In 1978, more than four decades into a career that made him one of the wealthiest and most powerful producers in the history of American television, Mark Goodson despaired over his reputation. At the time, his latest creation, Family Feud, was frequently the top-rated program in all of U.S. daytime TV. And yet, he confided during an interview that year, the game-show genre to which he’d dedicated his life was “essentially without status. I regret it and I resent it. The first thing people ask is, ‘Why is somebody as literate and articulate as you in games?’ It’s like saying, ‘Why is an engineer taking out the garbage?’”
It’s a sentiment that Sally Catto knows well. As the general manager of programming for CBC Television, Catto got an earful back in May when she announced that a Canadian edition of Feud, hosted by the comedian Gerry Dee, would be coming to the network this month. Critics complained that the series, in which two families compete against each other for $10,000 by trying to guess the most popular answers to survey questions (ex: “Name a phrase overheard at a singles’ bar") was lowbrow fare that didn’t belong on the public broadcaster.
“We’re used to [the skepticism] at the CBC!” Catto said with a laugh during a recent phone interview. “I think they will have to watch and see. I think, really, if we were stalled or blocked by skepticism, there’s very little we would do, because everyone has something to say about pretty much everything [at CBC].”
Except Feud is not just another CBC program in just another TV season. It arrives as the public broadcaster is under pressure to demonstrate that it can provide both value-for-money and some connective tissue for a country concerned about its unity. The re-election of the Liberals, which boosted funding during its first government, in 2016, has pushed off fears of cuts or changes that a Conservative government might have made, but that reprieve won’t last forever. A contentious rewrite of the Broadcasting Act, the legal framework outlining the scope of CBC/Radio-Canada’s mandate, will begin soon. In the midst of this upheaval, president Catherine Tait and her new head of English services, Barbara Williams, pledged last spring that CBC would supercharge its effort to attract new revenue. The Canadian edition of Feud, a format that has aired in more than 70 territories, is a key element of that campaign.
Partly, that’s because it includes opportunities to feature sponsors’ products within the context of the show. But more importantly, there was a classic programming strategy behind the move to air the retooled classic: Even as audiences migrate en masse to on-demand viewing, the bulk of TV programs are still watched when they air on what is known as linear television. And CBC needs something to boost flagging ratings in its 7-11 p.m. prime-time block.
In the 2018-19 television season, the network had an average audience (of viewers two years old and over) of 415,000 in Sunday to Friday prime time, which represented a 5-per-cent share of those watching TV at any given moment. That was down about 10 per cent from the average viewership of 463,000 in the 2017-18 season, when its share was 5.7 per cent. (The figures do not include viewership for the 2018 Olympics.)
The average audience in the key 25-54 demographic dropped about 11 per cent over the same period, from 115,000 (share of 4.1 per cent) in 2017-18 to 102,000 (share of 3.6 per cent) in 2018-19.
Family Feud Canada will play Mondays through Thursdays, premiering Dec. 16 at 8 p.m. before moving the next week into its regular 7:30 p.m. slot, where it will serve as a lead-in for some of the network’s marquee programming, including Murdoch Mysteries and Kim’s Convenience.
“We were thinking, what is something that can go on the schedule on a regular basis that can boost prime?” Catto said. “What was something we could bring to Canadians that they’re going to want to tune into, that actually could be a nice segue into our evening? Because we know our linear audiences still are impacted by the order of content on the schedule.”
Network executives also hope Feud can bring in audiences that don’t traditionally watch CBC. “We’re really hoping to convert [new viewers] to come to us regularly,” said Jennifer Dettman, CBC’s executive director of unscripted content. “I get the feeling, just from the [Family Feud] casting tour across the country, that there are some real opportunities there.”
After the call went out last summer, CBC says it received more than 1,500 applications from across the country. Producers met with about 550 families in 15 cities, from British Columbia to Newfoundland and up to the Yukon. The network also says it received about 10,000 e-mail requests for tickets to the tapings, which take place at CBC’s Broadcasting Centre in downtown Toronto.
On a Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks ago, five members of the Fleet family from Fredericton, N.B., sat outside Studio 40 on the 10th floor of the Broadcasting Centre, relaxing after a tense shoot. (The Globe and Mail agreed to not report any game results, in order to avoid spoiling the audience’s enjoyment.) They all said they were fans of the U.S. show in its various incarnation through the years: from the original, hosted by the British actor Richard Dawson (who had a louche manner and an infamous habit of kissing female contestants on the lips), on up to the current iteration, with the slightly zany comedian Steve Harvey.
