On January 6, 1975, the first episode of Wheel of Fortune hit the air waves. It would be a huge success, one of the most popular game shows in television history – although no one can explain exactly why.
Wheel of Fortune was the brainchild of Merv Griffin, the same television star who created Jeopardy more than a decade earlier. Encouraged by the success of this program, the media mogul considered other ideas for a game show. Griffin remembered long car journeys in his youth when he was playing with his sister Hangman and started developing a new word game concept.
“One day during a production meeting in the mid-1970s, I told my employees about my childhood memories of playing the hangman,” Griffin recalled in his autobiography. “They all thought it had great potential as a game show, but it took a gimmick or a hook to be successful on TV.”
Then the wheel jumped into his head. “During all the years that I did the Merv Griffin show at Caesars Palace, surrounded by blackjack and craps tables, it was always the big spinning wheel that I was drawn to,” said the TV veteran. “It drove me crazy. I could never win, but I still loved playing.”
Griffin gave the NBC managers the idea, convinced that the bike would be his competition. The network illuminated the show with a suggestion: add a shopping element. Hence the original project was called Shopper’s Bazzaar. Chuck Woolery hosted the pilot, who was very different from the end product fans. To begin with, participants were given a list of pricing options and chose what to play for. Shopper’s Bazaar also had a vertically mounted wheel that turned automatically and not by the participants.
Watch a scene from ‘Shopper’s Bazaar’
Although the show was a bit chunky, Griffin and the executives saw potential in the first try. Changes were made, with actor Edd Burns being briefly brought on board as a presenter before the producers decided to return to Woolery. Model Susan Stafford became the show’s first mailer. The wheel was turned flat and made more visually appealing for the television audience.
The colorful device also received the highest award since the show’s name was officially changed to Wheel of Fortune.
Watch a scene from ‘Wheel of Fortune’
Like many game shows, Wheel started life as a daily program. It was an instant success for NBC, which was broadcast on the network from 1975 to 1989. Woolery retired in 1981 after a contract dispute and Stafford soon followed him out the door. Griffin replaced her with two unknown relatives, Pat Sajak and Vanna White.
“Vanna’s picture was one out of ten on my desk,” Griffin told the Los Angeles Times. “I pointed to it and said, ‘You.’ Why? Because her head is too big for her body. When you look at her 8×10, her head is so big that all her features – her mouth, her big eyes – all stick out. The camera loves her! “
Winning Sajak was not that easy. “I went to NBC and asked for Sajak for Wheel of Fortune,” said Griffin. And they said, ‘No, no, no! He is a weather man. “Despite the reluctance of the network, the TV legend recruited its host.
“When Wheel arrived, I was responsible for local news at KNBC Los Angeles,” Sajak recalled in an interview with Broadcasting + Cable in 2012. “I was offered two prime time series at NBC – Real People and Speak Up America – but I said no … A short time later, Merv Griffin offered me Wheel of Fortune, which was only broadcast on the network during the day. Some of it had to do with Merv. And to be honest, I thought back then that the show had been going for seven years and was third in its time window behind Price Is Right on CBS and the repetitions of Love Boat on ABC. I thought I would ride my bike for another year or two and then I would have made the national credibility and would go on. “
Instead, the Sajak and White duo would become synonymous with Wheel of Fortune in the decades that followed, with both hosts dwarfing 7,000 episodes.
Still, the undisputed star of the show was the bike itself. The colorful centerpiece added a Vegas-style glow to the game, just like Griffin had imagined. The first incarnation consisted of cardboard, paint and light bulbs. Although new technologies have been integrated into the device, the same wheel frame has been used since the show was first broadcast. The modern version – made of steel, plexiglass and LED lights – has a diameter of more than 1.80 m and a weight of more than 11,000 kg.
In September 1983, a syndicated night version of Wheel of Fortune debuted. According to Griffin, the show was “terribly” tested. The program was launched in approximately 50 cities – a relatively small number for a production of this size – and none of the three largest television markets. Despite this unfavorable start, the syndicated wheel quickly became one of the most popular programs in the country.
Watch a 1985 report on ‘Wheel of Fortune’
In 1986 Wheel of Fortune was the top rated syndicated show in America. Even when the daily version changed the network and was eventually canceled, the syndicated version remained a nocturnal powerhouse. Hardcore fans of the show called themselves “wheelies”. Sajak and White became pop culture stars. And the program was called “America’s Game”.
“I really have no idea why we are so big,” Sajak told the St. Petersburg Evening Independent in 1986. “Now I can point out elements that make it successful: It’s a good game, easy to play, pretty convincing. If you walk past the TV, you almost have to play along.”
In a mid-1980s article written for the Los Angeles Times, writer Howard Rosenberg pondered the secret of Wheel’s popularity. “Wheel of Fortune is the Lawrence Welk of game shows, still a stupid polka after all these years,” the journalist suspected. “It is unimaginative and undemanding, and maybe that is the ticket. The television audience seems to yearn for simplicity as an escape from reality. What if the world you were facing today became increasingly complex and fragile and either exploded or What if the race was racy and the frustrations bigger than ever? Tonight we’re going to spin the wheel with Pat and Vanna, fill in the blanks and pick up the prizes on behalf of you. “
While Rosenberg’s argument can be discussed, his observation was spot on. Regardless of the social or political climate, viewers continued to hear Wheel of Fortune. Through various fashions and changing technologies, the show has remained a mainstay on national television. This is a phenomenon Sajak is very aware of, as the moderator admitted during an interview with USA Today in 2019. “We’re kind of a half-hour haven where nobody gets hurt and everyone has fun,” said the host. “If I were to present this show to a network today, the pitch would be about eight seconds and they would say,” Thank you, next time because it’s old fashioned. “
That doesn’t mean the show is unchanged. Over the years, producers have optimized various aspects of the program to keep Wheel of Fortune up to date. Wildcards and a bonus round were introduced. The show celebrated things like “Celebrity Week”, “College Week” and “NFL Players Week”. In the meantime, the shopping segments were removed and Sajak was pleased that they were leaving. “Those were the most boring moments on TV,” the moderator once said. “We would have been gone a long time ago if that hadn’t changed.”
Another update is the digital off-screen monitors, which show the number of consonants in the respective puzzles. In the early years of the show, the moderators had to rely on the production staff holding up their fingers to convey this information. “They became known as” Finger Boys, “Sajak told ABC News. “Because someone would say, ‘Are there any Bs?’ And someone has the puzzle in front of them and goes [holds up two fingers] and I would say, “There are two Bs!”
Board games, video games and slot machines are just a few of the many successful merchandising efforts that have brought the Wheel of Fortune brand beyond the television screen. International versions of the game show have been broadcast in more than 50 countries. Since then, the show has spread its fan base across generations.
“One of the things we found so enjoyable is that we hear from young mothers that their children are taking them back to the wheel of fortune and that they are willing to take part because the bike is family friendly and a safe haven for families who love it want to watch TV together, ”commented the series’s current executive producer, Harry Friedman. “It feels good to be worshiped this way and to be with us long enough to become a legacy for our viewers.”
“Playing Hangman is exactly what we do, but the show affected people in ways we never intended,” Sajak admitted. “People have taken our show to their heart and made it part of their lives. It is very flattering. “