"Family Feud" and host John O'Hurley have upped the ante in the game show's new season, with a faster-paced opening, a new look and new prizes.
But the sour economy has also boosted interest in the syndicated series as it marks its 30th anniversary, said executive producer Gaby Johnston.
At packed tryouts held recently in five U.S. cities, families were candid about their need for help with mortgages, college and Christmas expenses and more, even in front of a crowd of other would-be contestants, she said.
"They weren't afraid to tell me. And everybody starting clapping when they said that," Johnston recalled, adding that the rooms were filled. In Phoenix, for example, more than 1,500 people were on hand.
They said potential winnings — including the car that's been added as a prize — would be welcome, Johnston said. Some people talked about being jobless.
In the new, fast-paced "bull's-eye round" that opens the show, contestants have a chance to bank up to $30,000 before the main round of play begins. Those who win the fast-money round at the show's conclusion can keep the banked cash.
Other changes include a set makeover and video profiles of the competing families, intended to make viewers feel more invested in the contestants, according to the show. A new Wii version of the game was just released.
The revisions are a response to the game's longevity and altered audience habits, Johnston said. "Family Feud" asks competing families to identify how the public responded to survey questions.
"We used to go 10 minutes before the first question was read. Now you've got to go (into the contest) within a minute. Viewers change the channel so fast," she said.
But the format is essentially intact, she added: "The audience loves familiarity. If we went too far, people we would think we robbed them."
O'Hurley, in his fourth season as host, welcomed the new elements.
"It immediately infuses the show with an energy we were never able to get to before," he said. "It's a wonderful way to trigger families to a high-energy approach ... and it's easier for viewers to get right into the game."
O'Hurley, whose wide-ranging career includes the role of catalog king Peterman in "Seinfeld," King Arthur in the Las Vegas and touring production of "Monty Python's Spamalot" and books and albums ("Secrets From the Lake" is his latest CD), said he's settled in happily with "Feud."
He had hosted another game show, "To Tell the Truth," but found the celebrity panel did most of the heavy lifting. "Family Feud" falls on the host's shoulders, O'Hurley said.
"When you get out there, you leap and hope the net will appear. ... You have to have your wits about you," he said.