Wheel of Fortune

Last Update: June 3, 2001 – new link added in Read More About It.

Airing: 10:30-11 a.m. Monday-Friday, January 6-November 28; 10:30-11:30 a.m. December 1 through the rest of the year, NBC.

Personnel: Chuck Woolery, host; Susan Stafford, hostess; Charlie O’Donnell, announcer. A Merv Griffin Production. Taped in Los Angeles.

Description: Hangman, with a big wheel determining prizes.

Game Play: Three players competed. The puzzle board revealed the letters in a name, phrase, place, or other category at the beginning of each round. The first player spun a horizontal wheel filled with dollar amounts and other spaces. If the contestant landed on a dollar amount, they could guess a consonant and see if it was in the puzzle. If it was, the contestant kept the turn and could spin again, buy a vowel (if they had $250 or more) or solve the puzzle; if not, the turn passed to the next player. Hitting "Lose a Turn" on the wheel meant the turn automatically passed to the next contestant, hitting "Bankrupt" meant losing the turn and all their accumulated cash from that round only. Other spaces on the wheel included "Buy a Vowel," which was dropped fairly early (probably because too many contestants were hitting the space and didn’t have the money to buy a vowel, or didn’t want to), and "Free Spin." Game play continued until someone solved the puzzle, and then that contestant went shopping.

"Shopping" involved three different showcases of prizes, which were exhibited on a turntable. Contestants could buy any prize they desired at or under the amount of cash they had accumulated during that round. They could stop at any time and put the money "on account," which allowed them to add it to the money won in a future round for better prizes. When the cash they had was less than any prize still available, they could also take the money as a gift certificate. Very few players took the "on account" option, because if they didn’t win another round in the game, they didn’t keep the money.

Three rounds were generally played in this version (maybe more if time allowed). The player who had won the most money in cash and prizes at the end of the day was the winner and returned the following day. Players kept all the prizes they had won, regardless of if they were the big winner that day. Contestants could stay on for a maximum of three days.

End Game: None for most of 1975.

Background: Wheel of Fortune was Merv Griffin’s reward for letting NBC drop Jeopardy! with a year left on its contract. Originally called Shoppers’ Bazaar (really, really bad name), both Chuck Woolery (previously on CBS’s short-run Your Hit Parade and occasional songwriter) and Ed "Kookie" Byrnes ("Kookie" of ABC’s 77 Sunset Strip) hosted pilots. The rumor has always been that Griffin chose Woolery after spotting Byrnes walking around backstage saying "A… E… I… O… U" to himself backstage, trying to remember his vowels. It’s also likely Woolery fit into NBC daytime chief Lin Bolen’s "young studs" host profile. Byrnes, in a recent autobiography, goofs up some of his facts, but admits he was intoxicated while hosting the pilot, and was confronted by an upset Susan Stafford after the taping. (The good news is Byrnes conquered his substance abuse demons and has been sober for well over a decade.)

Wheely Swell: WoF got off to a nice start, beating Gambit in the 10:30 time slot. CBS responded by bringing The Price is Right back to mornings in August, right up against Wheel.

Wheel Take Two: When CBS expanded The Price is Right to an hour December 1, 1975, NBC did the same with Wheel. The two didn’t run head-to-head (Price started at 10:00 a.m., Wheel at 10:30), and Wheel’s expansion included two different three-round games with three different contestants, a head-to-head round featuring the two winners from the previous games, and a bonus round similar to the one added permanently years later, except puzzles were labeled Easy, Medium, Hard, or Difficult, with bonus prizes increasing in value accordingly. The difference was that TPIR had done a week’s worth of hour-long programs on the air in September, while Wheel, to the best of my knowledge, did not. After seven weeks, Wheel shrank back to a half-hour, staying at 11 p.m., away from the TPIR buzzsaw.

