Wheel of Fortune has been on the air in some form since 1975. The current nighttime version, which began in 1983, has accounted for over 30 seasons in its own right. Merv Griffin first conceived Wheel in 1973 while his other major creation, Jeopardy!, was in its tenth year on NBC. He decided to create a game show based on Hangman, and added a wheel to it as a "hook" after being inspired by Roulette (rather than the "Wheel of Fortune" casino game often referred to as the "Big 6").
For more details, see Wheel of Fortune timeline.
1973: Shopper's Bazaar
"You are at the Shopper's Bazaar! And now, here is the host of the Shopper's Bazaar: Chuck Woolery!"
The first pilot, taped in September 1973, put more emphasis on shopping for prizes at the behest of NBC boss Lin Bolen, who had commissioned the pilot to boost network daytime ratings among women 18-34. With Chuck Woolery as host and Mike Lawrence as announcer, the show had contestants (all female) who solved Hangman-style puzzles, but their winnings were determined by a vertical mechanical Wheel stopped by Woolery.
The puzzle board and Wheel were very different: the former used pull cards, while the latter stood in the center of the stage and had no Bankrupts, two (later four) Lose A Turn wedges, and one each of Buy A Vowel and Free Spin. It also had two $0 spaces plus one each of Free Vowel and Your Own Clue, the latter of which gave clues via an on-set telephone to the players.
At the end of each round, the money earned by all three players was applied to prizes they had chosen prior to the taping (denoted by an Accounting Department); if a contestant covered her lowest prize's value, she would win it upon solving a puzzle and subsequent earnings were applied to the next item on her list. The top winner, determined by prizes rather than money, played a Bonus Round called "Shopper's Special" which involved identifying the name of the bonus prize; the contestant was shown all vowels in the puzzle, then had 30 seconds to give one correct consonant and solve the puzzle (in this case, ISLE OF CAPRI) to win a trip there.
Bazaar was, to put it mildly, a disaster. Neither Bolen or Merv liked the pilot, even during the taping: Lin felt there was no real excitement between the players and gameplay, calling the entire thing (especially the set) "old fashioned", while Griffin knew that "Everything about it was wrong." Test audiences were also unenthusiastic, as they could not understand the gameplay (including why players had to buy vowels), were unable to see the puzzle board, and referred to the game as "very slow" and "not challenging". Further, the pilot ran for a staggering 30½ minutes (not including the slate), and there is no indication that Bazaar was intended for anything larger than a half-hour time slot.
Possibly because of this, or more likely the pilot using instrumental versions of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and "Spinning Wheel" as the main and commercial themes respectively, no clips ever appeared on specials or retrospectives for nearly 40 years; indeed, it was not until May 30, 2012 that any footage surfaced, when the opening segment was uploaded on YouTube. This was followed by the full pilot just over three months later, on September 8.
It should be noted that several elements of modern-day Wheel have roots in Bazaar: the Toss-Ups bear a resemblance to "Stop the Wheel!" (especially the hand-held device Chuck uses to do so), while Free Vowel is now part of Free Play and the Prize Puzzle derives from the Shopper's Special. In addition, the Merv Griffin Productions logo which debuted on Bazaar used a griffin design that remained a part of the company logo through the late 2000s.
1974: Wheel of Fortune
"These are just some of the many exciting prizes available, yours to buy today on Wheel of Fortune!"
Over the next year, Bazaar underwent a near-complete overhaul of not only its format, but its audiovisual presentation and staff (nearly all of those involved with the first pilot were replaced, most notably Woolery, Lawrence, and producer/director Bill Carruthers). In early August, the show's name was changed to Wheel of Fortune.
The second and third pilots were taped on August 28, 1974. Hosted by Edd Byrnes (suggested by NBC despite having no hosting experience) with Charlie O'Donnell announcing, these pilots featured a larger puzzle board and simplified the gameplay: there was now a much larger (horizontal) Wheel spun by the contestants, complete with a Bankrupt wedge that eliminated a contestant's winnings within that round plus whatever had been put "on account" from previous rounds. Whoever solved the puzzle now got to spend his or her money buying prizes from a large "showcase"; both pilots used the same prizes, which totaled $20,130.
