'Wheel' Basks in a Rich History

Spinning the tale of syndication’s top game show as it celebrates 30 years of a stellar run

It’s cliché that people somehow show their age after they turn 30. But you’d never know it from watching ‘Wheel of Fortune’, which, after 30 seasons in syndication, remains television’s most popular game show and has not missed a beat.

Last season, only CBS Television Distribution’s Judge Judy topped Wheel of Fortune in the ratings. Wheel, which is produced by Sony Pictures Television and distributed by CBS Television Distribution, averaged a 6.7 most current household rating, second only to Judy at a 7.0, according to Nielsen Media Research. (“Most current” ratings measure live plus seven days of ratings, up to the most recent total week.)

Wheel of Fortune was created and developed by the legendary Merv Griffin as a replacement for Jeopardy!, which premiered in its original version on NBC on March 30, 1964. With Jeopardy! moving off of NBC’s daytime lineup, Griffin was looking for something else to fill the spot. After reflecting on two games he liked to play—hangman as a child and roulette as an adult—he incorporated the two elements into the TV game show that audiences around the world still know and play along with today.

When the network version of Wheel of Fortune premiered on NBC on Jan. 6, 1975, the program was hosted by Chuck Woolery and Susan Stafford. When Woolery left the show in 1981, Griffin hired local Los Angeles newscaster Pat Sajak to replace him.

“When Wheel came on, I was doing the local news at KNBC Los Angeles,” says Sajak. “I had been offered two primetime series on NBC—Real People and Speak Up America—but I said no. A bit later, NBC had a show on the air called Television Inside and Out, with Rona Barrett as the host. They wanted someone to soften Rona’s hard edge. But I didn’t want to do entertainment reporting, so I said no to that too. It was like something out of The Producers—I was doing the audition tape but hoping they didn’t like me.

“A short time after that, Merv Griffin offered me Wheel of Fortune, which was only airing on network daytime at that point. A little bit of it had to do with Merv. And to be honest, my thinking at that time was that the show had already been on seven years and was finishing third in its time slot behind Price Is Right on CBS and reruns of Love Boat on ABC. I thought I’d do Wheel for another year or two and then I would have established national credibility and would move on.”

We all know how that turned out. Sajak began his storied run on Wheel of Fortune on Dec. 28, 1981. One year later, Vanna White was named Sajak’s permanent cohost. On Sept. 19, 1983, Wheel of Fortune entered national syndication.

Wheel of Fortune’s success in syndication is almost entirely due to the efforts of the King brothers of King World Productions—Bob, Michael and the late Roger.

“The story of the acquisition of Wheel occurred in the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis [Hotel] in New York City,” says Bob Madden, who served as the King brothers’ personal attorney and financial advisor starting in 1986. After several years as an executive at CBS Television Distribution, including a stint as copresident, Madden is now a consultant at Sony Pictures Television.

“Bob King approached Murray Schwartz, who was the attorney for Merv Griffin Enterprises,” says Madden. “Merv’s company had tried to syndicate Wheel with a variety of [distribution] companies, but hadn’t been successful. The Kings had done Joker’s Wild and Tic Tac Dough and were looking for their next big project.”

After closing the deal, the King brothers literally took Wheel on the road, working to get it cleared on top stations across the country, says Madden.

Wheel launched in September 1983 with only 40% of the country cleared, something that would be economically dif! cult to pull off today, but by January 1984, it was airing in access slots in 70% of the U.S. At that point, Roger and Michael (by then, Bob had left King World to start his own company) went back to Griffin and said that they needed another show to pair with Wheel. Griffin dug into his bag of tricks and pulled out Jeopardy!, which had gone off of NBC’s air in 1975. Alex Trebek, formerly host of game shows such as High Rollers and Pitbull, was hired as host, and the rest is television history.

By 1986, Wheel of Fortune had become syndication’s top-rated show.

One of the secrets of Wheel’s success is stability. Hosts Sajak and Vanna White have both been with the show for its entire syndicated run. When viewers tune in, they know exactly whom they will be hanging out with for the next half-hour.

Wheel of Fortune
’s station lineup also has been remarkably stable, airing in preprimetime access time slots on top-rated stations for most of its 30 years on the air. (This season, seven Scripps-owned stations have elected to replace Wheel and Jeopardy! with a new game show, Let’s Ask America, and a new magazine show, The List.)

Reinventing the ‘Wheel’

The second secret to Wheel’s success is knowing when to switch it up, and that’s where Harry Friedman, executive producer of both Wheel and Jeopardy!, comes in. Friedman, formerly a producer and writer of Hollywood Squares, joined Wheel in 1995, became coexecutive producer with Griffin in 1999 and sole executive producer of both Wheel and Jeopardy! in 2000.

