Harvey-Fueled 'Feud' Bucks Downward Ratings Trend

Host change proves turnarounds possible as game shows continue to lose viewers
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Debmar-Mercury’s Family Feud, with Steve Harvey newly installed as host, is bucking a genre-wide downward ratings trend among syndicated game shows by improving across key measures.

Feud is up 7% season-to-date in households and 20% among adults 25-54, according to Nielsen Media Research. It’s also improving time periods in several markets including Dallas, Atlanta, Houston, Detroit, Tampa and Washington, D.C.

Most often, shows’ ratings improve or decline due to a time-period upgrade or an additional cable run. But for Feud this season, the major change is Harvey. “There’s one big difference between last year and this year, and that’s Steve,” says Lonnie Burstein, Debmar-Mercury executive VP of programming and production. Debmar- Mercury distributes the show to stations; FremantleMedia North America produces it.

In fact, Harvey likely will mean the difference between the show staying on the air and being cancelled.

Feud’s ratings uptick demonstrates that programming changes can improve a show’s performance, but most shows are finding that their ratings decline as the audience fragments.

Over the past five years, CBS Television Distribution’s game leader, Wheel of Fortune, has dropped 21% in households, from an 8.0 household average in 2005-06 to a 6.3 average this season. Syndication’s second-place game and overall show, CTD’s Jeopardy!, has declined nearly 16%, dropping a rating point from a 6.4 in 2005-06 to a 5.4 so far this season. Disney-ABC’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire, in third place, has dropped 27%, from a 3.1 in 2005-06 (and an uptick to a 3.2 in 2006-07) to a 2.2 this year.

Game shows went through a brief revival five years ago, when NBC aired Deal Or No Deal in primetime. Fox aired Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? and Don’t Forget the Lyrics. All three shows ended up in syndication, although none of them have received huge ratings. Deal ended its run this fall, after two years on the air. Fifth Grader and Lyrics both are averaging a 1.0 household rating or below this season, but both shows are additionally supported with runs on three platforms: syndication, primetime and cable.

“New original game shows are almost impossible to launch, even if they are established brands,” says one syndication executive. “At least with a talk show, it’s slightly different every day. Game shows are really the same thing every day. That’s what makes a game show a game show.”

That explains why after that brief resurgence, no game shows are in development for syndication. CBS, however, is having some success with its pair of games: The Price Is Right and a remake of Let’s Make a Deal, starring Wayne Brady, which premiered on the network last October.

“There’s never been a successful launch of a first-run game show that hasn’t had prior network exposure,” says Burstein. “Game shows in syndication are somewhat dictated by the networks. When they work, the networks want a lot of them. When they don’t, the networks don’t want them at all.”

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