Game shows' big wheel
Friedman has helped keep Wheel and Jeopardy on top for years
By Joe Schlosser -- Broadcasting & Cable, 3/31/2002 7:00:00 PM
Harry Friedman knows a thing or two about game shows, having worked on more than 30. As executive producer of both Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, he has helped those shows stay atop the ratings with innovations that keep viewers tuning in.
Moving to Hollywood at age 24, "all I knew is I wanted to be in television," says the Nebraska native. "I didn't set out to be in game shows, I don't think anybody did back then. But I wanted to be in television."
His first gig, though, was as a salesman at Oliver's, a men's clothing store in the San Fernando Valley. On the side, he repaired TVs and wrote jokes for a friend's nightclub act. He got his show biz break when a friend recommended him to the producers of Hollywood Squares in 1971. Offered a question-writing position on the show, Friedman jumped at the chance: "I think I gave the folks at Oliver's an hour's notice."
For 10 years, he worked as a producer/writer on Hollywood Squares. "It was the best training ground," he recalls. "It was great fun. The low points were so few I can hardly remember them, and the high points are so numerous I can't begin to recount them."
He also began writing comedy routines for some of the regular celebrities on Squares, including Doc Severenson and John Davidson. The show was canceled in 1981, and Friedman began producing anything he could get his hands on.
He did game-show pilots and small projects for private businesses, including a script for an association of funeral directors. "I don't think they appreciated or got my humor."
After five years of freelancing, Friedman landed on the set of The New Hollywood Squares and worked as a writer/producer until the show was pulled off the air again.
In 1990, he found himself freelancing again. "Game shows had fallen out of favor. I was proud of the work I had done, and I've always been proud to have been associated with game shows, but that's just not what the marketplace wanted."
He produced prime time specials, including American Yearbook for CBS, late-night series Personals, and Caesar's Challenge out of hotel/casino Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas.
He took a writer/producer post on syndicated talk show Mike & Maty in 1993. Then, he says, he heard about the possibility of joining the producer ranks at Wheel of Fortune and jumped at the opportunity. "Wheel was in its 13th season, and I think the studio [Columbia TriStar] felt it was time to maybe bring in some fresh ideas. So, when I came to the show, I wanted to increase the energy level, give it a more contemporary feel."
The first thing he did was change the letters that Vanna White turned. For the first 13 seasons, they were plastic, and, between puzzles, the show was forced to stop taping while new letters were put in. "The change allowed us to tape the shows in real time," Friedman says. "Once we did, I saw the energy levels in Pat [Sajak], Vanna and the audience come up."
Two years later, he added producing chores at Jeopardy and soon made some changes there. "The long-held belief was you don't dare take the show outside the studio; too many things can happen. So, in November 1997, we took the show on the road to Washington, D.C., and it was a big hit."
Wheel is in its 19th season; Jeopardy celebrates its 4,000th episode this month with a special Radio City Music Hall Million Dollar Masters Tournament. How long can the shows continue?
"As long as we don't change the core of the games, they can go on for a long time," he says. "There are a lot of things we can do to change the show, but I would never do anything to change the game."
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