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'Wheel of Fortune' Past and Present

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'Wheel of Fortune' Past and Present

Pat Sajak and Vanna White celebrate Wheel of Fortune's 25th Anniversary

Courtesy CBS

Hosts: Pat Sajak and Vanna White
Created By: Merv Griffin
Executive Producer: Harry Friedman
Original Series Premiere: September, 1975
Current Series Premiere: September 12th, 1983
Network: NBC until 1989, CBS from 1989 to present, currently airs on affiliate networks nationwide
Airs On: Monday to Friday evenings
Top Prize: Varies

Wheel of Fortune had a shaky beginning, but has since gone on to become the longest running syndicated television game show in history. It is consistently the number one rated syndicated show, a spot that Wheel took over in 1984 and has held onto ever since. The co-hosts, simple format, and straight-forward game play delivers an entertaining half-hour program every weekday evening across North America.

How It All Began:

Wheel of Fortune was the brainchild of Merv Griffin, who was asked by NBC to create some new game concepts for daytime programming. He came up with a game show based on Hangman, which was intended to put the spotlight on shopping to appeal to the vastly female daytime audience. The show was originally called Shopper's Bazaar, and featured a young Chuck Woolery as host. Turning letters was soap actress Susan Stafford.

The pilot for Shopper's Bazaar didn't go over well with test audiences, so Griffin tinkered with the formula a little. In September 1975, the show became Wheel of Fortune and premiered with some success. The focus of the game was still on shopping, however, as contestants spent their winnings on prizes chosen from a themed showcase. This element of the game didn't change until 1987, when Wheel moved to a cash prize format.

Pat Sajak and Vanna White:

Woolery continued as host of Wheel of Fortune until December of 1981, when a salary dispute with Griffin caused his resignation. Pat Sajak, who was then a weatherman, took over the helm with Susan Stafford still turning letters. It was Teen Week on Wheel when Sajak began his hosting duties, and fans of the show didn't immediately warm up to him. After several weeks, however, Sajak adapted to his role quite well and was soon running the show without a hitch.

The following year, Susan Stafford decided that she wanted to do something else with her life, and left the show to pursue humanitarian work. Her timing might not have been the best – Wheel of Fortune was about to go into syndication, and eventually become a monster hit. Three letter-turners were tested to take Stafford's place, and as we know, Vanna White was given the job. She started on the show in December of 1982, and her on-air chemistry with Sajak was instantly apparent.

The Move to Syndication:

Wheel of Fortune had been juggled around in various time slots over the years, and did very well in daytime slots. In 1983, Wheel was sold to a very small cross-section of markets as a syndicated night time show. Larger affiliates were concerned that the show wouldn't work well as evening programming, but they were very wrong. Ratings were impressive, and it was picked up nationally in 1984. By May of that year Wheel of Fortune became the number one syndicated show in the country.

Basic Game Play:

Wheel's simplicity is one of the things that makes it such a success. It's based on the old word game Hangman, where the name of a person, place, or thing is solved by guessing what letters are in the puzzle. The puzzle board on Wheel of Fortune contains the letters, and contestants are given the category of the puzzle. These categories can be anything from a movie title to a popular phrase to the name of a famous sports figure.

Contestants take turns spinning the wheel, assigning a dollar value to each correctly guessed letter. When a contestant guesses a letter correctly, it is displayed in the puzzle and that contestant wins the amount spun on the wheel for each time the letter appears in the puzzle. Each contestant continues spinning and guessing until a letter guess is incorrect, when play moves to the next contestant.

Players may only guess consonants during regular play. Vowels must be purchased, at a cost of $250 each. The round ends when a contestant solves the puzzle, thereby winning the money he or she has earned during the round.

The Bonus Round:

At the end of the regular rounds, the person who won the most money plays the bonus round. A puzzle and category are displayed, and the contestant is given the most commonly guessed letters: R, S, T, L, N, and E. They must then choose three more consonants and one additional vowel, and all of these letters are displayed in the puzzle. If the contestant correctly solves the puzzle within 10 seconds, he or she wins either a cash prize or a car.

Wheel of Fortune Fun Facts

  • Vanna White's first puzzle on Wheel of Fortune was "General Hospital," and the first letter she turned was a T.

  • Each year, over 3,200 hopefuls are selected to attend the Wheel of Fortune auditions in California. Only about 500 are then chosen to play the game for television.

  • The big wheel weighs 4,000 pounds.

  • Vanna White is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the "world's most frequent clapper." Vanna claps an average of 720 times per show.

  • On April 1st 2008, Pat Sajak ended the episode by asking Vanna to remove his "hairpiece." She removed a wig to reveal a completely bald and shiny-headed Sajak, who commented that people ask him all the time if he's wearing a hairpiece. Sajak finished off by wishing everyone a "Happy April 1st," clearly signaling that it was an April Fool's joke.
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