As each weekday slopes into evening, and we return home from work and settle in with family, America's thoughts turn to Harry Friedman.
Not the man directly, perhaps, but more than anybody else in television, Friedman-executive producer since 1999 of the two highest-rated series in syndication, the dinnertime staples Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy-has kept viewers entertained, challenged and amused with game shows that are as American as pennant races and peach cobbler. Let the battles rage for supremacy of primetime and late night. Harry Friedman owns dusk.
"One of the most gratifying things we hear from viewers is that both shows are really part of a lifestyle," says Friedman. "They're part of a tradition that always seems to include family time, and that's really a position of high honor as far as I'm concerned.
"We're not just TV shows; there's a familiarity and yet a freshness," he adds of the series. "We're reliable and yet not predictable."
The same can be said for Friedman's career in television. From his days writing memorable, Emmy-winning comedic material for Hollywood Squares, through helping launch Rock 'n' Roll Jeopardy for VH1 in 1998, to his current gigs, Friedman has added a pop to the formulaic, and made television that feels somehow both consistent and consistently surprising.
"He is unquestionably, easily the best game show producer out there; he's in a league by himself," says Steve Mosko, president of Sony Pictures Television, producer of both series. "What he has done over the years is to improve upon two of the greatest shows in the history of American television, and do it in a way that's subtle and enhances the experience without disrupting viewers."
The timing of the honor is particularly sweet for Friedman, as Wheel is presently celebrating its 25th year on the air. (Jeopardy will do so next year.) From engineering both his series' much-lauded HD transitions in 2005, to the Wheel remotes that have made the show more exciting, it's clear to everyone working with Friedman that his vocation is more one of love than labor.
"When you've been on TV this long, it's easy to put everything on cruise control, and sit there and read the trades. But Harry is always engaged," says longtime Wheel co-host Pat Sajak. "There is a sameness to what we do. The alphabet's always been 26 letters. But he doesn't miss anything. There's a hypnotic quality to a show like ours, or it could be that way, and he's kept it fresh for everybody."
That's been a particularly proud trait of Friedman's ever since he discovered television during his boyhood days in Omaha. That his father owned one of the first retail TV dealerships in the neighborhood gave Friedman an early view of the medium, and an appreciation of its power to inspire the imagination.
"I think it was only in retrospect that I realized how [influential] it was, in terms of my life and culturally," he says. "It was entertaining-more than anything, it was that."
Keeping things entertaining remained a valuable lesson. It was hammered home when he was learning the ropes while hanging around Omaha's first TV stations; while he watched hometown hero Johnny Carson push TV's envelope; and later, in the early 1970s, after he began working with legendary game show mavens Merrill Heatter and Bob Quigley on Squares.
It was a grand age for the show. Originally, in the mid-1960s, Squares had been conceived to stress the bluffing of its celebrity guest stars. When Heatter and Quigley decided to instead add humor to questions, the show's popularity was cemented, and it made stars of squares such as Paul Lynde, Charley Weaver and George Gobel. It also gave Friedman the opportunity to write some of the show's best off-color jokes, including one that began with host Peter Marshall asking Lynde, "Paul, what does Dear Abby say a woman should never do in bed?"
"Point and laugh," Lynde answered.
For Friedman, working on Squares meant an apprenticeship under Heatter and Quigley and their staff ("I learned so much on so many levels from so many people. I was really one lucky guy," he says), and proved an invaluable preparation for his current job.
"Like with Hollywood Squares, I came into a staff populated with a lot of people with good ideas, clear thinking and a passion for the shows they work on," Friedman says of joining Wheel of Fortune as a producer in 1995, and Jeopardy in that same capacity in 1997. "I really think all I did was [promote] an environment that allowed them to be creative and collaborative."
Since becoming executive producer of the two shows in 1999, the creativity of both has increased enormously. Jeopardy's "Clue Crew" of correspondents travels the world in search of fascinating questions. Friedman's audio-clue categories are winners: One from last year, "Joe Buck Calls History," featured the famed sports announcer adding play-by-play inflection to historical events. Wheel's "Wheelmobile" conducts cross-country contestant searches. And by lifting the five-day limit rule for contestants on Jeopardy, Friedman made Ken Jennings' 74-consecutive-day run on the show possible. Jeopardy boasted a 30% rise in viewership during the streak.
But the man who was also actively involved in the development of, among other shows, Gambit and High Rollers may ultimately be best known for his quick, skilled HD conversions. "What Harry went through to make sure the transition went flawlessly could be a case study for Harvard Business School," says Mosko.
"It's changed the way we think about the shows, and I think it's changed the way viewers look at them-especially with Wheel; it's just so beautiful," gushes Friedman. "I don't think we appreciated what was on the horizon, and now I can't imagine life without all the technology at our disposal."
In a way, it harks back to the days when Friedman first witnessed the power of television in his living room, watching a 13-inch Emerson and dreaming big.
"In some ways, although [the past] era may always be the golden age of television, I think where we are right now could be approaching platinum," he says. "Certainly what we consider to be communication with the traditional definition of television is no longer valid."
What will always remain valid, however, is what Friedman excels in: bringing across a wholesome product that charms and pleases an audience, and is always welcome at the dinner table.