Since the broadcast networks stopped going on auto-pilot during the summer months, they have packed the May-to-August portion of their schedules with high-profile projects in an effort to keep viewers from tuning out until the fall. NBC premiered Aquarius, Fox rolled out Wayward Pines, ABC aired The Whispers and Astronaut Wives Club, and CBS had the splashiest debut of all with Zoo, based on James Patterson's novel.
But as the Nielsen dust settles, a surprise entry has emerged as the summer's most-watched new series: Celebrity Family Feud. ABC's prime-time, star-studded version of the hit syndicated game show (both are hosted by Steve Harvey) has bested all newcomers—and every returning summer series except for America's Got Talent—to reign as the top new show in total viewers (8.3 million) and adults ages 18-49 (with a 2.0 rating).
In a summer filled with underperforming new shows, Celebrity Family Feud is the rare exception—a true summer TV hit. Bringing a celebrity version of the show to ABC "is something I've been trying to do for years, but everything has to come together at the right time," said Rob Mills, svp, alternative series, specials and late-night programming for ABC. "This past spring, we needed something for summer, and I was able to do it."
FremantleMedia North America, which produces the syndicated version (as well as America's Got Talent), was also on board with bringing the show to prime time. "Summer really seemed like a great time to roll out the show—light summer fare, comedy, family viewing, and it's where the network had a hole," said Jennifer Mullin, FremantleMedia North America's co-CEO and executive producer of Celebrity Family Feud.
Also important: Airing the show in summer would keep it from diluting the syndicated Family Feud, which is airing repeats during those months. "I really look at this as a bunch of high-end specials," said Mullin. "It's a natural extension of what we do on the syndicated show. It's not competing with it."
From the get-go, ABC knew it would use the NBA Finals to launch Celebrity Family Feud. "We had seen this very clearly when we bought it as—we knew we had the finals as a perfect opportunity, so we promoted there," said Mills.
Celebrity Feud booked Rob Gronkowski from the New England Patriots to appear on the game show. "And one of the questions we asked him was about something that can be inflated or deflated," said Mills, referring to his team's Deflategate football controversy. "We knew right there, the combination of Rob Gronkowski and Family Feud, you've got a 15-second promo that was irresistible. We were off and running."
Even so, ABC had modest ratings expectations for Celebrity Family Feud when it debuted on June 21. Mills said the network hoped simply to "improve over what we'd done in past summers" when ABC stumbled with series like the failed music competition Rising Star. "So we thought we'd have a chance to improve what we had been doing, but we didn't think it would blow by it!"
Instead, the show premiered to a 2.4 in the 18-49 demographic, making it the strongest summer debut since Under the Dome two years ago. Much like Empire, which became a hit too late into its Season 1 production for Fox to extend the run, the ratings news came too late for ABC to add episodes beyond Sunday's Celebrity Family Feud finale. The episodes were taped last month, and Harvey also juggles hosting duties on the syndicated Family Feud, as well as his talk show, The Steve Harvey Show. "I would love to, but Steve is incredibly busy," said Mills. "There's a lot of advance planning that goes into this."
As for Celebrity Family Feud's unexpectedly robust ratings, "we have a very loyal and consistent fan base in the syndicated version, and they follow the show," said Mullin. The syndicated version averaged a 2.0 last season in adults 18-49. But beyond that, "Family Feud is a familiar brand, so we're not launching a brand-new show that nobody's ever heard of before. People know what they are getting. And Steve is a major, major draw."
While NBC had aired its own Celebrity Family Feud in 2008 (hosted by Al Roker), and more recently has found celebrity-themed game show summer success with Hollywood Game Night, Mills said he was drawn to Celebrity Family Feud because of its host. "I'd seen these clips that would go viral on YouTube, and not only would I laugh hysterically, but I would watch them five or six times, the same way you'd listen to an old comedy album," said Mills. "And that's when I knew there was something to this. It was the perfect marriage of a game and Steve."
The last time ABC found itself with an unexpected hit game show during the summer was 1999's Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The network quickly went back in production, returning it to the air in time for November sweeps. This time around, ABC won't contemplate the show's future—whether it stays a summer staple or returns during the season à la Millionaire—until after its first season ends on Sunday. "It's been so great to wake up every Monday to these numbers," said Mills. "We're going to enjoy this last week, and then we'll talk about what the next steps are."
And while other networks (as well as ABC itself) will undoubtedly be tempted to jump on the celebrity game show bandwagon given Family Feud's ratings, Mills said without Harvey in the mix, he's not sure those numbers can be replicated. "Look, you never say never," he said, "but my instinct is this one is very special."