The puzzle board was meant to be automatic, but the mechanism was not completed before taping started and Susan Stafford was hired to turn the letters (albeit opposite to how they were turned in the series).
Wheel, like Bazaar, was a mess on both sides of the camera: Merv argued with director Marty Pasetta regarding camera shots, to which Pasetta demanded Griffin be barred from the control room (a move supported by Bolen); the Wheel was extremely loose, requiring a stagehand to be underneath stopping it with his feet; and Byrnes himself was (as he admitted in his 1996 memoir Kookie No More) intoxicated because he was "scared to death" about doing Wheel, a drunken state which clearly manifested itself in a variety of ways. The board, sound, and player display operators were a bit off, mishearing a call of F as S and incorrectly totaling a player's score at least twice. Susan was also a bit out of sorts, forgetting to turn a trilon during the third pilot.
Rumors have circulated for years that Byrnes was caught reciting his vowels backstage by Merv. Regardless of whether this is true, it is known that Susan confronted him after the taping.
Test audiences were against these pilots as well, but in the opposite manner: the set was too busy, the sound effects too noisy, and Byrnes simply did not fit, in spite of some cheerful banter with contestant Tanya in the "happy drunk" pilot. Having gone this far, Bolen convinced her bosses to take a leap of faith and put the show on the air by voluntarily putting her job on the line: if Wheel fails, fire her; if it succeeds, give her a raise. They agreed by November 18, but shortly afterward the decision was made to replace Edd with Chuck, with the announcement made on December 13.
The Jeopardy! contract, subject to end in January 1976, was terminated. The remainder was given to Wheel, which began taping in December. Two promos for the show's debut aired the week of December 30, one for the show itself and another for the new lineup beginning January 6, both showing clips of the premiere.
"Look at this studio, filled with glamorous prizes! Fabulous and exciting merchandise, just waiting to be won today on Wheel of Fortune!"
Wheel debuted on January 6, 1975 with Chuck, Susan, and Charlie, replacing Jeopardy! as per contract but taking the 10:30 AM slot of Winning Streak (which had also ended the previous Friday, as did Name That Tune). Chuck plugged the show in a voiceover during the credits of that day's Celebrity Sweepstakes, which aired at 10:00.
"Hello, this is Chuck Woolery. Wheel of Fortune is an exciting new game show where three contestants have a chance to spin the Wheel and win valuable prizes! So join hostess Susan Stafford and me for our new daytime program, Wheel of Fortune: premiering next on NBC."
Wheel had been refined from its third pilot in positive ways: puzzles now came with categories attached (soon expanding from Person, Place, Thing, and Fictional Character into categories such as Landmark, Title, Phrase, and Event), and the prizes were now behind behind a large prop at center stage with doors.
The show drew a 35 share on its first day and an average of 20 million viewers every day of the first week, quickly making Wheel the biggest series in all of daytime and earning Bolen a raise. Buy A Vowel eventually became required for vowel purchases, but remained problematic and was discarded by the end of October.
When The Price Is Right expanded to an hour on November 3, NBC expanded Wheel for that week as part of the network's Daytime Gigantic Game Gala; on December 1, the expansion became permanent through January 16, 1976.
While the show remained successful even during the near-fatal 1978-81 reign of Fred Silverman, he made two attempts to cancel it in 1980:
- The first was part of a plan to introduce a 90-minute talk show hosted by David Letterman on June 23, cutting out three games to do so. Among the mock schedules drafted was at least one which removed Wheel, although this was vetoed by May (Chuck and Susan addressed this on May 7, stating that the show had not been cancelled but NBC's schedule would be undergoing changes). The three games which got the axe were Chain Reaction, High Rollers, and The Hollywood Squares.
- The second was carried through to the point of a series finale being taped for August 1 while Charlie and several other staffers left for other programs. By July 16, Silverman reversed the decision and opted to cut Letterman's program to 60 minutes; amusingly, the episode aired with cancellation announcement and goodbyes intact, followed by Chuck joking about it the following Monday. Don Morrow filled in as announcer for that week, with Jack Clark taking the reins on the 11th.
