Spin Over Substance

There weren’t many dry eyes in Culver City yesterday, and it wasn’t just the unseasonably rainy conditions that created that phenomenon.  Before an invited audience sprinkled with former contestants and executives who benefited greatly from his presence, Pat Sajak taped his final episodes as host of WHEEL OF FORTUNE, bringing to an end a run of 42 1/2 years at the helm of the show.  The longest tenure of a host on a single series, eclipsing Bob Barker’s 35 years on THE PRICE IS RIGHT and the 38 1/2 year run of Alex Trebek on Sony stablemate JEOPARDY! that was ended by his losing battle with pancreatic cancer in late 2020.

When the news of Sajak’s departure first dropped last summer, I was perhaps more than a bit harsh on how I viewed this event.  I wrote what in hindsight was a heavy-handed observation of the man and his legacy.  I stand by a lot of what I wrote even now.   Sajak simply is not the most talented nor most well-liked person who has hosted a show.  And unlike Trebek, whose last years were tinged with more than a bit of emotion as his health issues became more well known, Sajak is, thankfully, in excellent health for a 77 1/2 year old man.  And he is not completely stepping away, as ET ONLINE’s Miguel A. Melendez‍ reminded:

ET has also confirmed that the final episode will air on Friday, June 7. But he won’t be totally gone, at least not for a while. As ET previously reported, Sajak will serve as a consultant on the game show for three years, as the show transitions with its new host, Ryan Seacrest

And the transition to Seacrest has gone far more smoothly than the circus that surrounded the search to replace Trebek.  He’s commanding a hefty price tag, but Sony bit the bullet if for no other reason than to avoid the melodrama and criticism that plagued JEOPARDY! even into this season.  Seacrest has proven himself to be a more than capable traffic cop and quick-witted enough to handle live television and the emotions of AMERICAN IDOL competitors.  Dealing with people struggling to find three extra consonants and a vowel with $42,000 at stake will be a relative cakewalk.

I regret having suggested that the show could have been hosted by an anthropomorphic and disembodied WHEEL, even though as AI continues to make inroads by the day the possibility is more realistic than ever, and with ratings erosion certainly tempting.  Truth be told, as evidence by the emotions of those who turned out to bid Sajak farewell, his presence gave consistency and stability to a program that was teetering on the brink of cancellation when he took over the NBC version four days before the end of 1981.   Sajak, a virtual unknown, took over for the more familiar Chuck Woolery and gave the show enough traction to make the syndicated version viable, which ultimately spawned the juggernaut it became.  And, if nothing else, he’s been as predictable a presence in the dinner hour as rush hour traffic delaying either the commuter or, lately, the DoorDash delivery person.

But as the show transitions to a new host once more, I do stand by my informed belief that it’s the show, and not the talent, that is the reason it is still, as the promos attest, AMERICA’S GAME.  Viewers still get the satisfaction of being able to solve the puzzles ahead of the contestants on stage more often than not; after all, the TV contesti are playing for the chance to increase their winnings by risking spins at the wheel.   The jump-in puzzles that augment the scores add the challenge of time to the mix; it’s just as fun for viewers to try and guess ahead of those they’re watching as the letters randomly fill in.  And once you’ve gotten the satisfaction of being “smarter” than those you’re watching, you have the time to doomscroll, pee, finish cooking or at least meet the delayed DoorDash delivery person (or retrieve it from the doorstep, if you’re still one of THOSE) without missing much.

So it’s as good a time as ever to remind the Sony braintrust that after all this attention to the talent, it’s the SHOW that needs to be celebrated.  Much like a new generation has been educated that JEOPARDY! existed in an NBC daytime version before Trebek took the syndication reins, a 60th anniversary milestone which launched a year-long celebration called the DIAMOND CELEBRATION which will allow fans to engage even more directly and, yes, purchase merch, it should be noted that WHEEL’s NBC roots with Woolery means that its Golden Anniversary is imminent. It’s OK to remember Woolery and even Sajak fondly; both are still around.  It’s OK for Vanna White to pay homage to her predecessor; “our lovely hostess Susan Stafford” is also very much alive and well.  And who wouldn’t want the chance to buy your very own ceramic dalmation as the show’s early contestants did with the forgettable buying sprees that slowed up the pace.  The original pilot for the series was called SHOPPER’S BAZAAR.  And yes, that tape still exists, too.

I’d argue much like the birthday of its sister show has been cleverly rebranded as JEOPARDAY! (March 30, 1964), the 50th anniversary of WHEEL OF FORTUNE’s first-ever episode should be commemorated as something like WHEEL DAY or WOF DAY, or something catchier.  More than anything else, that day could sure use a new focus.

You do know the first day WHEEL was on NBC was January 6th, right?

Until next time…



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