“We never thought we’d be able to play, because it’s an American show,” explained Jess, a mauve-haired mother of two whose show application included the claim that she could recite the alphabet backward in three seconds. (Disappointingly, Gerry Dee did not ask her to demonstrate.) “But it’s a cool opportunity.”
Jess’s husband, Rob, a gregarious veteran who served 13 years with the Canadian Armed Forces, had sent off an audition video on a whim after seeing a Facebook post about the show last summer, and then roped in his brother, Dave; his brother-in-law, Tyler; and his mother-in-law, Wendy, for an in-person audition in late August. He got the call in the last week of November: Could he and his family leave for Toronto two days later? (The production pays airfare and hotel for participating families, putting them up at the Royal York.) He hung up the phone, called his family members with the news, and then, demonstrating the knack for self-promotion that seems a genetic trait among Feud participants, went online to order five suits in an eye-popping red-and-black plaid. “We call it the New Brunswick Tuxedo,” he explained.
The Fleets faced off against the Dicksons from Whitehorse, a family that includes Eric, who claims to have won a competition in 2008 known as Sourdough Sam, for “Yukon’s primo male,” and Angie, who told Dee that she was a “professional bum gut cleaner,” expert in readying for human consumption the entrails of moose that are killed on the hunt.
“What does it taste like?” Dee asked. “Is it like steak?”
“If you smell it, that’s the way it tastes,” she replied.
In Game Changers, a 2018 documentary about game shows that is hosted by Alex Trebek (airing on Hollywood Suite), J.D. Roth, the executive producer of The Biggest Loser, says that part of the appeal of game shows is “seeing an average, everyday person, an ordinary person, getting to do something extraordinary. It’s always going to work.”
The genre is intertwined with the rise of television itself: On July 1, 1941, the very first day of commercial television broadcasting, the radio game show Truth or Consequences made the leap to TV.
The shows may be frothy fun, but they also helped change the face of television. Shortly after it went on the air in 1963, Let’s Make a Deal, hosted and co-created by the Winnipeg-born Monty Hall, became the first TV show to feature a diverse cast of contestants that looked something like the country it was situated in. “We felt that this was a cross-section of America,” Hall said in a 2002 interview. “They’re different colours, different sizes, different ages, different shapes – and everybody makes a good contestant.”
With its arrival on CBC, with a Canadian host, Family Feud finally comes full circle, in a way. The original host for the 1970s version was slated to be the Canadian-born William Shatner. But Richard Dawson, who was then on Mark Goodson’s Match Game, threatened to deliver underwhelming performances on that show unless Goodson gave him the hosting gig on the Feud. So Shatner lost out.
Tucked away at the back of Studio 40, Gerry Dee studies some papers with biographical details of the families he is about to meet, mulling how he might draw them out on camera. Before Feud, he’d never hosted a game show before, but after taping almost 10 episodes he is finding his feet, and his voice.
“I got to watch Steve Harvey do it in L.A.,” he said. “He would take moments to have fun with the family, and I’m like, yeah, that’s kind of what I’d want to do. So it was great to see that’s how he did it. And then [you just have to] trust yourself, trust your instincts. There’s moments where you’re kind, there’s moments where you’re funny, there’s moment that – you know, a family loses by one point for 10 grand, that’s not a time to be funny. So there’s using your instincts.”
“I don’t know what I’m going to get every day," he continued. "It’s completely different from a live stand-up show. It’s completely different from a scripted show. I’m excited to meet the families, they’re so energetic, and they’re so Canadian and diverse, and everything that we want. They represent Canada so well.”
Will Canadians tune in, especially when they can still watch the U.S. version with its built-in audience and well established host? Dettman notes that Canadian elements are threaded throughout the CBC’s version: The names of the hometowns are on the set behind each family, as are hundreds of tiny maple leaves.
“We just had to feel really comfortable about the reasons why we wanted to do this show, to stand behind it as a series,” Catto said. “We felt it really could work on CBC, recognizing we are a public broadcaster – a hybrid one [funded in part by advertising], at that. And I think our team has gone to tremendous effort to work within the format, but make it Canadian, and make it really celebrate Canadian families, and be entertaining. And I don’t think that is a bad thing. I just don’t.”