Following this, however, the show continued with little to no hiccups...until late 1981.
Woolery leaves Wheel...and so does Susan
In late 1981, Chuck asked Merv for a salary increase from $65,000 to $500,000, in line with what other emcees were making and because Wheel was drawing a 44 share; Merv offered $400,000, and NBC opted to pay the other $100,000 until Griffin threatened to move the show to CBS. In the end, Chuck left on Christmas Day 1981 (only one week after a set overhaul) and was replaced by KNBC weatherman Pat Sajak the next Monday; Silverman originally vetoed the decision, claiming Sajak was "too local", to which Merv ceased production for several days. He eventually got his wish after Silverman was replaced by Grant Tinker, who had previously convinced Mort Werner to pick up Jeopardy! 17 years earlier.
Susan was originally abrasive to the emcee change, but soon warmed up to Pat. However, she clearly seemed distracted during the few circulating Susan/Pat episodes, and following a trip to India, she began reconsidering her career; she ultimately left Wheel on October 22, 1982 to pursue charity work. Summer Bartholomew, Vicki McCarty, and Vanna White filled in through December 10, with Vanna becoming permanent on the 13th.
The show's next big change was on August 8, 1983: the music package used on Wheel for the past eight-and-a-half years, composed by Alan Thicke, was replaced by a new set of cues by Merv; "Big Wheels" was replaced by "Changing Keys", and a new opening was introduced with a "Wheel! Of! Fortune!" chant (still used today) done over a shot of the logo on the spinning Round 1 layout.
Afterward, Wheel continued through the 1980s at a reasonable clip...until Pat made a decision in 1988.
Pat's announcement, Jack's departure
In late February 1988, Pat announced that he was stepping down from daytime to host The Pat Sajak Show, a talk show on CBS. Clark left after the May 6 show, very likely due to declining health and bone cancer, and died on July 21; Charlie returned temporarily, and Johnny Gilbert also filled in, but by mid-August the show's new announcer was M. G. Kelly.
The announcer issue was taken care of, but Wheel still needed a new daytime host...
The audition process, based on extant footage, appears to have consisted of each host being introduced by Kelly, the host introducing Vanna, contestant interviews, the opening spin with daytime rules spiel, a complete round, and a post-game chat. Both the daytime and nighttime sets were used, with the appropriate music for Vanna's entrance depending on the set.
Over 30 candidates had been suggested or tested to replace Pat: Vanna was offered the position by producer Nancy Jones, but turned it down; Kelly did an audition (alternate copy), as did Jimmy Connors, Roger Twibell, and John McEnroe (who eventually became a game show host in 2002 with The Chair on ABC and later BBC One).
Likely the least promising candidate was John Gabriel, whose hosting prowess was reportedly worse than Byrnes: Gabriel spun the Wheel the wrong way for the opening spin, read the score on the red player's display no matter whose turn it actually was (and/or called out whatever the red arrow stopped on regardless of whose turn it was), and during his chat with Vanna quickly brought up his prior work and association with the King brothers (who founded King World).
The most promising candidate was Tim Brando of ESPN, who auditioned in August and reportedly did so well that Merv said he "could host the show tomorrow". The cable network supported Brando, believing that it would increase awareness of ESPN and its programming. While Tim remained a possibility through at least mid-November, this was not to be...
"It's a lot different than football..."
While watching KABC's morning show A.M. Los Angeles around November 1988, Griffin noticed guest Rolf Benirschke, a former San Diego Chargers placekicker, discussing healthy habits; Merv quickly sensed that Rolf was a genuine, sincere person who loved people, and asked him to audition for Wheel after doing one for Merv's newest creation Winfall. Merv then selected him for Wheel following a decent audition (according to a UPI article from May 28, 1989, Twibell was the #2 choice).
