‘Wheel of Fortune’ Keeps Turning at 35

There will come a time when America will have to eat dinner without Wheel of Fortune, but that time is not now. The iconic game show is celebrating 35 years in syndication this season, and all of those have had Pat Sajak and Vanna White at the wheel, pun intended.

“For a lot of people, it’s just part of their day,” said Sajak, who joined the program on Dec. 28, 1981. For years, Sajak hosted the show both on the network in daytime and in syndication in prime access. Wheel of Fortune started as a network program in 1975, debuted in syndication in 1983 and has aired exclusively in syndication since September 1991.

“It’s like the sunset — you may not go out and watch it every night, but it’s comforting to know it’s there. It’s a half-hour where you can sit with your whole family and not be worried you are going to be embarrassed by something. I hear from people every day, ‘I just lost my grandmother and my fondest memory was watching the show with her,’ ” Sajak said.

“It’s a half-hour of family fun kids and adults can enjoy together,” added White, who began turning the letters in November 1982 when show creator Merv Griffin chose her from 200 other women because he thought she paired best with Sajak. “There is so much negativity on TV. This show gives families a chance to have some fun together.”

That comfort has made the show an American institution. While executive producer Harry Friedman has made a point of constantly tweaking Wheel to keep it updated — everything from going HD in 2006, to adding new ways to play the puzzle to adding an on-stage wall of 8K LED screens this season — he also makes it a point to keep the concept and execution the same. It’s Friedman’ s ability to straddle that line that’s been key to the show’s longevity.

“The game is always accessible. It’s a familiar game — it’s ‘hangman,’” said Friedman, who joined the show as a producer in 1995 and became executive producer in 1999. “We keep the basics the same.”

But the subtle tweaks keep the show feeling fresh and fun to new generations of viewers. For example, the show just added a new puzzle that plays both like a crossword and like hangman. This season, players who make it to the bonus round — and a few of those have the opportunity to win $1 million — can choose their final puzzle from one of three categories.

To help keep players at home engaged, the show added two mystery wedges to the wheel. Players who land on this wedge first must call a letter. If that letter is correct, they get $1,000 per letter, but they also have the option to flip the wedge over and see if they win another $10,000 or go bankrupt. Sweetening the pot is that if that player goes on to solve the puzzle, someone at home also wins $10,000.

Pop Culture Relevance

Besides keeping the gameplay fresh, the show’s writers also work to keep the clues feeling pop-culturally relevant, even though that can prove challenging.

“What’s different to me is that there’s a real wall between generations these days,” Sajak said. “I grew up listening to The Beatles while my parents were listening to big band music. I didn’t like big band music, but I knew who those bandleaders were. There’s no overlap today. Because of social media and the way you can customize your playlists, if you ask someone in their 40s or 50s to name a top 10 song, they can’t do it. And kids don’t know classic rock.

“So we have to be more creative in the way we approach the puzzles so we are fair in a generational sense.”

Added Friedman, “Our audience is so broad that in terms of demographics we’re tasked with creating content that will appear to the greatest number of people regardless of age.”

Still, the puzzles have become more pop-culture oriented as time has passed.

“In the first season of Wheel of Fortune, it really was ‘person, place or thing,’ and now we have more than 40 categories,” Friedman said. “We have categories that are a little more specific, like ‘In the Kitchen,’ ‘Food and Drink’ and ‘What Are You Wearing?’ which was inspired by red-carpet awards shows.”

Access to Audiences

Throughout its syndicated run, Wheel of Fortune has aired in prime access time slots, right before people settle in to watch TV for the night. That’s made it the perfect program for people to watch together.

“It’s part of the fabric of our culture,” CBS Television Distribution president Paul Franklin said. “It’s iconic, it’s there every night.”

An indication of Wheel of Fortune’s continued success is the fact that it remains the second-highest-rated game show in syndication in households and the third-highest-rated program in syndication overall. That’s true even though the new No. 1 game show, Debmar-Mercury’s Family Feud, airs several times a day in most markets — and its ratings reflect all those runs — while Wheel of Fortune still airs just once a day.

“We still hold up incredibly well considering that we’re primarily a broadcast play. It goes to both the show and the power of the stations that we’re on,” Franklin said. Wheel of Fortune, like its sister program Jeopardy!, continues to air on ABC-owned stations in top markets, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

“I do really think the reason why the show has survived and thrived is because of the connection that’s evolved between the show and its audience,” Sajak said. “People grew up with it, and they watched it with people they love and they continue to do that. It’s television comfort food. While we’re not changing the world, it does wear well in that sense. I’m proud of the fact that after all these years for Vanna and me, people still welcome us into their homes.”

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.