In all the columns I’ve penned about game shows in this space so far, I’ve failed to give Merv Griffin the attention he truly deserves. I’ll openly acknowledge that this is an oversight on my part.
I can’t fathom how I let a game show legend like him go unnoticed for this long.
To be fair, I was briefly in Italy, which might explain some of the delay in recognizing his contributions. Griffin was the creative force behind several cherished and enduring game shows in the television world.
While this month’s column won’t exclusively focus on Merv Griffin, it marks our first exploration of one of the game shows he played a pivotal role in developing.
Wheel of Fortune stands out as one of his most iconic creations, and it has remained a TV staple for an extended period.
However, many individuals under the age of 30 are only familiar with the current syndicated version featuring Pat Sajak and Vanna White.
It has maintained its appearance and format for nearly two decades now.
Yet, when you look back and watch the earlier iterations that existed before these familiar hosts took the stage, it’s quite astonishing how much the show has evolved.
Wheel of Fortune came into existence more than a decade after the debut of Jeopardy! in 1975.
Surprisingly, it first aired just a week after NBC decided to cancel the latter show, which might be seen as the early signs of a “NBC Fail” from that era.
Merv Griffin’s inspiration for Wheel of Fortune struck him when he reminisced about family road trips during his childhood.
Also Read: Game Night: Let’s Make a Deal
He remembered how his entire family would engage in spirited games of Hangman to make the journey more enjoyable.
Being the brilliant mind that he was, Griffin quickly transformed the fundamental aspects of a friendly game of Hangman into a television show.
He added a monetary component to up the stakes, making it much more than just a battle for bragging rights.
If someone were to attempt such a feat in today’s television landscape, the network might dub it “Hangman-ageddon” or something similarly dramatic, and it would likely have a fleeting existence.
The days of taking a simple concept and turning it into a successful, enduring show seem to be a thing of the past.
However, Griffin capitalized on his era’s opportunities, and that’s how Wheel of Fortune was born.
Contrary to popular belief, Pat Sajak and Vanna White weren’t always the iconic duo we recognize today.
Throughout its history, Wheel of Fortune has seen approximately eight different individuals take the spotlight as hosts or announcers, some of whom might surprise you.
The original host was none other than Chuck Woolery, who landed the gig after the network’s first choice was caught muttering the vowels under his breath as a memory aid during tapings—an unconventional strategy for a new job, to say the least.
Nevertheless, it turned out to be a fortunate turn of events for Chuck, as he used this opportunity to embark on a seven-year stint as the host of one of the most popular new shows of the ’70s.
His initial hostess, Susan Stafford, remained with the show until 1982 but eventually decided to leave permanently due to multiple injuries that caused her to miss several filming sessions.
This is where the transition towards Pat Sajak and Vanna White really gained momentum. Chuck Woolery departed in 1981, driven by a combination of pursuing other projects and a contract dispute with the producers.
Following his exit, both Merv Griffin and the network explored various possibilities for his replacement. Griffin personally handpicked Pat Sajak as the new host, but this choice was met with significant resistance from the network.
It marked one of the earliest instances of Griffin’s strong-willed temperament working to his advantage during his involvement with Wheel of Fortune.
He adamantly refused to continue shooting until the network committed to hiring Sajak on a permanent basis.
Eventually, his determination paid off, and one half of the iconic duo was secured.
As for the other half, Merv Griffin made a somewhat infamous decision after coming across a picture of Vanna White among a group of numerous models and actresses. He chose her almost instantly.
To accommodate the network’s preferences, Vanna was brought on alongside a few other options in a rotating lineup of prospects, including Vicki McCarty and Summer Bartholomew.
This arrangement lasted for two months following Susan Stafford’s departure.
In the end, Vanna White was chosen as the permanent hostess for many of the same reasons someone might be selected as a game show sidekick today—she possessed immense popularity among younger demographics and was revered for her fashion influence.
You might expect the story to settle down with the two key pieces of the puzzle finally in place. But the tale takes an interesting twist.
Pat Sajak, while comfortably hosting a successful syndicated game show, seized the opportunity to venture into the world of late-night talk shows with The Pat Sajak Show in 1989.
Coincidentally, he left this role after roughly the same duration that Chuck Woolery spent on the show before him.
During Sajak’s brief absence (as The Pat Sajak Show didn’t exactly set the world on fire), the unexpected replacement was none other than Rolf Benirschke, a former placekicker for the San Diego Chargers.
Yes, you read that correctly. Sajak’s late-night experiment turned out to be a disappointment, and he returned to where he truly belonged, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The original version of Wheel of Fortune wasn’t radically different from the standard format we’re familiar with today.
Some of the rules remained the same, while others were tweaked after a few episodes had been filmed.
Instead of the substantial 2,400-pound steel wheel that contestants spin nowadays, the early version featured a simpler cardboard and wood contraption mounted vertically on the stage.
The playing board had up to 13 fewer spaces than the current version, and there were no video screens in sight.
However, most of these adjustments were made in the early stages of the show’s run to enhance the viewing experience for audiences at home.
The only aspect of the show that underwent significant change over time was the concluding segment.
In the earlier format, instead of contestants leaving with cash as their primary reward, along with a potential trip or grand prize, they had the option to exchange their winnings for prizes displayed on the set, functioning somewhat like a ticket exchange at a local arcade.
When you watch old clips featuring this format today, it can be quite disconcerting.
Nevertheless, I commend the show for recognizing that the gimmick didn’t yield the desired results and for transitioning to a more successful approach.
Observing a contestant’s reaction when they realize they can now afford a new grill or a shiny car once they reach a certain dollar value is decidedly less captivating than witnessing their excitement over winning a vacation or hitting the jackpot spontaneously.
The journey that Wheel of Fortune undertook to become a cornerstone of evening syndication wasn’t without its bumps along the road.
However, there are valuable lessons that many contemporary game shows could glean from the behind-the-scenes challenges faced by NBC and later CBS during the show’s evolution.
In the current landscape of game show production, it often boils down to ego.
Each show is typically driven by the allure of financial success in the eyes of network executives or the pride of the first host on board.
Reality competition programs tend to be more adaptable in tweaking their formats to ensure long-term network success.
One noteworthy case of a network being willing to revamp the format of a previously successful game show to transition to daytime syndication prosperity is exemplified by Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, a show that lost its luster much more rapidly than Wheel of Fortune did before implementing the necessary changes.
Fortunately, both audiences and producers can celebrate Wheel of Fortune‘s 30th Anniversary Season, complete with delightfully dated flashbacks from the show’s entire history preceding each night’s episode.
We can be grateful for a dedicated team of producers over two decades ago who recognized the true gem they had and understood the imperative need for adaptations to keep the show vibrant decade after decade.
Here’s to hoping we can continue enjoying Wheel of Fortune every night at 7:00 for another 30 years and beyond.
Also Read: Game Night: Double Dare/GUTS