When Harry Friedman first joined “Wheel of Fortune” as a producer in the mid-1990s, the pace of the game show was lumbering. Between puzzles, the crew would have to stop taping, draw huge duvetyn curtains in front of the puzzle board and manually replace each letter in each light box. The process stretched out a half-hour show to 45 or 50 minutes of taping, which would “just suck the life out of the audience, out of the contestants and out of Pat [Sajak] and Vanna [White],” said Friedman.
So in 1997, the television producer — who that same year would take on producing responsibilities for “Jeopardy!” — switched out the manual puzzle board for an electronic one. Vanna would only have to touch each light box to summon a new letter. The show could essentially be recorded in real time, allowing for more rounds during each taping and reinvigorating America’s Game.
“Harry quite literally saved the show when it desperately needed a strong dose of creativity,” Sajak told Variety.
Today, Friedman is closing out a 25-year run at Sony Pictures Television, the studio behind both game shows, as he opts to move on after the end of his contract. The well-respected television veteran holds a Guinness World Record for having produced 12,540 game show episodes, more than any other individual, and is the only producer to have won two Emmys in the same category in a tie with himself.
“There’s no one in this business I respect more,” said Sajak. “I will miss his tremendous talent, his unerring instincts and his genuine kindness. He is simply the best.”
Amid a public health crisis that has everyone anxious about the future, Friedman’s last day comes as millions of viewers, confined to their homes, turn to the shows he helmed for comfort.
For the week of April 6, “Jeopardy!” averaged 11.6 million viewers each weeknight, while “Wheel” averaged 11.3 million, according to national syndication data — outperforming nearly all the nightly news shows across networks and all primetime programs on both network and cable, including Fox’s popular Wednesday night competition series “The Masked Singer” (7.9 million viewers) and CBS’ Sunday night newsmagazine “60 Minutes” (9.7 million).
And for the first four weeks since stay-at-home directives were beginning to roll out, starting in mid-March, “Jeopardy!” ratings grew 18% in total viewers, while “Wheel” ratings rose 15% compared to the four weeks before that. Total viewer ratings for weekday showings of “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel” between mid-March and mid-April increased 27% and 23%, respectively, from those same weeks a year ago; on the weekends, those figures surged 67% and 59%.
Even prior to times of national crisis, TV viewers have found great relief in watching Sajak and Alex Trebek do their thing.
Two years ago, Friedman recalls, a “Wheel” audience member who there with her 11-year-old daughter asked a page if she could speak to the executive producer. She was escorted over to the stage.
“She said, ‘I just want to let you know that we’ve been through a lot this last year’ — she didn’t say what — ‘We’ve been through a lot this last year, and your shows make us feel safe and warm.’”
Sony Pictures Television typically films 230 original episodes of “Jeopardy!” and 195 episodes of “Wheel” a year. For over two decades, Friedman would typically leave his house at 5:15 a.m., work out at the gym on the lot in Culver City — “one of the great perks of all time” — and remain at the office until 7 p.m. every night.
“If I thought there was a way to do it all again for another 25 years, I would do it in a heartbeat,” he said.
Friedman has also updated “Jeopardy!” over the years, adding visual elements to clues, such as the video prompts from the show’s Clue Crew. That team, comprised of roving show correspondents, have recorded clues in more than 300 cities across seven continents since its inception in 2001.
“It’s really, really much better to see St. Mark’s Square in Venice, with people being there rather than just talking about it, or even [showing] a picture of it,” said Friedman.
Perhaps the most significant change for “Jeopardy!”, he said, was lifting the five-show limit for contestants on a win streak. The new rules opened the door for Ken Jennings to make his historic 74-game run in the mid-aughts; the move made minor celebrities out of trivia enthusiasts, and had viewers rooting for winners on a roll.
The recent “Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time” tournament in January saw Jennings — by then a household name — competing against Brad Rutter and James Holzhauer, delivering a ratings smash. The first episode of the tournament scored 14.4 million total viewers, and peaked with 15.5 million viewers by the third of four installments.
“Harry is the most creative producer I’ve ever worked with,” said Trebek, in an emailed statement.
Friedman will not be closing out his storied tenure with a big bash. His last day, in the midst of government orders to stay at home, will instead be feted with two Zoom parties — one with his “Wheel” work family and one with his “Jeopardy!” comrades.
Is there a proper sense of closure, then, given the nature of his farewell?
“Truthfully, no,” he said. “I wanted to be able to celebrate these last 25 years with the people who have made it possible. And you can only go so far with Zoom.”
But he is no doubt leaving on a swell of high regard.
“Harry Friedman is the best producer I’ve ever worked with,” said White, the longtime hostess of “Wheel of Fortune.” “Not only his positive energy, but really caring for his whole staff and crew, makes him one of a kind. I’ve loved every minute of working with him.”
Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman and CEO Tony Vinciquerra calls Friedman a Hollywood “legend.”
“For 25 years, Harry has been at the helm of two of the most iconic game shows in history, which continue to earn some of the highest ratings on television,” he said. “He is a legend in this business, and we are grateful to have worked with him. I want to wish Harry the very best as he starts the next chapter of his extraordinary life, and passes the baton to Mike Richards.”
Incoming executive producer Richards has been at the studios since September, just a month after Friedman first announced his decision to step down. Friedman calls it a “very well-organized transition process.”
As for why he decided to choose 2020 as the year to step down, he said that “25 was a nice number.”
“I really felt like it was time to move on to whatever is next, and do a lot of the things that [my wife] Judy and I have talked about doing,” he said.
But Friedman wouldn’t necessarily characterize his own departure as a retirement.
“I don’t know that I could ever really leave this business altogether,” he said. “This is such a great time to be in television, or whatever we define as television these days. There is so much creativity. And the technology is fantastic and it’s changing by the minute. It’s just all too appealing to say, ‘Nah, I don’t want to do that anymore.’”
For now, his next adventure will be delayed until the coronavirus outbreak slows its spread.
“Originally, my wife and I were going to be totally cliché and spend our time traveling and with the grandkids,” he said. “And now, we can’t do either of those. But I’m going to take a breather and then see what’s next.”
When it comes to the fondest memories that Friedman will keep with him from his 25-year tenure at “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune,” the veteran executive said there are two parts of the game-show experience that “never fail to satisfy.”
“It’s when [announcer] Jim Thornton on ‘Wheel’ says, ‘And here are the stars of America’s game, Pat Sajak and Vanna White,’ and I look at the faces of the people in the audience,” said Friedman. “Or when Johnny Gilbert says, ‘And now here’s the host of ‘Jeopardy!’, Alex Trebek,’ and I look at the faces of the people in the audience.”
“It’s as if they’re meeting an old friend for the first time,” he said. “And it’s wonderful. It’s a heartwarming feeling to see that kind of reaction.”