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THAT `WHEEL OF FORTUNE' JUST KEEPS SPINNING ALONG

Nearly 300 people sit attentively on the rows of newly upholstered seats inside Soundstage 11 on the Sony production lot. They have been waiting for an hour but don't seem to mind. In fact, they are the envy of their friends and family.

The deep, mellow voice of announcer Charlie O'Donnell comes over the speakers: "You're going to be part of a historic event."The audience already knows that. Their dress is casual but their attitude is anything but.

They are about to witness the very first taping of "The Wheel of Fortune" in its brand new studio home. The shows taped on this day in late July would lead off the new season, which began Sept. 4.

For 19 years "Wheel of Fortune" was taped in a leased studio at CBS.

Now "Wheel of Fortune" has its own studio, a state-of-the-art facility befitting America's most popular game show and the most successful syndicated program in the history of television.

In a way the new set is a symbol of how the show has changed over the years.

The main ingredients were not altered. The spinning wheel looks exactly as it always has. Off to the side, as bright as ever, is the puzzle board, surrounded by more than 200 blinking bulbs.

But here and there, some things are different, just as the show is slightly different each year to keep it fresh and lively.

This year's prizes have more youth appeal - four-wheel drive vehicles, for instance. New puzzle categories have been added. A new "Double Play" option was put on the wheel.

Nothing drastic. Just enough to maintain the interest of the 100 million people who watch the show throughout the world each week.

An old curtain used to be rolled in from offstage to cloak the puzzle board each time a puzzle was changed. The new studio has an elegant, descending velvet curtain.

There's still the used-letter board, which tells contestants which letters already have been selected. It used to partly obscure the vision of many in the studio audience. Now the audience sits higher, and there's scarcely a bad seat in the house.

"Wheel of Fortune" isn't like most other TV shows. No one worries about when or whether the show will run out of steam.

For more than 11 years, it's been first among all daily syndicated programs. In city after city across the country, it outdraws whatever anyone puts on against it.

And nearly all stations that carry "Wheel of Fortune" have renewed it through 1999.

Not bad for what is basically a stylized version of "hangman," a simple game in which you identify a word or a phrase by guessing its individual letters.

"You don't have to be a Ph.D. to watch it," says Tom Gauer, a weekend reporter at WDAF in Kansas City. In 1990 Gauer won $7,650 as a contestant on the show. He still tunes in regularly.

"It's a simple game," he says, explaining the show's appeal. "You don't have to pay close attention to it. You can be on the phone. You can walk into the room in the middle of the game."

Others watch, in part, because host Pat Sajak and letter-flipper Vanna White are like old friends - always there, always smiling.

"They're very middle American people," says John Moczulski, program director at ABC-owned KGO in San Francisco. KGO has carried "Wheel of Fortune" since February 1992.

These days Sajak may wear Armani suits and White may don gowns that look like they came from Bob Mackie, Moczulski says, "but they still portray a very wholesome image."

The show might not hold up forever, Moczulski says. "But until somebody walks in with a track record more consistent than `Wheel of Fortune,' that shows the promise of `Wheel of Fortune,' with the promotional push that is put behind it, I'm going to keep betting on this horse."

Even pop psychologist Joyce Brothers has an opinion about the show's popularity. "You can play it mindlessly," she's been quoted as saying, "you can play it competitively, you can win it at home, you can fantasize about having this stuff fall into your lap and you can identify with the contestants because they're average people."

No one, including Sajak, pretends the show is anything but what it is.

"We're not doing `Masterpiece Theatre' here," he says. "We are what we say we are. We are not one of these goofy magazine shows pretending to do news. We're a half-hour game show and a lot of people appreciate that."

In his dressing room, which still held the aroma of new paint and carpet, Sajak, 48, reflects on his job as host, which began in 1981. At the time "Wheel of Fortune" was a low-rated network daytime game show entering its seventh season on NBC.

"It looked to be on its last leg," Sajak says. "I never envisioned myself as a game show host. My thinking, when I took the show, was `I'll do this for a year or two, and then it will be canceled and I'll establish a little national credibility and I'll move on to something else.' "

But ratings picked up that season. And when "Wheel of Fortune" began life as a syndicated show in 1983 - a daytime version remained on NBC for eight more years - it became a runaway ratings locomotive.

"And if anyone tells you they thought it would do what it has done, they're lying to you," Sajak says.

In all that time, the only major change in the game show occurred in the 1980s, he said, when it stopped being a shopping show.

"You'd win fake money with which you could buy `fabulous' merchandise," Sajak says. Then he mimics, "For $10,000, I'll buy that cheesy couch."

"Now it's basically a cash show," he says. "Other than that, this show hasn't changed a lot. I might have to remember a new category, but I'm modestly bright enough to do that."

Sajak estimates he has been host for 4,000 episodes. He could do it in his sleep if he had to.

