OK, I’ll admit it was a shot in the dark to have suggested that Pat Sajak’s replacement as host of WHEEL OF FORTUNE should have been the wheel itself, powered by generative AI that would utilize continuities, correct letter identifications and forced banter with contestants compiled over his four decades of work that would cover almost any conceivable situation moving forward, And given that time around Sony decided to announce a replacement before the end of the same month that the departure was announced, versus the circus that resulted in Alex Trebek’s official replacements as host of sister show JEOPARDY! not being announced until well more than a year after his passing, it was clear that Sony wanted no part of anything that resembled out of the box or overly ambitious.
All kidding aside, Ryan Seacrest is a more than adequate choice to replace someone with the qualities that Sajak has, or, more to the point, lacks. We’ve already detailed exactly how bland and rote Sajak has been, particularly in recent years, on a show that save for aesthetics (both of the graphics and the degree of Botox he and co-host Vanna White now utliize) and a few new categories is almost indistinguishable from one from the glory days of the late ’80s when the show skyrocketed to an unquestioned number one in syndication television. The show is remarkably simple–it’s Hangman crossed with roulette. There’s still only 21 consonants and five vowels that can be played with, and with the exception of perhaps Peter Griffin every contestant and viewer knows how to play.
So the bar of expectation for someone to do this job competently is a low one. And Seacrest has a decent track record of being able to step in to preexisting franchises and perform those jobs at least as well as his predecessors. He certainly held his own, as did the relative rankings of LIVE! WITH… , after he finally won out in the Michael Strahan replacement derby. Being rewarded to start your day being the foil to the empowered, embittered and emaciated diva that is Kelly Ripa may not necessarily have been all that great a reward, but at least he proved to key ABC-owned stations his worth, and bear in mind most of them make up the backbone of WHEEL OF FORTUNE’s current station lineup, So for Sony to hire him was certainly a move that got little pushback from their (and CBS Media Ventures’) clients.
He also has seamlessly taken over the NEW YEAR’S ROCKIN’ EVE mantle after years of apprenticeship under his idol, Dick Clark, and with his unicorn-like multiple career hats he is arguably the 21st century incarnation of Clark himself. Host of a highly successful ABC weekend series? Check. On-air radio countdown host? Check. Producer of successful unscripted series? Check. Check. And just as Clark became identified as a game show emcee to some surprise when he started his 15-year run on the original versions of PYRAMID, but had actually done that job on more obscure shows earlier in his career, Seacrest was hosting game shows since before he was allowed to drink legally, going back to a forgettable stint on Family Channel’s WILD ANIMAL GAMES, one that he didn’t even tee up when he poignantly referenced his past connection to WHEEL creator Merv Griffin as host of the syndicated teenage quiz show CLICK!. Trolling around as second fiddle for sheep and bear cubs working for the man who helped discover Roger Ailes isn’t something I would have wanted to advertise, either.
But these days, there is an uncomfortable obsession among suits that a big name is more important to the success of a game show than, often, the game itself. It’s virtually impossible for a new show to be sold without some connection, at least behind the camera, to someone with celebrity status. Old shows have been resurrected and retooled almost exclusively with name stars stepping into roles once held by more traditionally schooled talents. Elizabeth Banks came to PRESS YOUR LUCK after starring in CHARLIE’S ANGELS. Original host Peter Tomarken survived 13 weeks of HIT MAN. Alec Baldwin, before he developed an indifference to loaded weapons, had a few top movie roles of his own prior to hosting his series of MATCH GAME. Original host Gene Rayburn came to the iconic 70s version after hosting the more tepid 60s version, and he came to that from his own unicorn career as a morning drive radio host in New York City and the tuneful host of DOUGH RE MI.
And Clark’s later career efforts, where he was chosen as much for his recognizable name as he was for his more phoned-in work-for-hire results, didn’t exactly deliver on expectations. His last four game show hosting jobs–the syndicated CHALLENGERS, NBC’s SCATTERGORIES, IT TAKES TWO (one of the shows that the blinders-on braintrust of that very same Family Channel attempted to replace WILD ANIMAL GAMES with) and CBS’ WINNING LINES all didn’t make it into a second season.
So I’m not saying that Seacrest was a poor choice, nor am I saying the fate of WHEEL will be similar to the weaker shows Clark was involved with. But unlike JEOPARDY!, which has been reignited through the passion of storied executive producer Michael Davies and an ever-evolving format where questions and shoulder programming abound, WHEEL’s current showrunners are merely competent elevated staffers who trained under both shows’ previous steward, Harry Friedman, much like the folks who now run THE PRICE IS RIGHT. Davies originally was scheduled to have some responsibilities for WHEEL when he stepped in to replace the disgraced Mike Richards, who had been hired to replace Friedman on both shows, but he’s been far too busy turning JEOPARDY! into a sport to rival the soccer he adores to spend much time on WHEEL. The show itself is stale. Ratings haven’t seen the spikes that JEOPARDY! sees when it introduces a multi-day champion or starts a new iteration like JEOPARDY! MASTERS. Currently, shows are self-contained–carryover champions, who actually were part of the network daytime versions, don’t exist. Even for the rare million dollar winner, you’re one-and-done.
