Big ‘Wheel’ keeps on turning

Long-running gameshow retains broad appeal

In television, new technologies get spun and old business models go flat, but the “Wheel” rolls on.

Dominant since it launched in syndication during the first term of the Reagan era, and renewed on the stations that clear it through the first term of the next administration, “Wheel of Fortune” remains bolstered by a daily audience of nearly 12 million viewers, a following bigger than most primetime hits these days.

The typical “Wheel” aud is quite broad, cutting across many lines of age, gender and ethnicity, its core following just old enough not to fly through the commercial time with a DVR or forsake it for some fancy digital program offering.

Nevertheless, change comes naturally to the program. According to Harry Friedman, exec producer of both “Wheel of Fortune” and its inseparable sibling, “Jeopardy!” the decision to bring “Wheel” into the digital age for its 25th season was as uncomplicated as Sony Pictures Television topper Steve Mosko suggesting, “What do you think about doing ‘Wheel’ and ‘Jeopardy’ in high-definition?”

Certainly, the high-def upgrade — which debuted Sept. 11 and carried a pricetag of $4 million — had plenty of thought behind it. Mosko had the weight of the broader Sony organization’s high-definition ambitions to consider, and syndication’s No. 1 program provided an excellent opportunity to “stick a flag in the ground,” he says.

“For a lot of stations, it’s their highest-rated program,” Mosko explains, noting that inspiration to simultaneously convert both “Wheel” and “Jeopardy!” came directly from a meeting with Sony honcho Howard Stringer. “The fact that we could offer (the shows digitally) provided us with a huge opportunity to push the whole high-def initiative.”

For Friedman — who is as close to auteur as one can get in the game/quizshow business — the upgrade was the latest in a long line of tweaks he’s come up with over the years to sustain one of the most successful TV properties in history.

“The way in which the set pieces appear in HD (is) much richer, and there’s much more depth, and there’s certainly much more detail,” notes Friedman, whose staff of 110 was aided by a small team of Sony consultants in, among other things, figuring out new set pieces as well as special HD-friendly makeup techniques for longtime host Pat Sajak and co-host Vanna White. “All of these factors taken together give the viewers the sense that they’re seeing something new.”

“This show could last forever if Harry Friedman keeps constantly improving it,” adds Roger King, who as head of CBS TV Distribution (aka what became of King World) oversees distribution of both “Wheel” and “Jeopardy!” for producer Sony.

Of course, TV’s longest-running gameshow next to “The Price Is Right” has already lasted a very long time.

“Wheel” was invented by a hangman-inspired Merv Griffin and launched in 1975 as a daytime show on the NBC network, where it ran until 1991. Spun into an early-evening syndie version in 1983, it blossomed into a cultural phenomenon, grabbing hold of the syndie ratings crown in 1984 and spinning off revenue streams galore.

Today, “Wheel” is reformatted all over the world (in more than 50 territories at last count, an estimable number for a daily strip) and is a hit in places like France, where it averages 5.5 million viewers per episode and a 32% audience share, as well as Spain, where it’s also top-ranked and delivers a per-episode aud of 1.3 million viewers.

Sony is already transitioning “Wheel” to new platforms, including a cell-phone game, while King’s operation continues to enjoy rights to a “Wheel”-branded slot machine that is the most popular variety in the world.

“You could build a whole company around ‘Wheel’– it’s one of the more profitable shows I’ve ever dealt with,” notes King, who also oversees distribution of “Oprah” and “Dr. Phil.” “And it will be on another 50 years.”