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A Host of Questions

The million-dollar question confronting some game-show producers, notably those at Who Wants To Be a Millionaire and Family Feud, is whether their format is strong enough to survive if and when a change of hosts occurs. Millionaire met with success when it switched from the Regis Philbin-led ABC prime time version to the Meredith Vieira-hosted daily syndicated series from Buena Vista Television (BVT). While BVT execs hope Vieira, the new Today co-anchor, stays beyond this season, industry observers say Millionaire could work with a new host. Tom Bergeron, for one, has been mentioned.

FremantleMedia North America's Family Feud, meanwhile, is heading toward its fifth host in its on-again, off-again run that dates back 30 years. New host John O'Hurley revived his career as a contestant on ABC's Dancing With the Stars, after hosting a failed two-year syndicated revival of To Tell the Truth.

Distributed by Tribune Entertainment, Feud survived a succession of hosts after its first, Richard Dawson. Ray Combs (1988-93), Louie Anderson (1999-2002) and Richard Karn (2002-present) all had respectable runs, yet viewers still associate Dawson most closely with the franchise, say industry execs. FremantleMedia North America CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz hopes O'Hurley will make Feud “a throwback to the Dawson years.”

With a 2.1 average national season-to-date household rating, Feud is the lowest-rated among all syndicated game shows. But it is the only program in the genre to maintain its year-ago ratings: Wheel of Fortune is down 7% to an 8.6, Jeopardy! 14% to a 6.8 and Millionaire 9% to a 3.2. Through the end of February sweeps, game shows have lost 3.5 million viewers this season, more than any other syndication category. (That number is so big because Wheel and Jeopardy! have such a large viewer base.)

Frot-Coutaz is not satisfied with Feud's pulling “just an OK number,” and she is looking for improvement with O'Hurley. “A host is a key creative element,” she says. “Some games, like Let's Make a Deal, are incredibly host-driven. That's one where the host literally makes or breaks that show.”

She also puts Fremantle's The Price Is Right in that category. Host Bob Barker, 82, will be tough to replace once he eventually retires. “We don't want a clone,” Frot-Coutaz says. “We need someone who brings his or her own personality.”

GSN President/CEO Rich Cronin says a good host can take a strong format “to a much higher level.” The show may even thrive after a switch, he notes, citing the Pat Sajak-hosted Wheel (he took over for Chuck Woolery) and the Alex Trebek-led Jeopardy! (he succeeded Art Fleming).

TV consultant Chuck Larsen says viewers will stick around longer if they like the host. He says he was drawn to NBC's Deal or No Deal by the promo campaign but got hooked by host Howie Mandel's sympathetic approach to the contestants and by the shadowy banker cast in the role of “bad guy.”

But some industry research indicates that the format, not the host, is king. Researchers say viewers tune in to game shows for the interactivity, laughs and suspense. While the host's role is significant, they say, a good host isn't likely to save a bad game.