Another television era is apparently about to come to an end. On Monday, Pat Sajak, who has helmed WHEEL OF FORTUNE since 1981, announced that the show’s 41st syndicated season will be his 43rd and last, heading to retirement and a three-year deal as a “consulting producer” after a year-long victory lap. It made headlines both in general and trade media, if for no other reason than many TV fans believe they have never known a weekday without at least a chance to see Sajak’s smiling face tell us “yes, there is a D” and urging us to “talk it out” when a particularly tricky bonus puzzle yields almost zero letters beyond the ubiquitous R,S, T, N, L and E.
Yes, there were many such reports that saluted his longevity, indeed,by the time he hangs it up Sajak will have outlasted THE PRICE IS RIGHT’s Bob Barker by seven years and his compatriot Alex Trebek’s run on sister show JEOPARDY! by six. And as any JEOPARDY! fan will know, WHEEL OF FORTUNE’s legacy is intertwined with that of their favorite show. WHEEL replaced the original version of JEOPARDY! on NBC’s daytime schedule in January, 1975, effectively an olive branch to producer and creator Merv Griffin after his beloved answer-and-question game was cancelled after an 11-year run. WHEEL avoided several potential cancellations and had been one of NBC’s few consistent performers when Merv was finally able to land a nighttime syndication deal for the show–which was practically S.O.P. for 70s daytime game shows shortly after Sajak had been plucked from the Los Angeles O and O’s nightly weather report to replace original host and onetime “young stud” Chuck Woolery when Woolery’s salary demands exceeded those that Griffin was willing to pay. As most TV fans, and certainly an even more sizable percentage of these musings’ fans already know, from a mere $50,000 investment to sell that version to an initially modest group of 40 markets, none in the top three, predominantly to stations languishing in third or fourth place behind juggernauts like the nighttime FAMILY FEUD and reruns of M*A*S*H into the most shocking smash hit in syndication history, kick-starting the empire that became KING WORLD. In an ironic twist of fate, JEOPARDY!’s triumphant return was heavily facilitated by WHEEL’s success and the appetite of Roger and Michael King to own a full hour of prime access real estate with Merv Griffin Productions. That one-two punch dominated ratings for the balance of the 80s, and, although not quite at the levels they were back in the day, are both among the most-viewed shows on any form of television today.
But while Trebek became indelibly identified as the face of JEOPARDY! and his heartrbreaking battle with pancreatic cancer, concurrent with some of the show’s most popular episodes ever, including the amazing run of James Holzhauer and the first Greatest of All Time prime time tournament (which was indeed my swan song project at Sony), Sajak was, at best, an omnipresence. The NEW YORK TIMES’ James Poniewozik perhaps summed it up best in an appreciation he filed yesterday:
Pat Sajak was … just there. He’s easy listening: jokey but not too edgy, sympathetic but not too dramatic, enthusiastic but not too excitable. He was the median host for America’s median game show.
Poniewozik was almost apologetic for his spot-on assumption, perhaps in defense to his endurance. But as someone who attended dozens of tapings and test groups, and studied the show’s popularity both as buyer and seller for decades, Sajak was rarely cited as anyone’s primary reason for watching the show. It was Vanna White, who replaced the show’s original letter-turner Susan Stafford a year after Sajak started, that became the show’s lightning rod as it surged to the top of syndication rating charts. Arguably, Vanna was to the 80s what Farrah Fawcett was to the 70s–the gorgeous, vivacious blond glam, initially silent much like most game show females were in the era. But as White’s popularity raged she started talking more and more, engaging in plenty of “sisterly” banter with Sajak, particularly when the show did its famous road trip weeks in larger venues. When extremely popular video game iterations were produced for Nintendo and Playstation in the 90s, it was White’s voice that provided the narrative and continuity. Vanna was far more ominpresent in local station promotions. Sajak would occasionally show up and would frequently be aloof and surly. And he wasn’t much better even when he wasn’t spinning wheels.
I had the joy of trying to work directly with him when I produced a pilot for a planned syndicated TV version of VARIETY!. Seeking to capitalize on his fame and his thirst for being seen as something more than a game show host, he was tapped as a John Tesh wanna-be since at the time his track record was seen as something station managers would respond to. The fact that Sajak had crashed and burned as a late night talk show host for CBS a few years earlier, effectively creating a landscape of opportunity where numerous CBS affiliates chose not to carry the network in favor of the far more successful ARSENIO HALL SHOW, was ignored by my superiors. Pat was uncooperative, aloof, surly, insulting and misoygnistic through one of the most painful tape days I have ever endured. He tested horribly and the ratings for the show were underwhelming. When a second attempt to make this idea work was commissioned, one of the few pyrrhic victories I achieved was to insist that he have no part of it.
And in more recent years, Sajak has evolved into still more of a curmedgeon, rarely showing any of the warmth he had in its earlier years and little of the connection with contestants that Trebek produced. WHEEL’s format is no help. Unlike JEOPARDY!, which rewards its winners who can complete a spirited sprint of 50-60 questions per half-hour with the chance to continue as champion in perpeutity with a format that demands you sit down and watch the whole show to play along, WHEEL is short attention span theatre. On most shows, only five or six word puzzles are played each day, often designed to be ones that are solved by home viewers much faster than they are solved on the show, as the players attempt to build up higher scores by risking not hitting “BANKRUPT”. Yes, there’s drama inherent in seeing that battle play out, but there’s no skill involved, and Sajak is often unseen as the camera was invariably on a) the wheel and b) the board where Vanna would initially turn letters, then press monitors, and now effectively just waves at a giant single monitor as the puzzles are filled in. You can easily play along by glancing at the screen for a few seconds at a time while multitasking.