"One of the challenges for us who do the show is to find a way to say: `Oh, it's a new season. It's not our 4,002nd show.' And this is hard."

To keep it fresh, Sajak reminds himself that each show is a brand new experience for the players and an important part of the day for viewers.

In Vanna White's dressing room, just down the hall, a stylist applies some final touches to White's hair. For the first taping, White, a size 4, will don a sequin evening gown slit to midthigh. Between shows, she will change to a strapless orange chiffon gown.

From a crib nearby, Nicholas, her year-old son, is making happy noises.

White confesses that keeping the show fresh can be hard. "I just stand up there and turn the letters, and those don't change," she says. "The 26 letters have remained the same for years."

She keeps from getting into a rut by wearing new outfits on each show and cheering for each player, she says.

Sajak and White love their jobs. On their first day in their new studio, they taped two shows. Usually they tape five shows a day and work a grand total of four days a month.

That gives White time to work on her fashion lines for the Home Shopping Network, to promote her new perfume and complete work on a children's Christmas album, which will be released later this year. Earlier this year her book on afghans, "Vanna's Afghans A to Z," went on sale in bookstores and craft shops.

Sajak said he was less ambitious. He recently remarried and has two young children. "I get to be a full-time father and goof off," he says.

On the set producer Harry Friedman goes over a list of last-minute details with members of the production crew. Friedman became producer in March, only the second one in the show's history.

Friedman writes many of the puzzles and selects the prizes. His biggest job, however, is to find ways to attract more young adults to the show without losing the older fans who typically make up the bulk of game show viewers.

"I'm not trying to make wholesale changes," says Friedman, an 11-year veteran of "Hollywood Squares."

"The core of the show has to stay the same. All of the window dressing and all the other little embellishments should not change the core of the show, which is good puzzles that people at home want to play. And good contestants they want to see play."

One new category of Friedman's is "Who Said It?" Those puzzles contain a famous quote. The player who solves the puzzle wins a $500 bonus by identifying whom the quote came from.

Another new category is product slogans. There's a $1,000 bonus for naming the product, as well.

By adding another layer, the show should have even greater appeal to viewers who enjoy solving puzzles, Friedman says.

"People say to me: `How difficult can producing this show be? You come up with some puzzles, you get some prizes.' It looks deceptively simple.

"I think they're missing the amount of thought, the amount of hours in preparation that goes into creating puzzles, sourcing and selecting prizes and putting them in the right mix for the show, trying to make them appropriate for the season, trying to come up with special weeks, doing special promotions for the show that continue to get noticed, going out and doing contestant searches so that we can get a broad cross section of contestants."

New this year are tapings in Seattle and Country Music Star Week (in November), a Valentine's Day Sweethearts Week (in February) and a Celebrities and Their Moms Week (in April).

The show also has become the first ever official game show of the Olympics. It will tape in Atlanta in March and broadcast shows with Olympic themes in May and July.

As it enters its 20th season, it's only natural to wonder just how long the "Wheel" can keep turning. Can this game show sustain its popularity into the 21st century?

"If you asked me 10 years ago, I would have said, `Definitely not,' " Sajak says. "But now I think, `Sure, why not?' I think it's a real possibility.

"I honestly think that `Wheel' may never be knocked off by another TV show. I think the only thing that may eventually cripple it would be some technology we don't know about. I mean, television is changing in ways we can't predict. So something may come down the pike that makes what we do obsolete in some way.

"But, as far as just coming up with another TV show that's going to create enough excitement to knock our show off the air, it's going to be very hard to do."

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

After all these years, a vowel still costs $250

As it enters its 20th season (13th as a syndicated show), "Wheel of Fortune" has compiled some amazing statistics:

- More than 410,000 people have auditioned for the show and more than 17,000 have been contestants, solving more than 22,000 puzzles.

- Last season alone the value of prizes won on the show was $7 million. The total value of prizes given away in the evening version of the show is more than $67 million.

- The most time ever taken to solve a puzzle was for the single word, "Buttinsky," which required 3 minutes and 38 seconds in July 1990; the quickest solution was for "Nick Nolte Starring in Q & A" in 40 seconds.

- All that walking to flip letters adds up. Since joining the show, Vanna White has logged more than 443.18 miles while turning letters. During that time she has worn more than 5,700 eye-catching dresses.

- Speaking of White, the 1992 Guinness Book of World Records lists her as the world's most frequent clapper. She puts her hands together 28,080 times a season.

- The game is practically immune to inflation. The cost of buying a vowel, $250, is the same as it was in 1975.

- The biggest single winner to date is Mindy Mitola of West Orange, N.J., who took home $146,014 in cash and prizes.

- The 2,500th syndicated show is to be taped in Atlanta on March 28, 1996.

- Barry Garron