FRONT PAGE CHALLENGE

Canadian Panel Quiz/Public Affairs Program

Front Page Challenge, television's longest continuously running panel show, was one of the most familiar landmarks on the Canadian broadcasting landscape. During much of its 38-season run on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), from 1957-95, it was among Canadian television's most popular programs, regularly drawing average audiences of one to two million in the small Canadian market; towards the end, viewership dropped, numbering about 500,000 in the show's final season. A book was published in 1982 to mark the show's 25th anniversary.

Front Page Challenge was first born as a summer fill-in show; at the time, it was one of many quiz shows on the air, a genre popular because of the low production costs involved, and Front Page Challenge was in fact named after an American quiz favourite of the time, called The $64,000 Challenge. A half-hour program, Front Page Challenge featured four panelists, usually well-known journalists, who would ask yes-or-no questions in an attempt to correctly identify a mystery challenger connected to a front-page news item, as well as the news item itself. After the panelists had guessed correctly--or been stumped--they would proceed to interview the challenger.

Equal parts quiz show and current affairs panel, Front Page Challenge's hybridization of televisual genres drew in not only audience members attracted by the entertainment value of the quiz show format, but also viewers who were curious about who the week's mystery challengers would be, and eager to hear them interviewed by Front Page Challenge's panel of crack journalists. Long before current affairs programs or all-news channels like CNN or CBC Newsworld began to offer up similar fare, Front Page Challenge provided Canadians with a human look at the newsmakers they read about in their morning papers. Over the years, some of the show's guests included figures as diverse as Indira Gandhi--saying she would never go into politics--Eleanor Roosevelt, hockey player Gordie Howe, Tony Bennett, and Errol Flynn, along with Mary Pickford, a Canadian and one of cinema's first stars. Walter Cronkite even announced his new job as CBS anchor on the program.

As a television program noted for its attention to the newspaper, Front Page Challenge panelists were almost exclusively eminent Canadian newspaper workers. For most of the show's run, well-known reporter Gordon Sinclair and journalist-writer Pierre Berton joined actress Toby Robins to form the panel, with a guest panelist making a fourth, and Fred Davis hosting the show. Broadcaster Betty Kennedy replaced Robins in 1961, and upon Gordon Sinclair's death in 1984, he was replaced by author and columnist Alan Fotheringham. Another prominent reporter, Jack Webster, was added as a permanent fourth panelist in 1990.

That Front Page Challenge pointed not to the everyday world, but to other points within the media universe--the television program's very name evokes the newspaper--is significant as more than a sign of the times, however. By building a show in which competence in recalling newspaper headlines is the most important attribute, Front Page Challenge helped reinforce the social importance attached to what is reported in the media. The show's use of the newspaper as a frame of reference for significant events had the effect of perpetuating the idea that news happens in the real world, and that the media simply reflect these goings-on. As much research has shown, though, what we read in the newspaper is as much the result of the institutionalized conditions of newspaper reporting as it is of what goes on "out there"--the news is constructed by the media. Front Page Challenge, then, was an early example of the proliferation of television programs which recycle media content as news--Entertainment Tonight is perhaps the best-known example--and demonstrates how this type of programming tends, among other things, to contribute to the "aura" of media, in which the media world comes to stand in for the lived world.

As the product of the quiz show genre popular in the 1950s and 1960s, Front Page Challenge stood both within and outside of that television format, and thus provides a unique vantage point from which to look at the quiz or game show. Whereas the game show is characterized by its catapulting unknown, everyday individuals from the private sphere into the public sphere of television--providing home viewers with an easy locus of identification--Front Page Challenge featured only well-known public figures or newsmakers. Indeed, the only way an ordinary viewer might hope to participate in the program, other than becoming involved in a news event, was by successfully writing to Front Page Challenge and suggesting a front-page story to be used. Unlike other game or quiz shows, there was little competition--the panel worked together as a team--and almost no prizes to be won. Even the home viewers themselves were positioned in an unorthodox way on Front Page Challenge: whereas in other game shows the viewer plays along with the contestants, often shouting out the answer in her or his living room before it emerges from the television speaker, the Front Page Challenge viewer was able to actually see the mystery challenger, who stood behind the panelists, hidden from their eyes, but in full view of the camera.

Eliminating the elements of the quiz show genre seen as crass or vulgar helped to provide Front Page Challenge with an air of legitimacy and respectability that the straight quiz show did not enjoy; the show's evocation of the newspaper's seriousness, its panelists, and its location on the State broadcasting network marked it as a "quality" television program. This controlled distance from what was seen as "American mass culture" helped distance it considerably from the quiz show scandals which plagued American broadcasting in the 1960s--including Front Page's namesake, The $64,000 Challenge.

When Front Page Challenge was taken off the air in 1995, a move emblematic of major restructuring at the CBC, it signalled the end of an era in Canadian television broadcasting. The program's mixing of quiz show and public affairs, its lending of journalistic credence to the game show genre, and the interest with which audiences tuned in to hear and watch newsmakers of the day exemplified television's ability to convey the human qualities and attributes of those who were in the news.

-Bram Abramson


Front Page Challenge
Photo courtesy of CBC

HOSTS
Win Berron, Fred Davis

PANELISTS
Toby Robbins, Alex Barris, Gordon Sinclair, Betty Kennedy, Pierre Berton, Alan Fotheringham, Jack Webster

MODERATORS
Win Barron, Alex Barris, Fred Davis

PRODUCERS Harvey Hart, James Guthro, Andrew Crossan, Don Brown, and others

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

CBC
1957-1995                                          Weekly Half Hour

FURTHER READING

Barris, Alex. Front Page Challenge: The 25th Anniversary. Toronto: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1981.

Gould, Terry. "Front Page Challenged." Saturday Night (Toronto, Canada), July/August 1995.

Grossberg, Larry. "The In-difference of Television." Screen (London), 1987.

Knelman, Martin. "The Eternal Challenge." Saturday Night (Toronto, Canada), March, 1992.

McLuhan, H. Marshall. Understanding Media. New York: McGraw Hill, 1964.

Stam, Robert. "Television News and Its Spectator." In, E. Ann Kaplan, editor. Regarding Television. Frederick, Maryland: American Film Institute, 1983.

Tuchman, Gaye. Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality. New York: The Free Press/MacMillan Publishing, 1978.

Valpy, Michael. "No more Front Page Challenge. No more Canada?" The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada), 15 April 1995.

 

See also Berton, Pierre; Canadian Programming in English