Game shows have been an integral part of television since its inception. Early radio quiz shows laid the groundwork for the format we now see on TV.
People have been eagerly shouting out answers since the early days, and while many viewers may believe they’re right with absolute certainty, their “know-it-all” family members might beg to differ.
Over the past six decades, game shows have evolved and adapted, relying more and more on flashy sets, intricate rules, and sophisticated technical features.
In this series, we’ll delve into how various game shows from the past interacted with the society of their time and to what extent this interaction influenced the shows themselves.
We’ll explore both classic and lesser-known programs, examining how some popular shows would struggle to survive in today’s TV landscape while others have made comebacks only to falter, and a few have stood the test of time by sticking to their tried-and-true formats.
This month, we turn our attention to Family Feud, a creation of Mark Goodson behind the scenes, with the late Richard Dawson as its ever-enthusiastic host.
(A quick side note: if you’re curious about who else deserves credit for your game show enjoyment over the years, Mark Goodson’s extensive Wikipedia page is worth a visit.)
Family Feud originally aired during daytime hours and made its debut on June 12, 1976, as a summer test run, following a strategy still used by networks today for new programming.
After its positive reception, it was moved to primetime, where it enjoyed considerable success and even garnered Emmys.
Now in its 32nd non-consecutive season, Family Feud continues to embrace the format that propelled it to popularity in our nation’s bicentennial year, with some allowances for changing social norms.
For those not already acquainted with the Family Feud format, it’s a concept that’s straightforward to grasp.
Two families, usually not nuclear, consisting of five members each, go head-to-head in an attempt to provide the top answers to a question.
The answers are ranked based on a survey of one hundred individuals conducted by the show in advance.
(For those curious, during the initial decades of Family Feud’s existence, this survey was conducted with 100 members of the studio audience who were posed various questions.
Now, anyone can contribute to the “survey” by visiting the show’s official website.)
If three correct answers are given, it results in three strikes, and the other family then has the opportunity to “steal” the points from that round.
The first two rounds are played for standard points, with subsequent rounds played for double and triple points before proceeding to a sudden-death round.
The first team to reach 200 points (in 1976; the threshold has since been increased to 300 points) advances to the final round and selects two of the five contestants to compete for the chance to win $5,000 (also increased to the current sum of $20,000).
No special trips to Jamaica or extra jackpots are involved on the path to the final round.
Your family wins the final round, and you receive money, as straightforward as the stakes can be.
Because the rules themselves are inherently simple, they allow the rest of the show to shine in ways that modern game shows either cannot or will not.
When contestants are asked for answers, there is no flashing or dimming of studio lights or menacing music accompanying their contemplation.
The only element intensifying the existing tension is a single tone that signals they have three seconds to come up with something, anything, or face the consequences of a strike against their family.
This serves two purposes. One is that it allows viewers at home to immerse themselves in the carefully crafted environment the producers have worked hard to build.
They can focus solely on the contestant attempting to think of an answer rather than the audience reacting on cue or resorting to commercial breaks to heighten suspense.
The other purpose is to convey a sense that what we are witnessing genuinely transpired during filming, as opposed to the heavy post-editing that is glaringly apparent in game shows produced during the 1990s.
It remains uncertain whether this perception is a result of the nostalgic appeal of watching these episodes over 30 years after their original airing or if the editors were exceptionally skilled at concealing any manufactured moments they may have introduced.
Modern-day game shows often feel compelled to incorporate complex rule changes, higher stakes, or extravagant sets to maintain viewer engagement throughout the standard 30-minute to one-hour duration and prevent restless viewers with short attention spans from switching to one of the other 400 available channels.
Speaking of the “lack of an extravagant set,” the set that Family Feud initially premiered with (and continued to use for years afterward) is almost comically nostalgic.
It’s as if the producers had a fascination with the 1870s rather than the offerings of the 1970s.
Notably, the set features carpeted stairs, a choice that might leave you wondering why such an addition was made.
The wood paneling, while in line with the aesthetics of the era, appears in excessive quantities.
Suppose you have an aversion to mustard seed yellow and washed-out blue. In that case, I’d recommend keeping some Dramamine handy and summoning strong resolve if you decide to watch vintage episodes of Feud, as it seems that every corner you turn reveals variations of these questionable paint choices.
Surprisingly, the most captivating aspect of the presentation doesn’t relate to any element of the stationary set itself.
It’s the unique way the contestants are introduced. This element serves as a significant indicator that what you’re watching has a quirky side.
Additionally, when the show did occasionally experiment with more creative and technology-based concepts, they remained fairly limited.
Instead of having the families enter from backstage at the beginning of the show or placing them off-camera, they begin behind a screen that can only be likened to a giant needlepoint ring with the family surname stitched into it.
