'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
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 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
to TV stations. “Once you experience
watching Wheel of Fortune, it becomes

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

“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.”

E-mail comments to palbiniak@gmail.com
and follow her on Twitter: @PaigeA