What Keeps ‘Wheel’ on Fast Track?

Jan 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Merv Griffin was the all-time big winner on “Wheel of Fortune,” and he didn’t even have to clap and chant the “big money, big money” mantra while the wheel spun.
Mr. Griffin sold his television production company to Columbia Pictures Television in 1986 for $250 million and retained a continuing financial interest in “Wheel” and his other shows. That was a lovely bunch of coconuts for the amiable old band singer-more, in one stroke, than all the “Wheel of Fortune” contestants have earned, in aggregate, since the show debuted on NBC in January 1975.
That’s Mr. Griffin tipping the scale all by himself over more than 12,000 contestants.
“Wheel of Fortune” has been television’s top syndicated show pretty much since the Reagan presidency. It regularly rakes in revenue with its access partner in prime, “Jeopardy!” while “Hollywood Squares,” “Family Feud,” “The Match Game,” “Card Sharks” and a full docket of TV judges have come, gone and sometimes come and gone again.
But why “Wheel”? What makes this one show such a perennial ratings champion that local stations can set their bank accounts by it? Truth is, anyone who would know would have invented it twice, but we can still ponder the possible reasons.
Possible Reason No. 1: It’s just such a devilishly clever game.
Uh, no. “Wheel” is a tiny bit challenging without being taxing. The light bulb that brightened inside Mr. Griffin’s head involved fusing the old word game Hangman with a roulette wheel, a concept that isn’t exactly on a Jet Propulsion Laboratory scale. Besides, is there anyone, anywhere, who rushes home to play Hangman over dinner?
Possible Reason No. 2: Vanna White’s enormous head. It was Mr. Griffin, no less, who once speculated that Ms. White was a TV star because her head was large in relation to the rest of her body. Everyone with smaller heads nodded, “Yes, of course!”
But this never made much sense. Perhaps it was Mr. Griffin who also speculated that the Hale-Bopp comet actually consisted of billions of orange gummy bears. One of the great oversized heads in American history belonged to Richard Nixon, who was almost definitively not a TV star.
Possible Reason No. 3: The secret symbolic marriage of Pat Sajak and Vanna White. This is supposed to be why we put up with Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford for so long, right? Mr. Sajak and Ms. White march out every night, arm in arm, like a suburban couple deploying to host a Saturday night party. Then she goes off to mind the hors d’oeuvres while he answers the doorbell and greets the guests. Most of America can relate, even to the Haagen-Dazs double vanilla flavoring of the “Wheel” stars.
But … nah. This just isn’t the stuff to sustain a TV show, let alone an actual marriage, for a quarter of a century.
(Bonus Vanna White factoid: Ms. White, who joined the show in 1982, a year after Mr. Sajak, achieved inclusion in the Guinness Book of Records as the global champion hand-clapper. By actual count, she averages 720 encouraging hand-claps per show.)
Possible Reason No. 4: We just love to see our countrymen win big money on TV.
Forget it. If it were true, we’d still be watching some other long-extinct show. One that actually awarded big money.
Possible Reason No. 5: The lack of imagination of local TV executives.
You could consider this a sort of power-booster reason. If local TV executives carried a surplus of creative imagination, they’d have programmed the prime-time access hour themselves, the way the feds originally intended them to do. And if they had, no “Wheel of Fortune.”
Possible Reason No. 6: Everyone can watch “Wheel of Fortune” together, without fear of anyone being embarrassed or offended.
Now we’re getting somewhere. The aggressively wholesome “Wheel of Fortune” holds no nasty surprises between casserole bites for its home audience. “Wheel of Fortune” is sanitized, accessible television for family viewing, giving it a universality that’s missing in so much of television’s coarse and rigidly bracketed landscape.
As Ms. White, who is sometimes moved to speech, recently told the Associated Press, “Even babies like to watch the wheel go around.”
Possible Reason No. 7: The abiding mystery of smash hit television. Which is to say, no one really knows why some shows shoot through the roof while others settle into the landfill.
Who knows? Take the answer-in-the-form-of-a-question gimmick away from “Jeopardy!” and maybe “Jeopardy!” tanks terribly. Take that sinking “bankrupt” sound effect away from “Wheel of Fortune” and maybe Mr. Sajak is still a weathercaster in Los Angeles.
No one has yet figured out television. We’re all just strapped into our seats on the great wheel. Spinning.