Wheel Run Away and Get Married Anyhow: Susan Stafford married NBC executive Dick Ebersol (originally the network’s executive overseeing Saturday Night Live, Ebersol eventually produced the show himself and has run NBC Sports for many years) in 1976. The marriage, which only lasted about a year, is mainly worthy of mention because of the beachfront ceremony in Malibu, which was attended by John Belushi, Chevy Chase, SNL producer Lorne Michaels, and a bunch of other SNL writers and friends. After the bride and groom took their vows, Chevy Chase grabbed Stafford and threw her in the ocean. Stafford later became partners (both in business and personally) with game show producer Dan Enright.

Woolery was married during the ‘70s to actress JoAnn Pflug (The Fall Guy, Operation Petticoat), and they appeared together fairly frequently on Tattletales. They’re also divorced.

The Wheel Turns Slowly: Wheel continued on NBC for a long time, becoming its longest-running game in 1980 when the network dropped The Hollywood Squares. Never a huge ratings winner, it was at least competitive. It aired at 11 p.m. until 1978, 11:30 from 1978 to 1980, back at 11 from 1980 to 1982, 10:30 for about eight months in 1982, and 11 again for the rest of its NBC run.

In late 1981, Merv Griffin and Chuck Woolery had a salary dispute – Woolery wanted a $200,000 salary increase to $500,000/year; Merv was offering a $75,000 increase. When they reached an impasse, Chuck was dropped after the December 25, 1981 episode. (Merry Christmas, Chuck!) Woolery has gone on to host Love Connection for an obscene amount of time (at least 1983 through the early 1990s), NBC’s Scrabble from 1984 to 1990 and again in 1993, his own daily talk/variety show in 1991, and The Family Channel’s Home & Family in 1995. He’s now running the syndicated version of The Dating Game.

Former Los Angeles weatherman Pat Sajak took Woolery’s place. Sajak had also hosted two game pilots that never made it as a series – the Mark Goodson-produced Puzzlers and a game based on the then-popular Milton Bradley electronic game "Simon," called Press Your Luck (which had nothing to do with the Peter Tomarken-hosted game). At the same time, an end game was added, where the winner picked five consonants and one vowel to solve one final puzzle and win any one of several designated bonus prizes (which were also available while shopping during the main game).

1982 saw Susan Stafford leave the show, but her departure was an amicable one (she came back to substitute as letter turner for one week in 1986). Several hostess candidates were auditioned on the air, including future Sale of the Century hostess Summer Bartholomew and September 1979 Playboy Playmate Vicki McCarty. Vanna White took over full time December 13, 1982.

In 1983 NBC sold the nighttime syndication rights to the show in exchange for extending its daytime run.

Oops.

‘S Wonderful, ‘S Mervelous: In 1983, syndicators King World Productions, whose previous moves into the syndicated marked included Little Rascals reruns and a failed soap opera update program, approached Griffin in 1983 about syndicating Wheel five evenings a week. It was a risky move; Family Feud was then ruling the roost, and it seemed illogical to run another game against it. As a result, the game had fairly low clearances when it debuted in 1983, but it gained high ratings in the markets it did run in and more stations signed on. It’s not hard to explain – the simplicity of the game play, Sajak’s impish hosting ability, and Vanna White’s style and beauty (promos in the late ‘80s featured White almost exclusively) all made it a must-see for young and old. Wheel of Fortune has been the highest-rated syndicated program since at least 1984.

As the Wheel Turns: Sajak left the NBC daytime version in early 1989 to host his own 90-minute late night talk-variety show on CBS, which lasted just 15 months. Griffin’s choice as Sajak’s replacement was former NFL kicker Rolf Bernischke, who had been an All-Pro with the San Diego Chargers at the beginning of the decade (and had overcome Crohn’s disease before that). Bernischke was unsuccessful as Sajak’s successor, and that combined with the high rights fees Griffin was demanding caused NBC to drop Wheel in June of 1989 (after a run of 14˝ years, second behind Concentration). The program emigrated to CBS a few weeks later, with Bob Goen the new host. This version lasted until early 1991, when CBS dropped it in favor of self-help author Barbara DeAngelis’ short-lived program. NBC picked up again for its daytime lineup January 28, 1991, but dropped it once and for all that September.

