In Depth

Putting a Fresh Spin on Veterans

CBS Television Distribution’s “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” have stood the test of time for nearly a quarter of a century, enduring as kings of the syndicated game show genre. With “Fortune” hitting its 26th season, and “Jeopardy!” in its 25th, TelevisionWeek reporter Andrew Krukowski interviewed the shows’ executive producer Harry Friedman about both series’ longevity, how to remain fresh after 25 years and making the move to high definition.

TelevisionWeek: With “Wheel” at 26 seasons and “Jeopardy!” in its 25th, what exactly do you look for each season in order to help the shows remain fresh with viewers today?

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Harry Friedman: Well, each season we try to give one new twist, one new nuance, one—I don’t like to use the word, but it really does fit—one tweak to the shows, if appropriate. We don’t feel compelled that we have to change something every season. It’s fun to know that we can, but the basic game still remains the same. Essentially, the foundations of the shows have not changed since the very beginning.

TVWeek: What kind of tweak would you say you installed for this season in “Jeopardy!”?

Mr. Friedman: For “Jeopardy!” we’re always adding more visual clues, more celebrity clues, just trying to freshen up the material and go about it in a different way and broadening the range of the material. So it may not be as immediately apparent as changing a dollar amount was, or a new set, but over the course of the season I think the viewers start to sense, “Oh hey, that’s new,” or, you know, “This is different.”

We added a little informational element with a personal touch called “Ask Alex”—it’s answers to all the questions that we get by way of viewer mail, by way of e-mail and by way of studio questions from the audience: Why did you shave your moustache? Do you like it when Will Ferrell impersonated you on “SNL”?

Clearly these are things that people want to know.

TVWeek: And then in terms of “Wheel,” what changes?

Mr. Friedman: Well, in “Wheel” we made a big change this year, and that is the addition of the Million Dollar Wedge, which has already been won once. We had a million-dollar winner, which was very exciting, back on

Oct. 14, a date which will live and end for me. And that has made it very, very, very exciting, and in a lot of shows we see contestants getting to actually get the bonus round and play for $1 million. And certainly in today’s economy that’s still very big, big money.

TVWeek: Can you talk a little bit about the shows’ move into high definition—what kind of process that took? You moved to HD two years ago?

Mr. Friedman: This is our third season, I believe, in HD.

The process of moving “Wheel” and “Jeopardy!” to HD was damn scary because no one in syndication had done it, and we really sort of did it as a test one year for the Consumer Electronics Show. We did sort of a product reel featuring all of the Sony features and TV shows and recording artists, videos in the “Jeopardy!” format, and shot it in HD so that it would look great in the booth on the HDTVs. And Steve Mosko, president of Sony Pictures Television, said, “Hey, let’s do both shows in HD.” Well, that was in April when the decision was made; by July we were shooting in HD. So it was quite a learning process, but so well worth it. A huge investment on the studio’s part, about $4 million, but it’s just been wonderful and the shows look more alive and vibrant than ever.

TVWeek: Was there any concern about the set? This is always the thing with HD—there is always the concern that you have to dress up the set a little bit more and be more careful about that. What were the specific concerns regarding the move to HD?

Mr. Friedman: Well, with our sets we shoot wide enough so that the set is not really featured. So even though what you’ve heard is true, that every little nick and scratch and so on does become more apparent in HD, for us it was really a question of scale, of capturing the scale. So by making the picture wider, it meant that the camera angles had to be different, the camera shots became wider. In the case of “Wheel of Fortune” in particular, once we moved one of the cameras back to get a wider shot of the puzzle board, suddenly we were seeing the downstage three rows of the audience, so we had to scale back the audience section of the studio. So that was just part of the beginning of the sort of domino effect of all the things you have to change when you go HD, and that’s how we learned, that and the cameras and the control room and lighting, make-up—it required all new make-up techniques—but we adapted. We had to, which was kind of fun.

TVWeek: What goes through the writers’ mind to make a clue or a topic on “Jeopardy!”?

Mr. Friedman: That’s a really good question. I think probably the first criterion for a “Jeopardy!” clue is, “Is it interesting?” Is this information that’s either going to make the viewers say, “Oh, I didn’t know that, but I’m glad to,” or, “Hey, I knew that,” or at least prompt them to think that they know it. And by that I mean sometimes as a viewer you think you know the correct response to a clue, you don’t really know that you know it until you hear the contestant say it and you say, “Oh, yeah, yeah, I knew that, I knew that.” It makes you feel good. You feel better as a viewer when the three contestants at final “Jeopardy!” don’t know the correct response and you do. I’m not sure that there’s a real firm guideline for what makes a good “Jeopardy!” clue, but I find that the best clues are the ones that contain a little hint within the clue as to what the correct response might be. At the same time it’s challenging you to come up with it.

TVWeek: Looking ahead, are there any tweaks that we can be privy to for the shows for next season?

Mr. Friedman: It’s probably a little early to talk about next season, and we do take these tweaks very cautiously and very seriously. Unless we think something is worth it, we’ll keep doing what got us here for this many years.