By Allison J. Waldman
Special to TelevisionWeek
When you hear the phrase “Survey says …” only one thing comes to mind-the veteran game show “Family Feud.” The venerable Mark Goodson-Bill Todman show celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, and FremantleMedia North America and Tribune Entertainment are launching a revamped version for the upcoming fall season. Taking over as host will be popular actor and “Dancing With the Stars” champion John O’Hurley.
“I am excited that I have been chosen as the host of such a television institution,” said Mr. O’Hurley, who follows Richard Dawson, the first and most distinctive host of the show, the late Ray Combs, Louie Anderson and Richard Karn.
“We are incredibly thrilled to have John O’Hurley join our ‘Family,'” said Cecile Frot-Coutaz, CEO of FremantleMedia North America. “He is tremendously talented, resonates with our viewers and will bring his unique charm and humor to this icon of American television.”
Mr. O’Hurley, a multitalented performer and veteran actor, emerged as an iconic cultural figure in 1995 when he appeared on the NBC sitcom “Seinfeld.” Playing the rakish, self-involved catalog mogul J. Peterman, Mr. O’Hurley scored so well that he became a semi-regular character. He even wound up part-owner of the J. Peterman catalog when the real John Peterman offered him a buy-in and Mr. O’Hurley, a part-time financier in two venture capital companies, invested.
Last summer Mr. O’Hurley made a splash as one of the contestants on ABC’s reality series “Dancing With the Stars.” Although he had little dance experience before the show, Mr. O’Hurley quickly became a fan favorite-so much so that when he and partner Charlotte Jorgensen came in second on the season finale, ABC was compelled to broadcast a rematch. In that edition, Mr. O’Hurley and Ms. Jorgensen were crowned champions.
Dick Askin, president and CEO of Tribune Entertainment, believes in Mr. O’Hurley’s newfound popularity: “We feel confident that the addition of the charismatic John O’Hurley, as well as a refreshed look, will attract even more viewers and take this popular franchise to the next level.”
In its 30 years on the air-in daytime, prime time, syndication and specials-“Family Feud” has enjoyed tremendous success. It has been broadcast around the world, won Emmy Awards (for outstanding game show in 1977 and for Mr. Dawson as outstanding game show host in 1978) and has entered popular culture in a variety of ways, including “Saturday Night Live” sketches, a “Sesame Street” variation and even a reincarnation in an Old Navy commercial.
“Family Feud” began as a quasi-spinoff of “Match Game.” The “Super Match” round included a studio audience survey in which audience members gave their answers to a fill-in-the-blank phrase. Mr. Goodson developed that concept into “Family Feud” and plucked Mr. Dawson, one of the regular panelists on “Match Game,” to be the host.
Almost immediately, the program was a success. From 1977-79, it was the highest-rated game show in daytime. It continued to be a ratings winner in the years that followed and was the top syndicated game show until “Wheel of Fortune” supplanted it in 1984.
Overseeing most of these editions was Mr. Dawson, a British-born actor who first gained attention in America as part of the cast of sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes.” However, it was with “Family Feud” that his reputation soared. While most game show hosts up to that point were smiling, podium-bound, card-reading traffic cops, Mr. Dawson was the antithesis. He stepped away from the lectern, liberally joked with the guests and was generally more playful than his game show brethren. He greeted female players-young and old-with a peck on the cheek, earning him the nickname “The Kissing Bandit.”
“It was a perfect match,” said executive producer Gabrielle Johnston, who started on “Family Feud” as a contestant coordinator in 1980 and has helmed the show since 2002. “The show was just perfect for someone like Richard Dawson because it was more than a game show. It allowed him to do more than what traditional game show hosts were doing.”
Mr. Dawson hosted on ABC and in syndication for nine consecutive years (1976-85), and returned for one more in 1994.
Following Mr. Dawson, comic Ray Combs took over as host of “Family Feud” in syndication in 1988. Asked about succeeding Mr. Dawson, Mr. Combs said, “People say those are big shoes to fill. I don’t have to wear his shoes. I’ve got my own.” And Mr. Combs did attempt to make the show his own, playing off the contestants with his quick wit. However, Mr. Dawson’s success was hard to match. Mr. Combs was let go, and in 1994 Mr. Dawson resumed his hosting duties.
Mr. Dawson’s presence did boost the Nielsen ratings, but coverage of the O.J. Simpson murder trial interrupted daily broadcasts, and daytime programming suffered mightily. On Sept. 8, 1995, the show went off the air. On June 2, 1996, Mr. Combs committed suicide, reportedly depressed over financial troubles and lack of work.
“Family Feud” returned to syndication in 1999 with comedian Louie Anderson as host. In 2002 Richard Karn, best known as Tim Allen’s sidekick on “Home Improvement,” replaced Mr. Anderson as host. “Both of them did a really good job,” Ms. Johnston said. “With Richard Karn, there was a whole different rhythm. He was like a football coach. He kept the pace much faster than Louie did. It was just the differences in the way they worked. The problem with Louie was that his humor takes time, and we didn’t have it. A lot of his funniest stuff wasn’t seen. But Louie had great respect for ‘Family Feud,’ he really did. And he had a ball doing it.”
When Mr. O’Hurley begins hosting this fall, it won’t be his first outing as a game show host. Starting in 2000 he hosted two shows: a syndicated version of Mr. Goodson’s “To Tell the Truth,” which he hosted for two years; and USA Network’s “Get Golf With the PGA Tour,” which he hosted for three years. Mr. O’Hurley will continue to have a busy schedule, which recently included a stint on Broadway in the musical “Chicago” and a guest role on “General Hospital.” For the latter, he told Soap Opera Digest, “I’ve got a lot of plates spinning right now, but it’s tough to hit a moving target [so] I just keep dancing! I’m happy.”