“The show already was an established hit, but I think there was a general sense that it had reached a plateau and wasn’t growing in terms of content or creativity,” says Friedman.

One of the first things Friedman did was change Wheel’s puzzle board.

“The target for me was the energy level of the show,” he says. “It still felt like a daytime show because it had more of a laid-back feel. From a production standpoint, because of the way the puzzle board was set up, we had to stop tape after each puzzle was solved, roll a curtain across the set and set up a new board. We would check everything out very thoroughly and then roll tape again. It could take an hour to tape a halfhour show. That just killed the energy and the momentum.”

A year and a half later, a new digital puzzle board was unveiled, making it much faster to load new puzzles and reveal letters to players.

While that change was great for players and viewers, it was worrisome for White.

“I was definitely worried that my job was in jeopardy,” says White, who, along with Sajak, recently re-upped with Wheel of Fortune through the 2015-16 TV season. “Of course, they could do it without me.”

But Friedman says that’s not true.

“Vanna is so much more than just the person who makes the letters appear. She is a part of the show that is so essential and yet so hard to explain,” says Friedman. “Pat, Vanna, the format—it’s all part of this wonderful mix of ingredients that when taken together yields a superior product. When you start messing with the magic recipe, you run the risk of making something that won’t be very tasty.”

Another important change was made to Wheel much earlier in its run. Many TV viewers can remember the days when winning Wheel contestants would spend their winnings by shopping, perusing a stage full of products with price tags tacked to them. In 1987, the show’s producers pulled the shopping segments because they brought the pace of the game to a halt.

“If you watch those segments now,” says Sajak, “they were the dullest moments on television. We would have been gone a long time ago if that hadn’t changed. The trick is to try to keep it fresh without turning off the people who have been watching for a long time.”

“So many people remember the shopping that 10 years ago, we decided to do a retro week and we made shopping a part of the show,” says Friedman. “It was so slow. One thing we know about our viewers, they want as much game as we can possibly give them.”

And that’s what Friedman and company have focused on, with players getting to try their hands at a minimum of eight puzzles per show, and usually a few more than that.

Hi-Def Jam

Another significant change for Wheel of Fortune came in 2006, when both it and Jeopardy! became the first shows in first-run syndication to be broadcast in high-definition.

“High-definition proved to be more important than I think we realized,” says Friedman. “It made the picture bigger, wider and sharper, but there’s also something about the energy of the show that really comes across. HD does send off a different vibe.”

“HD scared me to death,” says White. “It shows every pore on your face. I didn’t want anything to do with it. But we have a great lighting crew and they solved all of those problems.”

Friedman has not limited his technological experiments to HD. He has also expanded Wheel to the Web and to digital platforms, giving viewers lots of chances to play along with the show and to win prizes at home.

Friedman started with the Wheel Watchers Club, an online loyalty program that the show launched via its website in 2003.

“There was nothing like the Wheel Watchers Club when we started it, and I’m not sure there is even now. It was modeled after the airlines’ frequent flyer programs,” says Friedman. “We now have 7.2 million members. You sign up, watch Wheel of Fortune, go to WheelofFortune.com, enter in the bonus puzzle solution and get points. That’s how we know that you watch the show.”

Since then, Friedman has also ushered in the SpinID, through which each member is issued an alpha-numeric ID. If that SpinID comes up during the show this season, that viewer can win $5,000 if he or she is watching.

“We’ve done a lot of things using SpinID, but this is the first time we’ve given away cash every night to the viewer for watching,” says Friedman.

That move harkens back to the old days when Roger King demanded that Merv Griffin put more money on the Wheel to make the game more exciting and draw more viewers. “They had gone through the entire prize budget by December,” Madden recalls.

Those days of tight budgets are long gone, though. These days, Wheel winners receive everything from cash, cars and trips to smartphones, tablets and flatscreen televisions. “We know what our contestants want,” says Friedman.

“That’s one of the most refreshing things about Harry. He’s always coming up with another thing that might include the younger viewer,” says John Nogawski, president of CBS Television Distribution, which distributes Wheel of Fortune to TV stations. “Once you experience watching Wheel of Fortune, it becomes addictive.”

Finally, there’s a third secret to Wheel’s success, and that’s nostalgia. Families fondly remember watching Wheel of Fortune together.

“One of the things we’ve found so gratifying is that we hear from young moms that their kids are bringing them back to Wheel of Fortune, and they are going along willingly because Wheel is family-friendly and a safe haven for families who want to watch TV together,” says Friedman. “It feels good to be revered in that way and to have been around long enough for us to have become a legacy for our viewers.”

“Playing hangman is really what we are doing, but the show has impacted people in ways we never intended,” says Sajak. “People have taken our show into their hearts and made it a part of their lives. That’s very flattering.”

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