Front Page Challenge was a panel game show focusing about current events and history.
CBC: June 24, 1957 – February 1, 1995
Win Barron (Summer 1957)
Alex Barris (fill-in host, 1957)
Fred Davis (host 1957–1995)
The long-running series featured notable journalists attempting to guess the recent or old news story with which a hidden guest challenger was linked by asking him or her questions, in much the same manner as the American game shows, What's My Line? and To Tell the Truth. Each round of the game started with news footage that introduced the news story in question to the studio audience and home viewers out of earshot of the panelists. After the guest was identified and/or the news story determined, the journalists then interviewed the guest about the story or about achievements or experiences for which he or she was known. Unlike American quiz shows that steered clear of controversy in the 1950s and 1960s, Front Page Challenge seems to have been affected by just one censorship practice, that of avoiding four-letter words.
Guests came from all walks of life, including politicians like Pierre Trudeau and Indira Gandhi, crusaders like Malcolm X, sports figures like Gordie Howe, entertainers like Boris Karloff and Ed Sullivan, and writers like Upton Sinclair. From 1957 to 1979, the show featured many non-Canadians whose trips to Toronto, where the show usually originated then, were paid by the CBC. (Gandhi was even flown from India to Toronto in the 1960s at the CBC's expense.) Occasionally, guests were featured for their involvement in stories that had nothing to do with their celebrity status. For example, Karloff was featured because he served as a rescue worker following a devastating 1912 tornado in Regina, Saskatchewan, where he was appearing in a play many years before horror films made him famous. Jayne Mansfield appeared in late 1961 to represent the recent victory of British prime minister Harold Macmillan's Conservative Party in parliamentary elections. The American actress, whose high IQ was well-publicized, was filming a movie in the U.K. at the time of the decisive votes. Occasionally, the challenger was one of the panelists themselves, unbeknownst to the other three panelists. After the game, the relevant person simply moved to the guest seat for the interview.
The show ran for nearly forty years and featured a remarkably stable cast of panelists, including journalist-historian Pierre Berton, Betty Kennedy (who later become a Canadian senator), Toby Robins (who later became a movie actress) and radio commentator Gordon Sinclair. Columnist Allan Fotheringham joined the panel after Sinclair's death. A guest panelist, usually another Canadian journalist, politician or other celebrity, was also part of each episode. In 1990, journalist and radio/TV personality Jack Webster joined the show as its permanent fourth panelist.
For its initial summer 1957 run, the show was hosted by Win Barron, best known for his voice-over narration of newsreels produced by the Canadian division of Paramount Pictures. However, Barron proved ill at ease in the moderator's seat, so both Fred Davis and panelist Alex Barris rotated as guest hosts in the early part of the fall before Davis was chosen to take over as host full-time (a position he retained for the rest of the show's run), though Barris continued to appear as a guest panelist occasionally. Years later, Barris published a history of the program (titled Front Page Challenge: The 25th Anniversary, CBC Books, 1981). After the show's cancellation, Barris published an updated version of the book in 1999.
Several weeks after its debut, Ottawa Citizen television columnist Bob Blackburn deemed the programme to be noticeably improved and predicted that if that trend continued "and if the program doesn't run dry on its slightly limited subject matter, Front Page Challenge might well become an institution on Canadian TV".
In his book, Barris says that at the height of the show's popularity in the late 1950s, the individual panelists became major celebrities in Canada. He relates how Toby Robins, a beautiful brunette, donned a blonde wig for a few episodes as an experiment, attracting hate mail including a death threat over the change of appearance. The books also include journalist Barbara Frum's remarks about how influential Robins was for 1950s-era female equality through her decision to appear on the program while pregnant.
Unfortunately, the show's stability proved to be its undoing, as the producers did not see fit to add younger panelists while the regulars aged and the audience demographics became less desirable. The show always was videotaped in or aired live from Toronto prior to 1966. During that year four shows originated from Montreal including one with challenger Jessica Mitford. The show continued going on the road, being videotaped in cities across Canada. The oldest regular, Gordon Sinclair, continued travelling with his fellow panelists to videotaping locations until he was well into his 80s. Although the location of the studio was not always noticeable to home viewers, they did notice the lack of guest challengers from foreign countries after 1979. The program no longer featured internationally known controversial figures to match the likes of Timothy Leary, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir and William F. Buckley who had held viewers' attention in the 1960s and most of the 1970s. Alex Barris says in his second book that the absence of non-Canadian guests after 1979 resulted from budget cuts for CBC Television that ruled out travel expenses.
Barris also claims that the advent of multiple cable channels in the 1980s and early 1990s (in Canada and the United States) presented another challenge to the staff of Front Page Challenge and contributed to its demise. Producers evidently tried to counteract the aging of the panel members by improving the news footage that introduced each segment. These attempts to imitate the faster pace of CBC Newsworld, which began delivering news throughout Canada 24 hours a day on July 31, 1989, backfired.
Prior to the 1980s when there were no 24-hour news channels competing with Front Page Challenge, each round of the game began with silent black and white newsreel footage of the news story in question while a narrator, not heard by the panelists, summarized it. Even after the segments started including color videotape, the only voice heard introducing the topical issue and the challenger was the voice of the narrator of Front Page Challenge.
When Front Page Challenge left the air in 1995, it was the longest continually running non-news program in Canadian television history. Among the contestants on the final show was then emerging country music superstar Shania Twain.