It’s another instance of the ambiance taking substantial inspiration from a Little House on the Prairie marathon.
As the family is announced to the audience, the screen is drawn back to reveal the five members.
This is where things take a turn; depending on your state of mind while watching, it becomes either creepy or entertaining.
Instead of having the contestants face the cameras or smile in the general direction of the studio audience, they are arranged within a faux-1970s living room, posed in a manner where they face each other.
It’s an arrangement that can only be described as the eeriest portrayal of a family spending quality time together, perhaps since the release of the original Stepford Wives film.
(A note I jotted down during my viewing: “The first instance of people frozen in place that disturbs me more than House of Wax”).
Without fail, I found myself unable to suppress laughter each time the families were introduced at the beginning of an episode.
I won’t even begin to touch upon the clothing choices, as that topic alone could warrant another full feature discussing the entertainment value they brought.
In the midst of all these elements that are ripe for mockery, there’s a significant part of the show that not only serves to unify everything but, in this particular case, also manages to outshine every other aspect.
I’m referring, of course, to the star of the show, Mr. Richard Dawson.
Starting strongly as a game show host takes a lot (I’m looking at you, Bob Saget), and having watched Dawson in several of the initial episodes, it’s not an exaggeration to say that he performed at a level equal to or better than anyone else I’ve seen.
From the beginning of the show to the very last question, Dawson not only maintains the necessary high energy but also ensures that every contestant feels like the most important person in the room.
Affectionately nicknamed “The Kissing Bandit” due to his habit of giving contestants a peck on the cheek (a gesture he later revealed was inspired by his mother, who did the same to him throughout his childhood), you can tell when watching that he was always thrilled to be part of the show and genuinely wanted the audience to share in his excitement.
Dawson had the knack for playfully flirting with the younger members of each family, jokingly proposing marriage to the older (and already married) ladies, and poking fun at everyone else in between.
It certainly didn’t hurt that he had an impeccable sense of style and was always impeccably dressed.
Even while effortlessly generating laughs, he never forgot to have a great time himself.
In one memorable instance, he even brought his actual passport to show off his newly acquired American citizenship.
However, he could just as easily deliver a solid “Colbert reporting on Prince Charles” level of humor.
When you filter out all the other elements of the show and focus solely on Dawson doing what he did best, it becomes increasingly evident that he relished his job and understood how fortunate he was to be doing this kind of work.
Whether in his early work on Family Feud or later years on Match Game, it was glaringly obvious that Richard Dawson wasn’t there for a paycheck.
This is perhaps one of the most overlooked (or simply one of the most disregarded) reasons why contemporary game shows burn out more quickly than a Teen Mom spin-off.
Audiences can only remain engaged with the core concept for so long before the presence of a host who exudes genuine energy and enthusiasm becomes essential to sustain a viewer’s interest.
While not all hosts are guilty of this (take Regis Philbin, for example), most B-list celebrity hosts who take on these roles don’t seem particularly thrilled to be there.
I doubt Jeff Foxworthy ventured into stand-up comedy with the goal of eventually sharing a stage with contestants who may not match the intelligence of the 5th graders they stand with.
Similarly, I highly suspect that Guy Fieri didn’t view “Minute to Win It” as a stepping stone to career relevance; it was likely just a weekly money grab (unless it was his agent or manager who saw it that way, which case he should consider firing that person and finding a better path to relevance himself).
Whether Richard Dawson truly didn’t care about his paycheck or skillfully concealed his feelings is unclear, but what matters most is that he didn’t let it show.
Ultimately, it’s a testament to his hosting ability on Family Feud that the audience never had a spare moment to figure it out one way or the other.
How has Family Feud stood the test of time? The show has experienced a few interruptions over the years, with breaks in 1986 and 1996.
It has also gone through various style changes and rule modifications before returning to a format similar to its original.
The number of hosts has now reached half a dozen, each bringing their unique, albeit not always successful, style to the stage.
When you contemplate it, these adaptations and missteps likely contributed to Family Feud’s longevity.
Not every show can maintain its daytime and syndication dominance with unwavering popularity while remaining the same for multiple decades (Dear soap operas, you fall into this category).
Besides updates to the set, the Steve Harvey-hosted Family Feud has wholeheartedly embraced the same rules as the original.
There’s a reason for this. In an era where younger generations frequently revisit and revive past trends, part of the appeal of watching shows from bygone decades is the nostalgia they evoke.
It provides an opportunity to recall what previous generations enjoyed as family entertainment during the pre-and post-dinner hours.
It also offers a unique chance to appreciate the standards for quality, non-judgmental entertainment that prevailed in those bygone years.
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