They walk off smiling, this family of five from Wylie, Tex., even though they just lost a chance at $5,000 in cash. Backstage and out of mike range, the losing momhugs Richard Dawson, host of ABC's "Family Feud" and tells him, "Seeing you was worth the trip."

Even the losers go away happy from "Family Feud."

The phrase "game show" may justifiably conjure gross images of self-degradation in the pursuit of loot; it isn't very inspiring to see how one's fellow American's will stoop for a lousy trip to Puerto Vallarta. But "Family Feud" is this indigenous American institution's redemption and, encouragingly enough, it is not only the most humane game on television but also the most popular. It is a smash hit.

"Feud" is consistently the top-rated game show in lucrative daytime network television and frequently, as during the week ending Nov. 17, It's the No. 1 show in all of daytime, beating even the mighty soaps. In a way, "Feud" is a nonfiction soap, because a single family may return for several consecutive days as it attempts to win the big moolah.

But the chief reason for the show's success is host Dawson-the fastest, brightest and most beguilingly caustic interlocutor since the late great Groucho bantered and parried on "You Bet Your Life." With Dawson at the helm. "Feud" has expanded from its network daytime slot into an additional twice-weekly syndicated edition and, unprecedented in the history of daytime games, has twice been showcased as a prime-time network special. The first of those came in sixth in the week's national Nielsen raings, demolishing all competition.%

The show's fans include Manhattan satirist Fran Lebowitz, who always watches if she's up by 11 a.m. and it was according the honor of a parody on "Saturday Night Live."

The game itself, invented by Mark Goodson-whose Goodson-Todman outift has produced such honorable same show classics as "What's My line?" and the soon-to-be-revived "Password" (and such dishonorable binges of cupidity as "The Price Is Right")-may not be a test of knowledge, but at least it is not a test of tastelessness. Five members from each of two competing families try to guess the most popular answers to questions asked of 100 people in surveys conducted by mail ballot.

Recent questions: "Name the bestcasting cookie." Most popular answer: "Chocolate Chip." Or, "Name a famous fairy." No. 1 answer: Tinkerbell."

The winner of the preliminary sounds goes on to "fast money" competition, and this involves coming up with five quick answers to survey questions within 15 seconds. "Name something that keeps you up at might," Dawson asked one harried contestant. "Werewolves," she replied. Wrong!

Dawson has succeeded largely and brilliantly by breaking the rules for game-show hosts. He is not just another face full of teeth. When contestants give dopey answers, he tells them so, sometimes recommending they go away for long rest cures.On the other hand, he communicates a sense of compassion and concern that also is unlike any of the goading ciphers running other games. Also, he kisses all the women contestants. On the lips, Yes, right on the old lippos.

"Well we got into that about the second or third week." Dawson recalls in his "Feud" dressing room, at the bottom of a spiral staircase beneath the studio. "I got to the end of the line and here was the rather darling lady about 50 or so and she was so nervous, she was a basket case. She didn't want to let her family down but she had no idea at all what to say and I said. "I'll do what my mom used to do,' and I kissed her on the check, and she gave an answer and it was there on the board. Then I went over to the other family and a woman said.'Don't I get a kiss, too?' and after that there was no stopping it."

ABC tried to stop it, however, they came up and said. "Well, we've had a lot of complaints, a lot of complaints.' Sec. 12 letters they figure are worth 13 million people. I said. 'You're out of your mind. We've not "Starsky and Hutch." We don't open the first minute of the show with a head in a garbagae can."

Howard Felsher, producer of "Family Feud" and a game-show vet of nearly 25 years, notes bitterly of the network's standards and practices (censorship) department. "They are the most inflexible tunnel visioned, colorless and frightened people in the world and you can quote me on that. They had a couple of people with a little imagination and flexibility in there, and they were fired!"

To settle the kissing issue, Dawson went straight to his constituency, and asked viewers to write in votes on postcards-to kiss or not to kiss, that was the question.

