In 1982, Pat Sajak was a quick-witted former local weatherman with a season as a daytime game-show host under his belt, and Vanna White was a beauty pageant winner making her formal TV debut as his letter-turning co-host. Their surprisingly serendipitous pairing would swiftly turn “Wheel of Fortune,” already a 7-year-old daytime network series, into a worldwide syndicated phenomenon that remains a ratings powerhouse today. Now, “Wheel’s” syndicated game show format is celebrating its 35th anniversary season.
And somewhere in the course of those 35 years, the two stars became cultural icons, as well. Their heads, like that colorful wheel, are still spinning.
“It’s still an amazing success story,” says Sajak, when contemplating the 35th anniversary of shepherding contestants through “Hangman on TV” alongside White. “Instead of this popular show, we became part of the popular culture.”
Sajak had already been onboard as “Wheel’s” affable master of ceremonies for a year when White arrived in 1982; he assumed hosting duties on the series created by talk-show host and rising game-show empire-builder Merv Griffin after its original host, Chuck Woolery, departed six seasons into its NBC run.
“Merv fought the network to get me to host this thing,” Sajak recalls. “They didn’t want some weatherman doing a big show of theirs. It didn’t matter what anybody said. It didn’t matter what research showed. It didn’t matter what focus groups said. He said, ‘I like this. It’s going to work.’”
The daytime show had gradually been losing ground in the ratings, and it looked like it had another year or two in it, but then White was added into the mix, a secret ingredient to syndicated success. White, whose prior game-show experience consisted of a stint as a contestant on “The Price Is Right” (she didn’t win), regularly watched “Wheel” and wrote to the show hoping to come on as a player — just as original letter-turner Susan Stafford was moving on. Her timing proved to be perfect.
“They said, ‘If you’re ever in Los Angeles, you can come in and audition,’” White says. “Little did I know I was going to come in and audition for the actual job!”
White says she was the “most nervous” in her life and could barely talk during her audition because she wanted the job so badly. And those jitters almost cost her the dream job. Though she was among the three finalists, Sajak admits he told Griffin he didn’t know if she had the wherewithal to get over those nerves. But Griffin, Sajak remembers, said she’d be fine. “And she was, and I thank my lucky stars every day,” he says.
“Instead of this popular show, we became a part of the popular culture.”
The combination of Sajak’s charm and White’s stunning beauty had an immediate and potent effect: “Wheel” blossomed into a wildly popular nighttime syndicated version that quickly shook the TV market to the core.
“It just took off immediately, hugely — doing 50 shares in markets, just turning the whole syndicated world upside down,” Sajak says. “Networks were moving newscasts so they weren’t against us; GMs were losing their jobs because they didn’t buy the show, or getting promoted because they did. It happened really fast. We were everywhere; it got to be this phenomenon.”
At its peak, “Wheel” commanded the highest ratings in syndication ever recorded; held the title of the most-watched syndicated series, alongside sister show “Jeopardy,” for more than two decades; became the second-longest running game show ever; was cloned into scores of international versions; and doled out over $200 million in cash and prizes.
“I remember them saying 100 million people a week watch our show,” says White. “It’s like, ‘Whoa, I’ve been in a stadium with 60,000 people, and that’s a lot of people. I guess we have something here.’”
In its 35th anniversary season, “Wheel” still draws widespread national attention, consistently claiming a spot in the top 5 for syndicated programming, earning an average of 5.4 for the household rating, which is no easy feat in today’s television landscape.
Along the way, the hosts’ pop-cultural cachet skyrocketed: idols, including Jimmy Stewart and Lucille Ball, praised Sajak. Meanwhile White made cameos and was immortalized in song by the likes of “Weird” Al Yankovic and Nelly. “My kids were like ‘Mom, you’re in a Nelly song?’” she says. “Their whole life I’ve been on TV; that’s nothing to them. But, ‘My mom’s in a song?’ That just rocked my kids’ world.”
Harry Friedman, “Wheel’s” executive producer since 1999, says the essence of the show’s success is simple: “Likeability: that’s a quality that’s hard to come by, but when you meet someone and you like them immediately, you know you have something special,” he says. “They are a huge part of the success of the show. To wear so well that you’ve been able to come into people’s homes pretty much every night for about 6,500 episodes is pretty amazing, and they’re like dear friends to several generations of viewers.”
But Friedman says they also excel at their roles in facilitating the game: “It’s a lot harder than one would think. Keeping the energy level up, being supportive of the contestants, and always being mindful of the millions of people watching at home. It’s a unique skill set. You can’t teach it.”
White credits Griffin for being the first to recognize the duo’s combination of aptitude and affinity. “Merv said he hired me because I turn the letters better than anyone else,” she says. “But I believe he saw chemistry between the two of us, a brother-sister type chemistry.”
From the first day White showed up on set, she says she and Sajak have been “great friends,” which has proven key to their rapport on the show.
Sajak adds that they have become a “package deal” for the show, noting that if and when they retire, they will do so simultaneously. But they don’t have plans to do that any time soon, as “Wheel” has a deal to be on-air through 2020.
Over the years the show has walked a delicate line between an “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality and gradually tweaking game rules and puzzles, as well as layering in more lavish prize packages, changing set designs, and incorporating exotic location shoots and occasional high-tech upgrade. White, for instance, no longer physically turns letters but activates them with touch-screen technology.
“We’re very careful about making changes,” says Friedman. “We want to make sure it enhances the experience for the contestants but really for the viewers, as well. We try to keep the game and puzzles interesting because it really is all about the game. It’s accessible. I think it’s hard to walk into a room when ‘Wheel’s’ on TV and not get engaged, so it’s the best kind of interactivity.”
Indeed, any new bells and whistles pales in comparison to the sentimental connection viewers feel toward the show and its hosts.
“Ten- and 11-year-old kids are saying to their moms and dads, ‘Hey, will you watch “Wheel of Fortune” with?’” says Friedman. “As any parent knows, having that kind of time at the request of your kid is worth its weight in gold.”
It seems to Friedman that practically everyone he encounters views “Wheel” as something of an emotional touchstone, including a woman he had just met at a cocktail party, who told him that his show makes her family feel “safe and warm.”
“I’ve never heard that, and I thought, ‘What an outstanding statement to make about a TV show!’” Friedman says. “I don’t think it gets a whole lot better than that.”