January 9, 1989 was Pat's last episode, and Rolf's debut (taped December 14, 1988) aired the next day. While Benirschke was clearly nervous and forgot rules at times (most infamously admitting that he did not know what to do in the event of a daytime tie), he remarked in his 1996 autobiography Alive & Kicking that his mindset was to enjoy doing Wheel no matter how long his run may last.
It was early in this period that the staff had finally had enough of Kelly, who often required several retakes for prize copy. At the same time, The Newlywed Game and The Dating Game were winding down their runs, and the announcer they shared became available for Wheel; Kelly's last episode aired February 17, and he was replaced on the 20th by the aforementioned announcer – Charlie O'Donnell.
After six months of The Price Is Right continuing to build its lead while Wheel retained what it had already, NBC ended the show on June 30...only for it to return to CBS on July 17. While Rolf had visibly improved by the end of June and had been told that Merv wanted to retain him as host, CBS had other ideas...
Goen down the drain
"From Hollywood, the famous Wheel is spinning, spinning, spinning, and the players will be winning, winning, winning! Because there's lots of cash and some fabulous prizes just waiting to be won on Wheel of Fortune!"
While it was not yet known just who the host was going to be on CBS, a TV Guide ad at the beginning of July made it clear that it was not going to be Rolf. Possibilities included John Davidson (who had just ended a three-year run on Hollywood Squares), Chuck Henry (host of the 13-week Now You See It revival which Wheel was to replace), Bob Eubanks (who had left The Newlywed Game the previous December and whose Card Sharks ended in March), Pat Finn (who went on to host The Joker's Wild, Shop 'Til You Drop, and The Big Spin) and Marc Summers (host of Double Dare which had finished production as Super Sloppy Double Dare in May).
On July 7, CBS chose Bob Goen, himself no stranger to the genre. Wheel returned to its original timeslot of 10:30 AM, replacing the aforementioned Now You See It. Now using a scaled-down version of the nighttime format, almost everything was overhauled, generally for the better.
One problem, however, was that the show had become rather cheap: $50 and $75 returned for the first two months (sporting diamonds after the first CBS episode), the top values were $500/$500/$1,000/$1,250, and the Bonus Round offered such prizes as subcompact cars and $5,000 cash while still allowing the player to choose what prize to play for. While the budget improved somewhat over the next two years, October 16 was the last time the Wheel layouts were altered – namely, to replace the Free Spin wedge with $400.
Budget aside, the move to Television City freshened up the show but also set off its downfall: while remaining on the network for 18 months, nothing seemed to keep the ratings from tumbling even after it returned to the NBC schedule on January 14, 1991 (and in the process began offering Bonus Round prizes in the $10,000 range). In a sign that the show was flailing, several play-by-phone contests were held in an attempt to boost ratings; none worked.
Wheel (as well as Classic Concentration) continued to skew older, and as a result advertisers were not particularly stumbling over one another to buy commercial space. The daytime Wheel ended on August 30 after 4,215 episodes, although repeats aired through September 20.
The genre as a whole (at least on a network scale) continued to slide downward until January 1994, when Caesars Challenge was taken off the air and left Price as the only daytime network game for nearly 16 years, when the Wayne Brady revival of Let's Make a Deal debuted on CBS in October 2009.
"Wheel! Of! Fortune!"
The syndicated Wheel, which had a larger prize budget but identical gameplay, was a source of scorn when it was first announced as Merv had been trying to pitch a nighttime version off and on since 1977 with little progress: Syndicast failed in 1977, and 20th Century-Fox purchased the syndication rights in 1980 to no avail. While this effort had gotten off the ground, it was not without its long road:
King World, spending $2.2 million of its own money to cover product costs (including a Broadcasting ad detailing the show's huge success in daytime), opted to avoid the major markets and sell them on Wheel once it had taken off elsewhere. Five stations signed on for the 1983-84 season prior to NATPE 1983, with another 12 signing up there. By September, a total of 59 stations had been sold on the idea, albeit with smaller stations paying low fees; in some cases, King World got just $50 a day with a maximum of $1,200, barely breaking even.
