Thanks For THEIR Memories

So Pat Sajak’s tenure as emcee of WHEEL OF FORTUNE has indeed come to an end.  Last night he bid farewell to the millions who still make watching the show a nightly habit, an event that received the kind of coverage normally reserved for the passing of a world leader.  Virtually every major media outlet made it a priority story, obligingly sharing the last few minutes of the episode where Sajak expressed what appeared to be most heartfelt appreciation who helped him progress from a Los Angeles weather personality who had caught the eye of creator and producer Merv Griffin with his work on an unsold pilot and was given the job when the show’s previous host demanded what Griffin thought was an underserved pay hike into the most enduring emcee of a single game show in television history.

VARIETY’s J. Kim Murphy’s story from yesterday was a shining example of how significant an event trades considered this:

It was all just a game at first to Pat Sajak, but then it became something much more meaningful. The longtime “Wheel of Fortune” host’s final episode heading the game show airs in just a few hours — and the production has released a first look preview ahead of the broadcast, in which Sajak expresses gratitude to his audience.

“I have a few thanks and acknowledgements before I go. And I want to start with all of you watching out there,” Sajak begins in the footage, addressing the camera on the “Wheel of Fortune” set. “It’s been an incredible privilege to be invited into millions of homes, night after night, decade after decade. And I always felt that the privilege came with the responsibility to keep this daily half-hour a safe place for family fun. No social issues. No politics. Nothing embarrassing, I hope. Just a game.”

Newsstands–at least the few still in existence–displayed this special publication this week, trumpeted as this OFFICIAL 100-page special tribute featuring new interviews, memorable photos and articles from TV Guide’s archives and Wheel puzzles to play at home.  In case you live in a media desert, you too can own one, for the relatively modest price of $13.99.  If you’re a fan of either the show or just TV GUIDE, there’s little within it that you likely don’t already know.  And the puzzles are much simpler than those that the producers tend to trot out when they were over budget.

As regular readers here probably know, I’m anything but a huge fan of Sajak’s.  Just about a year ago, when the first news of this impending event broke, I mused about my own experiences with him and how at least numerous test groups felt about him relative to the show itself.  Everything I wrote was 100 per cent true and I still stand by them.

But as yesterday’s farewell episode approached and the finality of his departure set in, it was abundantly clear to me that many friends and colleagues of mine, let alone the press, had a much different experience with him.

Many were actual contestants on the show, some even going back to the days where each round’s winner took their winnings to purchase an endless array of prizes, some as comically legendary as a ceramic dalmatian.  Videos of those appearances were all over my social media feeds this week, with each person considering themselves a winner just for the experience, even if their game totals weren’t quite among the all-time leaderboard.

Those that were just viewers expressed simultaneous sentiments of gratitude and unease.  In a world where almost nothing is exactly the same as it was in the 80s, or even the early 2010s, Sajak was a constant.  Those old enough to remember the SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE sketches where Martin Short’s Ed Grimley revered him have become even more loyal, and thankfully with far better haircuts.  With Sajak’s departure, there is now no emcee with a history with their show that dates back to a year beginning with 19.   And being reminded of that is a sobering reinforcement that yet another link to our pasts–to far less stressful days where our media choices were limited enough that sharing dessert with family members while hovering around a 27″ console while getting the momentary adrenaline rush of solving a word puzzle quicker than those playing hangman roulette was considered a great way to end an exhausting day–is now relegated to history.

And yes, upon further reflection, I must admit that Sajak’s consistency and ominpresence likely has helped me as well.  WHEEL is still an immensely profitable franchise for SONY, second only to JEOPARDY! in ratings.  And it must be remembered that there would likely never had been a JEOPARDY! renaissance had it not been for the seismic impact the nighttime version of WHEEL made on what was initially a desperate lineup of 40 carefully selected network affiliated stations the year before.  And that opportunity would likely never have happened had it not been for the stable and favorable rebound the NBC daytime version made the year before that, the first with Sajak as host.  Once finally removed from direct competition with the still-undisputed king of daytime, THE PRICE IS RIGHT, WHEEL settled into a groove that after several previous failed attempts gave it enough of a track record for those 40 stations to give it a shot.  And that success happened even before Vanna White joined the party.

So, yes, I finally get why this is a bittersweet day for so many.  And I’ll retract my snarky suggestion that an anthropomorphic wheel could do as good a “hosting” job as Sajak.  Ryan Seacrest is indeed taking the helm, and according to those present for his first week of tapings he’s doing a fine job.

If anything, I’ll double down on my prior observation that WHEEL–and Sajak–should get even more love and appreciation from Sony than it has offered as facts to those covering this week’s events.  It’s not 41 years and 8010 episodes that should be honored –it’s 43 years and roughly 9800 episodes.  Sajak did double duty–10 episodes a week–between the last days of 1981 and the first days of 1989.   That’s twice as long as Dick Clark did that on the Pyramids.  That total episode count is in the neighborhood of 3000 more than Bob Barker put in on PRICE, and I’m even including his nighttime episodes (his syndicated version was a mere weekly).  And Sajak’s total run was eight years more than Barker’s.

If Michael Davies’ passion for the history of JEOPARDY! can now include that show’s NBC history and allow it to trace its roots back to March 30, 1964 to produce a 60th anniversary JEOPAR-DAY!, acknowledging there was a prior host and execution that laid the foundation, next January 6th should be circled by at least someone on the growing Sony game show management team as worthy of its own commemoration.  That will be the golden anniversary of the first WHEEL telecast on NBC.  Maybe name the soundstage WHEEL tapes on after Pat (and heck, throw in Vanna?). Let him bask in the honor while he’s still alive.  For sh-ts and giggles, invite Chuck Woolery and Susan Stafford along, too.  They’re both still with us and in pretty decent health.

If anything, it would give Sajak another chance to turn a day into a “safe place for family fun; no social issues, no politics”.  Can you think of a pending day more in need of that than January 6th?

So while I may not have been quite as complimentary about Sajak as others have been, I’ll eagerly acknowledge that he should be appreciated and he indeed will be missed.  He has expressed a desire to pursue other challenges while he’s still healthy enough to do so, including playing with his grandchildren.  His first gig will be a stage show in Honolulu.  We should all be so fortunate to have those as options.  And anyone who has made so much positive impact on so many others deserves all of that and more.

Happy retirement, Pat.

Until next time…

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