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Family Feud’s return confirms the state of game shows in Australia

Grant Denyer gets ready for action on set. Channel 10

Family Feud returns to our television screens tonight as part of Ten’s desperate scramble to remain a viable entity, and is scheduled to compete with Seven and Nine’s main news bulletins at 6pm.

For those unfamiliar, Feud’s format is based upon identifying the most popular responses to survey questions, essentially rewarding “inside-the-box” thinking. Prizes accrue by “knowing” what everyone else knows. Forget general knowledge – just be general.

Does Feud’s reincarnation speak to a broader cultural malaise of celebrating mediocrity? Case in point from Ten’s contestant call for Feud:

Name something you pull up. If you said ‘pants’ you guessed the top answer! 58 out of 100 guessed ‘pants’ too!

To be fair, there is humour to be found in this format, but one that is necessarily of the broadest kind.

Consider that when Feud returns it will take back the mantle of Australia’s longest running primetime game show still on the air from Seven’s Deal or No Deal. Last year Deal sailed past a staggering 2,000 episodes, of which Andrew O’Keefe hosted every single damn one. I thought we had labour laws against such dehumanising monotony.

Anyway, though Deal is now airing in repeats and no new episodes are currently being produced its curious longevity nevertheless paints a sorry picture of game shows in Australia.

There is something painfully telling in recognising that a format based entirely on dumb luck, basic probability and gross avarice only began to show its age after 11 years.

“Champions” on Deal are ultimately made through vice, for the format entails that the only way to win the grand A$200,000 prize requires a final gamble, risking in a single decision vast, potentially life-changing sums of money, say, around A$100,000 in one particular case:

It is difficult to think of any other venue where an individual could behave as such and not be met with universal derision and scorn. It’s hard to argue with 2,000-plus episodes in the can though.

Prior to its (re-)cancellation in 2012 The Price is Right held the honour of longest-running game show still airing. Indeed the format’s clever incorporation of brand names into quirky games succeeded for a long time, but now seems embarrassingly dated.

Guessing, for instance, whether hair clips are more expensive than shaving cream suggests an idea conceived by Don Draper and targeted at Betty.

Hair clips or shaving cream? Pick a gold briefcase and cross your fingers. Our survey said “pants”. These formats have dominated the Australian game show landscape for decades.

Yes, I am being an insufferable grump. Andrew O’Keefe is certainly likeable, Family Feud does have the promise of laughs for all ages, and The Price is Right found a way to inject fun and suspense into our everyday consumption habits.

Still, does there have to be such a discord between meaningful talent and reward? Can the right set-up measure some quality worth having, worth celebrating?

Can we take comfort in knowing that a contestant’s victory is – at least in some limited way – earned by way of virtuous talent?

Sure. Indeed the most intellectually challenging game shows often feel no compulsion to provide lavish prizes. Rather, the public confirmation of one’s capabilities is deemed to be sufficient compensation.

Contestants on the grey-matter stimulating Letters and Numbers (sadly “rested” in 2012) received a Macquarie dictionary, a token gesture symbolic of their erudition.

Would there be any value in similarly playing Price, Deal, or Feud solely for pride? The suggestion is absurd as these constructs do not provide anything meaningful upon which to hang a sense of achievement.

A million monkeys with a million gold briefcases would amount to an awful lot of Deal champions, the most decidedly “average” punter you know would likely make for an ideal Feud contestant, and the skilled Price player probably reads too much junk mail.

Roo Reynolds

Yet as viewers we admire the successful contestants of knowledge-based game shows not because the trivia questions matter in and of themselves, but rather because the ability to consistently answer them suggests a concerted engagement with the world, an accessible display of rigour and discipline in search of wisdom.

Winners of these testing contests do not chance upon victory, rather their success constitutes – albeit within a small prism – the work of a lifetime.

Many of our popular game show formats past and present only slake the affective and emotional aspects of game show appeal, disguising the banality of their setups behind garish set designs, host shtick, and oversized cheques.

Even Eddie McGuire’s Millionaire has only survived through a heavy injection of luck and musical chairs into its format.

Million Dollar Minute is a rare exception to this trend of celebrating mediocrity and vice, here’s hoping Feud doesn’t cut into its audience share.

This is a long shot, but if Ten insists on dredging up tired vessels then why not bring back University Challenge? Sadly, an Australian version ran for just a few years in the 80s on the ABC.

Challenge’s return could be especially enlivening to our pop culture landscape given that the long-running British version is where so many future public intellectuals first appeared on our screens – Clive James, Stephen Fry, Christopher Hitchens, Sebastian Faulks, and The Wizard of New Zealand, to name a few – and recent champions are widely feted for their astounding capabilities.

Pants chance of that happening though.

Family Feud premieres at 6pm tonight on Channel 10.

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