Merv Griffin may be best remembered by the general public as the affable talk show host, but it was with his long-running game shows that he made his indelible mark on television history.
The shows he created and produced, “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune,” are two of the greatest TV success stories of all time — both among the ranks of game shows and in the realm of first-run syndicated programming distribution.
“Wheel of Fortune” premiered on NBC daytime in January 1975 and ran until 1989. King World’s syndicated version debuted in September 1983. It was programmed by most stations in the prime access hour and immediately struck a chord with suppertime viewers, quickly rising to the very top of the ratings, where it remains.
On the strength of “Wheel,” King World dipped into the Griffin larder for a companion show and came away with a syndicated revival of “Jeopardy!” the original incarnation of which premiered as a daytime strip hosted by Art Fleming on NBC in 1964 and ran until 1975. Hosted by Alex Trebek, the revival debuted in September 1984 and has shown no sign of slowing since.
In the two decades since the shows entered syndication, rapidly changing tastes have seen the prime-time quiz show re-emerge from the darkness of cultural banishment to a blindingly bright international prominence, led by ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and the spate of knockoffs that followed. Through it all, ever-steady “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel” managed to hold their audience appeal. It could be because inherent in both is a simple play-along-at-home component that challenges viewers and keeps them coming back.
Because of the broad range of topics the game addresses, just about anyone who watches a round of “Jeopardy!” will find it hard not to volunteer whatever “question” they happen to know once Mr. Trebek reveals the “answer” — even the studio audience is warned repeatedly during tapings not to shout out the question before the contestants have the chance to respond. Plus it’s impossible to come away from the show without having learned a few new things.
“Wheel,” slightly less challenging intellectually, is a slickly produced show that combines the suspense of a roulette wheel with the durability of the old Hangman game — using familiar phrases that are often more solvable from the comfortable distance of the living room armchair than from up close in the studio. Hence dinnertime shouts of “Buy an ‘E,’ you moron, an ‘E’!” emanating from homes all over America.
Then there’s the enduring, boyish appeal of host Pat Sajak and the preternatural popularity of Vanna White, the mostly silent letter-turner who rose to international fame solely on the strength of her looks and clapping prowess.
Mr. Griffin always remained self-effacing about his role in creating the shows. In 2006 he told the Miami Herald, “‘Wheel,’ that was really just a game my sister and I used to play in the back seat of the car while the family was driving somewhere — Hangman, we called it.
“‘Jeopardy!’ came after the big quiz-show scandals of the 1950s. I wanted to get a game show on the air, but the networks wouldn’t touch them. My wife said, ‘Why don’t you do a show where you give the contestants the answers?’ I said, ‘How do you think all those people just got sent to jail?'”
Two decades later, the union of Mr. Griffin and the King brothers proved a charmed one.
Roger, Michael and Robert King inherited King World Productions in 1972 upon the death of their father, Charles, who founded the company in 1964 with the acquisition of the syndication rights to the “Our Gang” shorts produced by Hal Roach in the 1930s, which were retitled “The Little Rascals” for TV.
After Robert left the company in the early 1980s, the remaining brothers wanted to acquire or develop a game show for the access time period, then dominated by Goodson-Todman’s “Family Feud.”
“Merv Griffin was really the only game show producer left without a distributor,” Michael King told TelevisionWeek in a 2004 interview. “We went to see him about ‘Wheel of Fortune,’ which had had a daytime run on the networks.”
The Kings had no real money with which to entice Mr. Griffin, but in December 1982, they convinced him to accept only a $50,000 advance, the same amount Charles had used to snag “The Little Rascals.”
Mr. Griffin also agreed to pursue an unusual sales strategy: When King World set out to sell “Wheel” to stations, it decided to bypass the top markets of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago and let the show grow. “Wheel” premiered in September 1983 with 59 stations and a 43 percent market reach.
But it took on “Family Feud” and won. By September 1984, “Wheel” was the No. 1 syndicated game show, appearing in 181 markets, including the top three.
With the launch of “Jeopardy!” the same month, King World had given stations “the one-hour block that was needed to program prime-time access,” Michael King said.
The shows also made Wall Street take notice. King World’s net income grew 418.5 percent in the fiscal year ending Aug. 31, 1984, and in December of that year it made an initial public stock offering at $10 per share, trading over the counter. Investors responded. By October 1985, even after a 2-for-1 split, the stock was at $20 per share.
What followed was legendary for both Mr. Griffin and the Kings and — through Columbia Pictures’ $250 million acquisition of Merv Griffin Enterprises in 1986 and Viacom’s $2.5 billion acquisition of King World in 1999 — for current producer Sony Pictures Television and current distributor CBS Television Distribution as well.
Mr. Griffin’s final creation, “Merv Griffin’s Crosswords,” is due for its debut in syndication this fall from Program Partners.
Lee Alan Hill contributed to this report.
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