Merv Griffin sold his company to Coca-Cola/Columbia Pictures in the late ‘80s, which became part of Columbia/Tri-Star/Sony in 1994. Griffin still has some limited involvement with the show and he retains a credit for creating it.

Game play has changed a bit over the years. Shopping was dropped in 1987 for the syndicated version and 1989 for the daytime version; players simply won the cash accumulated during each round. Five bonus prizes were made available during the end game, initially with huge values (a fellow in my office won a $54,000 Ferrari), but settled quickly into the $25,000 range. Since so many contestants were picking the $25,000 cash prize, starting in 1990 the bonus prize was picked blindly before the contestant was shown the puzzle, and each bonus prize could be won only once a week. Also in 1987, the first six letters of the puzzle – R, S, T, L, N, and E, which were almost always chosen by contestants anyway – were spotted to them, and they had to pick three additional consonants and a vowel. Bonus puzzles actually seemingly became more difficult during this time. Finally, starting in 1989 or so contestants could remain as champion for three days on the syndicated version (previously it had been one day and goodbye). In 1996 this changed to inviting the three highest scorers back on Friday for a second game (thus, it was possible, although not likely, to finish in second on Tuesday and still be one of the three high scorers). More recently, returning champions have been dropped altogether.

Sony added a kiddie version of the show, Wheel 2000, which aired simultaneously on CBS Saturday mornings and Game Show Network Friday nights for a year from 1997 to 1998. GSN now airs reruns; CBS elected not to renew the program.

Key Phrases:

The Home Game: Milton Bradley issued two editions of a box game in the ‘70s. (Note: the host and hostess on the box resemble Chuck and Susan, but it’s not them.) The Wheel cottage industry, however, didn’t take off until the Pat and Vanna version did. Pressman issued at least five editions in the 1980s and early 1990s, and GameTek, Sony, and Hasbro have put out a bunch of computer games as well. There are also a couple of hand-held editions in stores now. If you want to play on line, go to the Wheel of Fortune Page web site, but a word of caution – the game runs very slowly using a T1 line connection, so don’t expect to be very happy using a 28.8 modem or less.

Reruns: Every day at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. EST (10 a.m. and 2 p.m. weekends) on Game Show Network – from what they have. The Woolery version, which features different music written by Alan Thicke, has been destroyed by NBC (as far as we know), but a couple of episodes featuring Woolery and Stafford are still traded around. (Note: many folks prefer Alan Thicke’s theme to Merv Griffin’s theme, but as Griffin has pointed out, the switch earned him millions of dollars, as well as huge profits for his publisher, BMI.) GSN has never run the network version (even though they have episodes from at least the mid-‘80s on). The syndicated edition reruns away, and they have plenty of unaired episodes around.

Survival: Wheel has been accused of drawing an old audience, but it’s a huge audience; the show would rank weekly in the top 15 or 20 network shows if it aired on a network instead of in syndication. Sajak is signed to host the show through 2004. Wheel is here for a long time to come. Get used to it.

Curt Alliaume, Executive Producer: There really isn’t much to change. There’s no point switching back to shopping for prizes; that slowed the game down. I’d love to get in more games over the course of an episode, but that’s unlikely given the needs to get plugs and ads in. Pat and Vanna are marvelous together. Why mess with a good thing?

My Grade: A-.

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Sound + Vision:

  • ‘80s TV Theme SuperSite to download several versions of the current theme music (but, alas, not the original). Now back up and running!
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Wheel of Fortune is a copyrighted title of Columbia/Tri-Star Television. This page is in no way affiliated with or endorsed by Merv Griffin Productions, Columbia/Tri Star Television, Sony Pictures, their subsidiaries, affiliates, or successor organizations. No challenge to their ownership is implied. Wheel of Fortune box game copyright Milton Bradley Company. Photos originally appeared on eBay.

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