailing - down an incline and into a group of unsuspecting revelers, whom he flattens like so many bowling pins. `SETUP ... setup!'' says Tom Pabst, looking over the shoulder of co-worker Jonathan Green.
``I'll rank it 3 out of a possible 10,'' says Mr. Green, filling in a box on his log sheet. ``Spontaneity, not premeditation, is what we're after here.''
He also circles No. 307 on an 8-by-11-inch ``category sheet,'' which will tell producers that this cassette - No. 43,000 and something - shows ``adults falling'' (as opposed to 301, eating; 302, sleeping; etc.). He writes a brief description of the tape and flips another into his VCR, one of about 70 tapes he'll screen for the show during his eight-hour workday. Nineteen colleagues are working seven days a week, previewing the 600 to 1,600 videos that arrive here every day. A staff of 10 has been hired just to receive and open the packages.
Welcome to the backstage screening room of the hottest TV show in America, the midseason megahit whose success surprised everybody, including its producers.
A cross between the ``blooper'' shows and ``Candid Camera,'' ``America's Funniest Home Videos'' hit No. 1 in the ratings just six weeks into its run. Capitalizing on its ability to cut across audience demographics from young to old, family to single, female to male, the show's sudden success has made it TV's equivalent of a national campfire where the jokes shared are visual: A bride tosses her bouquet, and her bridesmaids trip trying to catch it; a man catches a flyball, falls over a fence and loses his pants; a poodle tries to walk up an icy embankment but keeps sliding down; a baby lip-syncs to the song ``New York, New York.''
``America has found something that everyone can watch, laugh at, and talk about at breakfast the next morning,'' says executive producer Vin Di Bona, who acknowledges he got the idea from a Japanese variety show called ``Fun With Ken and Kato Chan.'' ``America produces this show; I just shape what they create.''
In case you haven't caught up with it, ``Videos'' airs at 8 p.m. Sundays before a live audience, presenting home-video clips ranging from droll to waggish to hysterical, punctuated by sound effects.
Host Bob Saget, a comedian and co-star of the ABC sitcom ``Full House,'' introduces the clips with witticisms alleged and real, tying various segments into themes: weddings, pratfalls, animals, babies, sports,
A $10,000 reward goes to the best weekly offering, as determined by a vote of the studio audience. A year-end grand prize will pay $100,000.
``The show is really far different from bloopers and `Candid Camera' because it's a look into other people's lives,'' says producer Steve Paskay. ``It's not `Candid Camera,' because they know the camera is there and are sharing what it sees with us.''
Just a few weeks into production, the show has already been skewered by observers and in the press for its heavy reliance on mishap: both young and old getting whapped, bopped, thwacked, and socked with bats, balls, trees, toys, doors, etc. [See accompanying article.]
```America's Funniest Home Videos' inadvertently encourages child abuse,'' charged one reviewer in the Los Angeles Times. ``There are too many horrible parents who need no incentive to abuse their children. For those who require an incentive, however, [`Videos'] provides a whopper,'' the writer added, referring to the $10,000 prize.
PRODUCERS counter the charge by claiming they call the participants of every video to find if anyone was hurt. If so, the tape is not shown. ``We had one person say, `Well yes. Johnny broke his arm, but he's okay now.' So we yanked the tape off the air,'' says Barbara Bernstein-Honig, senior segment-producer. ``We don't want anyone out there hurting themselves.''
A visit behind the scenes here shows that producing ``Videos'' is a lot harder than it might sound. The sheer number of tapes sent in is one reason. ``When we did the pilot, we were getting 40 tapes a day,'' says Ms. Bernstein-Honig. ``And we thought, oh boy, we're getting buried.'' She takes her visitor past a mammoth - and still growing - video vault, where the show's 43,000-plus tapes are being stored.
A separate and growing office has to track down the owner of the video, the shooter of the video, and every person appearing in the video to sign release forms. These tasks have required some real detective work on occasion, according to release-man and verifier Paul Crehan. One such video included shots of canoers going down the Mississippi River, who had to be tracked down through the rental number stuck to the front of the canoe. ``We also have to make sure Uncle Charlie didn't send the tape in without the permission of the people in it,'' says Mr. Crehan.
PRODUCERS say the capacity of the show to grow is infinite. In getting away from the early episodes' reliance on spontaneous mishap, Di Bona and Paskay have instituted what they claim is an ever-changing format, tagged as ``Assignment America.'' Each week, viewers are urged to send in tapes of specifics such as first haircuts, yo-yo tricks, impersonations, funny faces.
``We don't ever want to limit the show in any way, either by category or by telling viewers what not to send,'' says Paskay. Examples of the uncategorizable may have been seen in a recent Sunday's obese trio of men-in-drag, lyp-synching the Supreme's hit, ``Stop in the Name of Love.''
Still, the show's truest moments seem to be the unpremeditated: a child stealing another's piece of cake, a family blowing out birthday candles - just before the table collapses, a hat blowing off the head of a relay-race runner and landing directly on the runner behind him.
The future success of the show would seem to depend on how much of the truly amazing and spontaneous American video shooters can continue to generate.