"I don't remember the exact totals," says Felsher, "but it was something like 14,000 who said 'kiss' and 300 or 400 who said 'don't kiss.' It was that lopsided."

One of Dawson's favorite words is "testy" and his own testiness threshold is pretty low. When a contributing sponsor of "Feud" complained to ABC that Dawson was making too many anti-Nixon jokes, and ABC brass told Felsher to tell Dawson to stop, Dawson leaped onto the air and told the unnamed company that if they didn't like his Nixon jokes, they could take their business elsewhere-a safe threat since "Family Feud" has sponsors waiting in line. When ABC demanded that Dawson's outburst be edited out of the tape, he threatened to quit. It stayed in.

Dawson wasn't afraid of losing a sponsor. "I know advertisers," he says."They'd sponsor Eichmann if he could move Rust-Off, or whatever." He smiles. "And may I say something? I'd do his warm-up No, but it's the truth."

Even a family feud with producer Felsher got on the air; Dawson got spleeny over a decision Felsher-as the official arbiter of answers-made, and told a family, "Either you'll be back on this show tomorrow or I won't." But on the next show he apologized for making the threat. "Now tell me anybody who's ever done anything like that on the air," says an admiring Felsher.

Bascially, theirs is a backgammon kind of relationship. All five "Family Feud" shows for each week are taped on a single night at ABC studios in a dank nook of L.A., and Dawson sprints down to his dressing room between shows and resumes a marathon backgammon match with Felsher before changing suits for the next show. Dawson virtually never wins but he loves to play.

Just a hair past 46, the British-born Dawson has the slightly astonished look of a man who might once have been married to Diana Dors. Indeed he was, and he has two teenage sons by that marriage. Dawson spent six years as a prisoner on the "Hogan's Heroes" sit-com, then became by far the most popular panelist on Goodson Todman's "Match Game" show on CBS.

During breaks in the show he puffs on a lighted cigarette held in readiness by announcer Gene Wood and responds to requests from girls, mothers and little old ladies in the audience that he kiss them. Richard Dawson is a spectacular hit with the very women daytime TV advertisers covet the most, those 18-to-49-year-old consumers.

But he also can bowl over babies and grannies with effortless affability.

Occasionally even Dawson, known for his lightning retorts, is floored by the answers given by families on the show. One burly family was asked to name "crimes that each of us has thought of committing at one time or another." The survey results included things like shoplifting and even, in the more figurative sense of the word, murder.

But the family had different answers. First a woman said "prostitution." Then a man said, "Grand theft auto." Finally, for the family's third and final strike, the papa ventured, "Hit and run?"

A Japanese-American family lost its chance at the big money because it couldn't think of one more "food that you have to boil." The crucial answer: "Rice."

Dawson asked another man to name an animal with three letters in its name. The man said "frog." Dawson broke into laughter, then asked the man's brother the same question. The brother said, "alligator."

"They sent me silver tie clips later," Dawson recalls. "One sent me a frog and one sent me an alligator."

Among the biggest laughs he can remember was recorded during the opening of the show, when he meets and interviews family members. "One girl said she worked for Panasonic. I asked her what she did, and she said she worked on TV sets on the assembly line. She said. 'I spot-weld them and hand them on,' so went on to her sister and I said, 'And what do you do?' and she said, 'I screw 'em.' And I turned to the camera and said. 'Panasonic - just slightly ahead of our time.'"

Another time Dawson asked a contestant. "Name a part of the mouth." The man said, "Tall." Dawson said. "You are weird. Did you think I said 'mouse?'" The man nodded. "So I said, 'Let's give him another chance. Okay, name a part of the mouth.' And he said, 'Nose.' I think it got the biggest single laugh we've ever had on the air."

One contestant was asked to name "a famous place where an annual sporting event is held." His answer: "Forest Lawn." A little girl listened to her fellow family members answer "toothbrush," "towel" and "bathing suit" to the question. "Name something that gets wet when you use it." and after a moment's thought she blurted out the only answer she could think of: "Toilet paper."

