If you still think “Wheel of Fortune” contestants shop for table lamps and ceramic Dalmatians, or that the “Jeopardy!” contestant pool is populated mostly by middle-aged guys who love their pocket protectors, think again.
Both shows are enjoying record-breaking runs in syndication—”Wheel” just turned 25 years old, and “Jeopardy!” is just a year behind—and have outlived and outlasted more than 300 other game shows. But they’ve been transformed from venerable to vibrant thanks to a remarkably talented staff, a savvy and supportive studio and production that embraces the latest technology.
“Wheel of Fortune’s” transformation began in 1995 with an idea that, at the time, must have seemed like reckless heresy: Replace the tried-and-true manual puzzle-board light boxes with computer-controlled video monitors. Predictably, there was a small chorus of voices chanting the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” warning.
The electronic puzzle board was introduced to great fanfare and widespread acceptance. The cosmetic enhancement was good, but the long-term benefit was even better. With the old board it was necessary to stop tape and suspend production for 10 to 15 minutes between each round while the letters were removed from the just-solved puzzle and replacement letters for the next puzzle were inserted—mdash;a real momentum killer. The new puzzle board allowed us to tape episodes in real time, revitalizing the production from the inside out. Viewers and the media saw that the show seemed to have found a new energy. This was no longer your grandma’s “Wheel of Fortune.”
And so began the unlikely marriage of 20th-century tradition to 21st-century technology. The union has provided the tools for continuous in-show upgrades and spawned a growing family of thriving brand extensions across multiple platforms reaching a diverse audience. (Full disclosure: “Wheel” and “Jeopardy!” are owned by Sony, which means we get amazing technical expertise and support—and, more importantly, great employee discounts on cool Sony stuff.)
Our Web sites, wheeloffortune. com and jeopardy.com, have become important and dynamic resources. At a time when TV properties are burdened by the need to use their Web sites to increase brand awareness, “Wheel” and “Jeopardy!” are able to leverage the established familiarity of the brands to drive both traffic and viewership through cross-promotion. The Web sites feature a wide variety of online initiatives and activities, all designed to expand and deepen the connection between the shows and the viewers.
In 2003 we launched the Wheel Watchers Club, TV’s first long-term, online viewer loyalty program. It provides a direct method of rewarding and communicating with loyal fans. The club, which recently passed the 4 million-member mark, increases viewing frequency through reward incentives. Members earn points by watching the show and then returning to the Web site to enter that night’s bonus puzzle solution. Points can be used for a variety of prizes. Two years ago we enhanced the program with the addition of the “Special Prize Identification Number” feature. A SPIN ID number is a viewer’s ticket to winning the same prizes won by show contestants.
At “Jeopardy!,” an online initiative has made it easier than ever to become a contestant on the show—well, sort of. You still have to be ridiculously smart and extremely quick. But in 2005 the tryout process became much more accessible when we began offering a pre-qualifying test online. To date more than 250,000 aspiring contestants have taken the test from the comfort of their home or office. Thanks to the online test, the mix of our contestant pool has enjoyed a significant and welcome change. Last year’s players represented 108 TV markets, and we’re finding more young players, seeing more diversity and booking more women than ever before.
Offering “Wheel” and “Jeopardy!” games for online and mobile platforms not only helps to keep our brands ubiquitous, it satisfies the growing viewer demand to make their favorite TV games available anytime, anywhere and on any screen. In PC games, we have made two digitally distributed versions (2003 and ’07) and two free online versions apiece of “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” Both full versions of the games have tons of features, thousands of puzzles and hours of gameplay, and both allow players to create their own avatars.
For mobile phones, we’re about to launch the fifth version of the “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” games. As the technology of the handsets evolves, so do the games. We now have customizable avatars with 25,000 different combinations, new content to be downloaded daily, rich animations and audio, and the ability for players to participate in tournaments. Both mobile games are on every major U.S. carrier.
In September 2006, “Wheel” and “Jeopardy!” again made TV history by becoming the first syndicated shows to broadcast in high definition. If you haven’t seen the shows lately, you’ll be astounded by the difference HD has made. Going HD wasn’t simple and it wasn’t cheap; after reconfiguring the stage, updating the sets, buying new cameras, designing new lighting and giving the control room and post-production facility a complete makeover, the tab came to almost $4 million. But the results are impressive and the investment makes an important statement about how committed we are to being industry leaders.
We were early adopters and it paid off. We didn’t just repurpose, we reinvented.
And we’ll continue to employ any technology that enhances our brands. Maybe that explains why, after 25 years on the air, “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” are looking younger than ever.
Harry Friedman is executive producer of “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!”