Heading into its 23rd season, syndication behemoth Wheel of Fortune has no plans to rest on its laurels. Despite its winning 86 consecutive sweeps periods (it reaches 47 million viewers every week), executive producer Harry Friedman wants to pick up the show’s pace when it returns Sept. 12.
Friedman is altering the format to do so, always a risk with a popular program. “Every year, he makes subtle changes that make the show better without alienating the core viewers,” says Steve Mosko, president of the show’s producer, Sony Pictures Television, “and that is no easy task.”
To move the show along more quickly, Friedman will space out breaks more evenly so that the first one comes after about seven minutes, four or five minutes earlier than currently. Evening out the breaks also means the bonus round gets pushed back later in the half-hour, helping to hold the audience deeper into the show.
Friedman also wants more puzzles, hoping to bump up the average to around 11 per show—an increase of two or three. Among the strategies to facilitate this are more-specific puzzle categories to help contestants solve faster (for instance, “movie title” instead of simply “title”).
Friedman says the move is not in response to the buzz created last year by Ken Jennings’ winning streak on sister syndie hit Jeopardy! (Friedman is also its executive producer). “My own instinct is just, the faster the pace, the more people will stay with us,” he says. “We all have shorter attention spans than we used to.”
He also acknowledges that a faster pace may help the show skew younger but says he does not spend much time poring over ratings.
“It’s not the kind of thing we really take a whole lot of time to analyze,” he says. “What we know we have to do is continue to make the show more exciting. If that means more prizes, bigger prizes, flashier prizes, more money on the wheel, more puzzles, we’ll keep tweaking it.”
For the first time, the show will also give at-home viewers the chance to win a car on every show through its online Wheel Watchers Club. If a contestant solves the bonus-round puzzle and wins a car as the prize, club members at home will have the chance to win the same car. To boost the chances, the show will add more cars to the prize wheel that determines the bonus prize. The move gives viewers two chances to win a prize every show because a “prize puzzle” in earlier rounds also provides an at-home chance to win.
To back the move, the show will devote three theme weeks throughout the year to promoting the Wheel Watchers Club. For each of the weeks (the first one airs the week of Sept. 26), co-hosts Pat Sajak and Vanna White will push the club benefits, in addition to the in-show promos that run every episode. The club, free to join online, is expected to add its 2 millionth member this year.
Among other theme weeks for the new season is one featuring soap-opera stars, for which the show is working on a title sponsor. (It’s talking to three companies, each in a different category, all with a young-female customer base.)
The show will also build promotions around White’s new star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which will be unveiled in the spring.
In October, the show will partner with pharmaceutical company Astra­Zeneca to support Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The company will sponsor a $1,000 gift-tag space on the wheel and donate that amount to appropriate foundations.