"ABC wanted to cut that out and we FORCED them to leave it in." says Felsher. "It's a perfectly legitimate answer."

Felsher's staff interviews 300 families a week who want to be on the show-a small percentage of those who apply by mail-and Felsher makes final selections during dry runs of the game at offices on Sunset Boulevard. He is frequently appalled, he says, by how little so many people seem to know.

"One of the questions I always use is 'Name an Arab country,'" says Felsher. "To that one I frequently get 'Siberia.' or 'Argentina.' but worst of all, every single time I ask the question, somebody will say, 'Israel.' Name one of the Great Lakes? I get, 'The Rio Grande.' Last night, a sophomore at Cal State Fullerton-a graduate of the California public school system-was asked to name any state bordered by the Atlantic Ocean. And this girl said. 'Hawaii.'"

Dawson, who's won an Emmy for hosting "Feud," seems to know just how far to go in ridiculing a dumb answer on the air. Occasionally he outwits himself. On a show taped for airing prior to Christmas, he asks, "Name something a groom might do several times on the morning of his wedding." to which a contestant replied. "Comb his hair." Dawson raised his eyebrows and made an "oh, brother" sneer-but then "Comb hair" turned out to be the "No. 1 answer."

"I knew a time would come when I had to leave this show," said Dawson, sitting down on the carpeted steps of the set and looking as though his dog had just been hit by a Greyhound bus. Of course the audience loved it.

When a family wins the big money, they will frequently so overrun Dawson with hugs that up in the booth director Paul Alter panics; he's afraid Dawson's transistorized body mike will be knocked askew.

"What makes Richard so good," the horized executive Goodson, "is that he generally says the unexpected, is open in his instantaneous feelings, yet can deal with a highly formatted and highly structured program. This also means that occasionally he's a little naughty and occasionally he's a little dangerous."

The trick is in making it look easy when it isn't, Goodson says; "We've made a fortune because people have always underestimated what we do."

Felsher, whose past productions included the rigged '50s game show "Tic Tac Dough"-"I hasten to point out that I'm not hiding that, but it's an old-hat story," he says-thinks Dawson's success is greatly due to his knowledge. "There are damn few knowledgeable emcees. Richard reads, 'cause he's an insomniac, a couple or books a day. Here's a guy who didn't go to high school-he was out on a freighter at 14 years of age.

"When contestants doze off, that's the thing that really ticks me off," sayd Dawson testify, "and I tell them about it. But (Bob) Barker (of The Price is Right') or those other guys won't do it because they all want to be Charlie Charming. They never really listen anyway. All those hosts. They'll say, 'Name a country in South America,' and the guy will say, 'Asia,' and they'll say, 'Very good try, but not correct.' Well, you've got to lock the man up, don't you?

"I'll do sarcastic lines just to make the contestants angry enough so they'll forget they're on television and say, 'I'll show this (so-and-so),' and come up with an answer."

Felsher and Dawson are both proud that they've pioneered in having minority, elder and handicapped contestants on the show. "In the old days, it was always 'no' to handicapped people," Felsher recalls.

An upcoming "Feud" show will be the first to have two black families competing. Which gave Dawson the chance to say, when the first two contestants came up to the podium and stood on either side of him, "I feel like an Oreo cookie."

A blind contestant recently on the show made it to the final fast-money round. Traditionally, Dawson then turns the contestant around, with his back to the studio audience, to watch the answers pop up on the board at the back of the set. "And the blind guy says to me, 'What the hell are you turning ME around for?" This breaks Dawson up. "I said. 'I'm turning you around so that I can see the answers."

Finally Dawson is asked. "How do you keep from feeling sorry for the losers," and his answer is indicative of why "Family Feud" is one of the best and warmest ritual programs in all of TV.

"I dont," Dawson says.