It's hard for many of us to remember a time when Family Feud was not on television.
Launched in 1976 by Mark Goodson and Bill Todman, the Richard Dawson-hosted game was a huge daytime hit for ABC. Ever since, Family Feud has been on and off the air—but mostly on—in network prime or syndication. Besides Dawson, the show has been hosted by Ray Combs, Louie Anderson, Richard Karn, John O’Hurley, and since 2010, Steve Harvey.
Right now, Family Feud is in the middle of a renaissance rarely seen on television: since Harvey took over in 2010, the show has done nothing but grow, with TV stations moving it into access and primetime slots across the country where it competes ably with entertainment magazines, off-net sitcoms and other games.
This season, Family Feud has a shot at overtaking CBS Television Distribution’s long-time game leaders Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! in households, something it’s already done in the key women 25-54 demographic .
“I think it’s the best game show format that’s ever been created,” says Mort Marcus, copresident of Debmar-Mercury, which distributes the show. “It’s just perfect. And when you have the right host, which we do with Steve Harvey, it’s so fun to play.”
“When you watch the show, you feel like Steve is happy to be there and he’s having a good time,” says Ira Bernstein, copresident of Debmar-Mercury. “You want to spend that hour with him.”
Just five years ago, Debmar-Mercury and FremantleMedia North America, which produces the show and owns the format, were considering canceling it. The ratings had declined to a mid-one in households. But instead of pulling it, all the parties thought they would take a risk, bring in a new host, and see what could happen.
“We knew this was our one last chance,” says Gaby Johnston, Family Feud’s executive producer who has been a part of the show in one way or another since 1978.
Sean Perry, a partner at WME Entertainment, which reps Harvey, convinced the entertainer to come hear a pitch to host a game show, without revealing it was Feud. “I had no idea what game show it was,” Harvey says. “I thought it was Let’s Make a Deal.”
The comedian, TV and radio talk show host, actor and author wasn’t immediately sold. “My initial thought was that I didn’t want to be a traffic cop. I wanted to talk to the people, get to know the people. If I heard something funny, I wanted to be able to have fun with it,” Harvey says. “It’s the families that make the show.”
Johnston immediately understood Harvey’s point of view, and she told him, “‘We’re just going to record you and that’s all we’re going to do. We’re not going to tell you what to do. You’re going to go up there and we’ll give you questions. You just be yourself, and we’ll edit it from there.’ I knew I was talking to a comedian, and the last thing they want to do is to be told how to be funny.”
That sold Harvey.
Harvey premiered as Family Feud’s new host in 2010, and it wasn’t long before the show started grabbing people’s attention.
In early October of that year, a contestant was asked in the final speed round, “what part of his body would a man say is bigger now than when he was 16?”
The contestant immediately said “penis.” Video of Harvey’s extended reaction—still readily available on YouTube—immediately went viral and the show’s ratings started climbing.
“He has such a great mug,” says Thom Beers, CEO of FremantleMedia North America. “You really want to create a platform for a guy like Harvey to spread his wings. We give him enough space in the show to riff a couple or three times in a half-hour.”
“Word of mouth is the No. 1 way people learn about shows,” says Johnston . “We started putting these clips out from the get-go hoping that people would start talking about it.”
Johnston and her team also started crafting questions and answers that would play to Harvey’s humor, turning the show’s PG vibe into something a little more PG-13.
“That’s the biggest tweak we’ve made,” she says. “We’re pushing the material a little bit. You can’t keep asking the same questions since 1980.”
Family Feud’s team of producers also comb the country to find families who will play and have fun with Harvey.
“We are going to eight cities this year and we will see as many as 400 families in two days,” Johnston says. “It’s worth it. It’s the only way to get the kind of families that Steve deserves.”
“You want to have people who are full of enthusiasm,” Harvey says. “That’s all I need. I bring out the rest. It’s my job to engage these people and make them say things about themselves that are not scripted.”
And if Harvey reminds viewers just a bit of the late Richard Dawson, who made his name by kissing all the girls (“you can’t do that anymore,” Harvey notes), it’s not an accident.
Says Harvey: “Richard Dawson was my hero. He was the guy I wanted to be like.”
Broadcasting & Cable Newsletter
The smarter way to stay on top of broadcasting and cable industry. Sign up below
Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.