And, indeed, the show has been able to proceed without Sajak as host on numerous occasions. When he got the CBS talk show, he left the NBC daytime version, initially to be placed by neophyte ex-San Diego Chargers placekicker Rolf Benirshke, now forever linked to one of the most bizarre and unqualified talent selections ever made. When CBS picked up the show for its daytime schedule after NBC killed it, a favorite of their daytime executives, Bob Goen, who had failed on their network with a short-lived show called BLACKOUT the year before, was given the job, and he at least performed decently enough to earn a renewal even when it returned to NBC for a final season. More recently, Sajak stepped away for a medical procedure of his own in late 2019, at the same time that Trebek’s own health issues became more pronounced. Vanna stepped in as host for that spell, with fill-ins for her ranging from Pat’s winsome daughter Maggie to Minnie Mouse. There was little difference in the show’s ratings.
So now as speculation rages as to who will succeed Sajak, there’s a camp that is championing Vanna to become the permanent host, as clearly any need for her to be a second fiddle and wave her hands is hardly a justifiable expense for Sony’s ever-demanding beancounters. Reports have also emerged that Ryan Seacrest, who just left his daytime talk show, is potentially a candidate. He, too, has a history with hosting a Merv Griffin-created game show, hosting the short-lived syndicated CLICK! just before he got his breakout gig on AMERICAN IDOL. On yesterday’s THE VIEW co-host Whoopi Goldberg, who had a short run as the center square on a reboot of HOLLYWOOD SQUARES that she didn’t stay too long at herself, threw her hat in the ring, confessing her desire to new JEOPARDY! host Ken Jennings, who graduated from contestant to host thanks to his own record-breaking run over 74 shows. WHEEL’s format does not feature continuing champions, so there isn’t an immediately familiar candidate from that world to challenge Goldberg or Seacrest. I mean, even I had to look up who WHEEL’s million dollar winners were, and to the best of my knowledge none of them have agent representation. There are even some weird folk out there that are suggested Woolery should make his grand return to the show he started with as the host of its first pilot, SHOPPER’S BAZAAR, taped fifty years ago. Woolery seems to have a lot in common with his political views (heavily right-wing) and wrinkles as Sajak does these days. I kinda think the Sony braintrust will not go that route.
WHEEL is not likely to go anywhere, as the show’s ratings are still strong and the brand has tremendous value in the gaming world. One can barely step off a plane at Las Vegas’ McCarron Airport without encountering one of its slot machines, the ones that feature the audience shouting the show’s name in unison in a manner that has opened every TV episode since the 70s blaring from every speaker every time any special game feature is triggered . Last week, Sony Interactive Games announced a new 10-year deal that will ensure the game will be featured in numerous casinos and other venues through 2032. Sajak has no presence in most of those machines, it should be noted.
For now, Sony is keeping mum on any particular direction they may be leaning. But knowing full well that Sony wants to maximize ROI, and at a time when there seems to be so much desire for studios to take advantage of generative AI, I’d like to offer that perhaps this may be the ideal situation for such an approach.
Make the WHEEL itself the host.
There’s no question there’s enough existing audio of Sajak to program almost any potential game situation. There are a finite number of categories and dollar values. The alphabet still has 26 letters. For any special prizes, you can always have announcer Jim Thornton step in; Thornton is starting be seen on camera a bit of late and even in his small role is almost as engaging as Pat is. And as the show’s direction, the video game experience and most qualitative research respondents I’ve heard have expressed, the host of the show is an afterthought.
And, of course, there’d be that cost saving of not having to pay a human being. Arguably, you could take the same approach to Vanna and send her off into the sunset, too. I’m sure some of the esteemed braintrust at Sony might be salivating at that thought.
Yeah, the more I consider this option, the more defense I could offer for it. Surely, my old friend Suzanne Prete might want to at least consider it. and, of course, I’d be willing to help her and the new WHEEL team figure out the logistics and test the concept fairly. Think of it. An anthropomorphic set piece in the voice of Sajak as the focus for the show, with the players and puzzles as the sole focuses.
Well, since I’ve yet to hear word one from her since my departure, perhaps I shouldn’t hold my breath that any such call is imminent.
But if they did want to consider it, the one caution I’d offer is to do so you’d be stoking Sajak’s ego tremendously as being seen as irreplacable. The last thing I’d want to do for someone as insufferable as the behind-the-scenes Sajak has been is to give him any more reason to think he’s THE reason that the show has been as popular as its been. I can categorically assure any of you still reading this he’s not, and honestly never was.
I am glad that he’s at least able to be leaving the show on his timetable, not God’s, as Trebek’s departure was determined by. No matter what, no human being deserves the kind of pain and suffering that Trebek endured. Go safely and healthy into retirement, Mr. Sajak, and do earn your substantial consulting fee by checking in at least a few times while you do photo ops with the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene, or any other equally brilliant fans of yours and/or the show. It’s not JEOPARDY!, and you’re no Alex Trebek. You will not be missed all that much.
Now go put a positive spin on that.
Until next time…