One major obstacle was that Wheel was being aimed at the prime access hour (7:00-8:00 or 6:30-7:30 PM depending on the region), where game shows had been pushed out in favor of programs like The People's Court, PM Magazine, and Entertainment Tonight. The other major obstacle was Family Feud, which had been ruling the syndication market since the late 1970s and had only strengthened when it went daily in September 1980.
The fact that King World was going on with the show (commencing taping on July 6, 1983 with Jeff, Leslie, and Linda as the first three players) despite these hurdles came across as being suicidal.
As predicted, Wheel was not an out-of-the-box success...but by the end of the first quarter it took off greatly and continued expanding as the season progressed, with progressively more markets wanting the same high ratings; despite this, stations were reluctant to sign on for Merv and King World's new entry for the 1984-85 season (a Jeopardy! revival hosted by Alex Trebek), with affiliates putting it in less-than-optimal slots.
In response to the new competition, both versions of Feud went to a $400 goal with a fourth Single question – a change which made the games longer, the shows more subject to editing, and only emphasized the production's age. While the nighttime version still managed to beat dozens of other syndicated entries early in the 1984-85 season (including Jeopardy!), this lead quickly eroded when the A&Q game was suddenly moved to better slots around midseason; Feud ended a few months later, by which point Vanna, Pat, and Alex had become household names.
Changes in the air
The two versions of Wheel remained virtually similar until October 5, 1987, when nighttime removed the iconic shopping rounds for an experimental four-week "Big Month of Cash" that seamlessly became permanent (although at the beginning of November, it became the "Big Bonanza of Cash" until February or March 1988). Clark left this version as well in May 1988, and was replaced by M.G. at the start of Season 6 before Charlie returned in February 1989.
In Spring 1990, at the insistence of PETA, furs were banned from both versions. Also in 1990, the game began gradually adding (and sometimes removing) various puzzle categories, set pieces, and game rounds/structures.
But throughout this time, the show marched at the top of the syndication heap, with Merv and Nancy remaining in command (as they had since 1976) under the watchful eyes of Sony Pictures Television...until someone at Sony decided in late Spring 1995 that it was time for a change.
A new regime, for better or worse
Nancy was dismissed in June 1995, as Sony felt Wheel was becoming tired and dated under her watch and that it needed to be taken in a different direction; she was quickly replaced by Harry Friedman, who is known to have been present for at least the last week of Season 12.
At the time Friedman took over, one of the first things he noticed was the manual, trilon-based puzzle board and how a half-hour episode would take an hour to produce due to the board being taken offstage to unload the solved puzzle, load the next puzzle, and bring it back in. His solution did not appear until February 24, 1997: namely, a puzzle board which swapped the 52 trilons for 52 monitors.
In September 1999, Merv promoted Harry to co-executive producer, and retired at the end of the season per a deal he had signed in July 1994 – namely, to remain executive producer of Wheel and Jeopardy! until 2000, which also included the shutdown of Enterprises and the takeover of those two shows by Columbia TriStar Television.
At the same time Merv retired, Wheel stopped using long-time signature tune "Changing Keys", which had gone through six distinct iterations over the years (1983, 1984, 1989, 1992, 1994, and 1997).
In October 2001, the W-H-E-E-L envelopes used since 1989 were replaced by the 24-envelope Bonus Wheel, and a $100,000 cash prize was introduced. In September 2008, likely inspired by a short-lived Australian Wheel revival, the show debuted a new top prize of $1,000,000.
In January 2005, Wheel was the subject of a two-hour E! True Hollywood Story which covered the program's history from 1973 through the then-present day, with many clips and interviews. Given its content (including footage of the 1975 premiere, which has not been re-aired otherwise) and date of broadcast, it could reasonably be considered a semi-official 30th-Anniversary Special.
The nighttime version continues today, still with Pat and Vanna at the helm. Charlie died on November 1, 2010, with the remainder of Season 28 rotating announcing duties among several guests; 40 of these episodes were originally announced by Charlie, but to many fans' detriment Wheel opted to dub over them. Jim Thornton got the nod on June 13, 2011.
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