Nobody would’ve predicted it, but here it is: Pat Sajak — the man who oversees the spinning of a mechanical wheel for a living — has emerged as one of TV’s last remaining icons.
Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather no longer come into our homes every night. Johnny left the stage a long time ago, and Bob Barker has revealed his last pricetag.
With the watercooler era of TV giving way to the age of DVRs and microcommunities of devoted fans, it’s become harder and harder for TV personalities to evolve into legends. And as giants of the old age begin to fade, there are fewer and fewer hosts and anchors instantly identifiable to most Americans by first name alone.
Oprah, of course, leads the list, followed by Regis. Dave and Jay, and maybe (maybe) Conan continue to strike a chord in latenight. Katie has a well-known brand, though her shift to the evening news has hurt her.
And then there’s Sajak.
Unglamorous, unlikely and definitely unsexy an icon though he may be, he is undeniably a giant on the TV landscape.
There are many nights each week when the most-watched show in any number of cities is “Wheel of Fortune.” It’s seen in more homes than most primetime network shows. And with much programming now genetically designed to appeal to specific niches, “Wheel” is one of the few shows left on TV that plays to a broad audience of all ages.
“I think we’ve just become part of the fabric of this country in some way,” Sajak says, quickly adding that he doesn’t want to come off as if he’s making some kind of “grand pronouncement.” Maybe one reason Sajak’s name doesn’t instantly come to mind when one thinks of TV legends is because he’s carefully avoided the culture of celebrity.
He could easily hold down several TV gigs if he wanted to, but — save for a brief attempt at a latenight talkshow in the 1980s — Sajak seems content to focus on “Wheel.” Likewise, the former KNBC Los Angeles weatherman doesn’t seek publicity and never has. He tells of how he turned down a People magazine cover at the height of “Wheel’s” popularity because he didn’t want to be labeled as the latest “hot” personality.
“It’s not that I’m Mr. Humility,” Sajak says. “But I knew enough about showbiz even then to know it’s better to be well-known but not famous. And that’s worked for me. I’m a low-key guy.”
Time not at a premium
In fact, Sajak is so un-Hollywood, he took his family and moved from California to Maryland about eight years ago. As with most syndie gameshows, “Wheel” has a leisurely production sked that means Sajak has to work only about 34 days per year, with tapings taking place every few weeks.
In addition to leaving plenty of time to be a dad and husband, the schedule lets Sajak indulge a few of his passions — and his business acumen.
In 2005, he became an investor in the startup Golden Baseball League, which operates apart from Major League Baseball, with teams in California and Arizona. He also owns a couple of small AM radio stations in Maryland, giving Sajak a chance to return to his radio roots. He even tapes regular commentaries that let him sound off on issues great and (mostly) small.
Sajak also has a thriving business devoted to online and cell-phone games (many of which spring from the wordplay associated with “Wheel”). His P.A.T. Prods., based on the Sony lot, has developed several kidvid and travel specials. Sajak has licensed a gameshow format called “Blackjack Bowling” to a TV outlet in Taiwan and is looking to bring the show to the States.
“I don’t have to quit my day jobs to do any of these things,” Sajak says. “But in my universe, ‘Wheel’ has always been the sun, and these other things rotate around it.”
Given the unexhausting pace of “Wheel,” it wouldn’t be surprising if Sajak — who turned 62 in October — wanted to stay with the show for many years to come. It turns out, however, that after nearly 27 years of wheel-spinning, the “Wheel” host says he can see an end in sight.
“I don’t want to be Bob Barker,” he says. “This is not something I want to be doing in my 80s.”
It’s not that Sajak, who has two years left on his current deal, is unhappy.
“When I do leave — and it will be sooner rather than later — it won’t be because I’m miserable,” he emphasizes. “It will be because it’s time.”