It’s commendable that Sony isn’t wasting precious time and money on the countdown to change by starting yet another talent search. Whoopi Goldberg had already thrown her hat into the ring to start that. So we didn’t have to remind anyone how her track record on daily shows, her eponymous “interview” show that crashed and burned after a single underwhelming season and her stint on the HOLLYWOOD SQUARES reboot that never lit the syndication world on fire after the hype WHEEL’s syndicators sold it with, should have been considered. No one needed what could have been Levar Burton 2.0 to muddy these waters.
But Sony should take the time to consider other changes, given that amount of time for transition will allow it. And they may be pushed into it. Witness the reports emerging in the wake of Sajak’s departure from the show’s de facto face Vanna White, per Stephanie Giang-Paunon of FOX News:
(T)he longtime co-host reportedly said she would remain on the beloved game show under one condition — a pay raise.
White, 66, is reportedly in negotiations to renew her contract to continue co-hosting “Wheel of Fortune,” according to People.
After being a co-host alongside Sajak, 76, for more than four decades, White requested a pay raise in her new deal.
And per yesterday’s DECIDER, it may be getting a tad more contentious:
A new report alleges Sony failed to give White a raise for almost 18 years; she has now reportedly lawyered up to renegotiate her contract for the 2023-24 season.
Three separate sources claimed to Matt Belloni’s Puck News that White hasn’t received a raise for her Wheel role in nearly two decades. She currently makes about $3 million per year, while Sajak earns almost five times that amount. She reportedly hired a lawyer to negotiate her future on the gameshow, and she’s pulling out all the stops.
According to Puck, White is working with Bryan Freedman, who has represented Tucker Carlson, Chris Cuomo, and disgraced TV producer Mike Richards. Freedman is allegedly arguing possible gender discrimination in the discrepancies between the co-hosts’ salaries.
Have fun, all you new supposedly better Sony business affairs people.
In the meanwhile, your creative breathren and sistren might want to actually consider giving the show some of the Botox that a higher-paid White will require. And some of it is low-hanging fruit. How about layering rounds where four or five contestants start out and low scores in each round get eliminated, so that the value of every spin is enhanced? You’ll also be able to book more people for their ten minutes or less of fame.
How about actually allowing champions to return–if a show that runs adjacent to you can do that even in today’s world where frequency of viewership of multiple days of a stripped show is negligible, so can you. And considering that the actual need for someone to be involved in the letter reveal process no longer exists, since the original board-trilon experience that required Vanna to parade back and forth in a cute skirt has now been replaced by a single large screen where technology does the heavy lifting, maybe it’s time to consider a newer face as a sidekick for Seacrest? Maybe give that sidekick something else to do but stand, wave and banter?
Where would one find that person? I can’t say for sure. But Sajak was a TV weatherman in Nashville and Los Angeles prior to his WHEEL stint and outside of those markets, and the offices of a few NBC execs who saw his work on a couple of failed pilots, no one else knew who Pat Sajak was when he got the gig. Perhaps there’s a weatherperson somewhere else; they still have those. Perhaps there’s a podcaster or You Tube or Tik Tok personality. With Seacrest’s presence it will be that much easier for someone else brand new to be established. It might be a worthwhile effort to invest in some actual R & D to at least run these ideas up a flagpole, and not jump in quite as quickly as was the case with Seacrest’s pre-July 4th deal announcement.
I know I could do that assignment more competently than almost anyone around, but I’m also a cockeyed realist that a company that deemed me expendable isn’t going to race to do the right thing and give me that shot. So I’m not as foolhardy as some may think by throwing these ideas out there free of charge in the hopes whoever does get charged with it–or has to deal with the challenges that the lack of it will create–might just consider it as needed as the perception of having a known quantity be the top priority for the show’s future.
I just want the Wheel to keep spinning, as I know many of you reading this do. And I know Sony beancounters are included in that list, given the deal they just made to extend the brand’s casino presence through 2032. Ryan Seacrest’s a safe bet. But he shouldn’t be where your gambles end. Take some chances. If nothing else, find the next Sajak (and, sorry, it’s not Maggie). Maybe you’ll at least heed my free advice, since I can’t reasonably expect anyone there will take me seriously enough (though I’d vehemently argue they should).
Anyway, that’s my food for thought. Leblang. Out.
Until next time…