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Wheel of Fortune

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Wheel of Fortune Logo (1983-1989)

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Wheel of Fortune is a television game show originally devised by Merv Griffin which runs in local editions around the world. It involves three contestants competing against each other to solve a word puzzle similar to Hangman. The name of the show comes from the large wheel that determines the dollar amounts and prizes won (or lost) by the contestants.

Contents

Versions

United States

In early pilot Wheel was called Shopper's Bazaar; Edd Byrnes and Chuck Woolery hosted pilot episodes in 1974. The theme song used in the 1974 pilot was "Give It One" by Maynard Ferguson.

Wheel debuted on January 6, 1975, on NBC; it was put on the air as compensation for cancelling Jeopardy! (which Griffin produced) with one year remaining on its contract. Woolery was the show's original host, and Susan Stafford was the original hostess. Announcer Charlie O'Donnell has been "the voice of the Wheel" since episode one in 1975, save for a few years in the 1980s when Jack Clark announced due to O'Donnell's obligations to other shows. After Clark passed away in 1988, Los Angeles-area disc jockey MG Kelly briefly filled in until O'Donnell was able to take over permanently. The theme song used from 1975 to July 1983 is called "Big Wheels" by Alan Thicke.

Chuck Woolery left Wheel on December 25, 1981, after a salary dispute with Merv Griffin; three days later, Pat Sajak replaced him. Vanna White replaced Susan Stafford as hostess in December 1982. Sajak left the daytime show on January 9, 1989, to do a nighttime talk show for CBS that would fail after one year. Former football player Rolf Benirschke hosted the daytime show until NBC dropped it on June 30, 1989; Bob Goen became its host when it moved to CBS on July 17 of that year. The daytime show moved back to NBC on January 14, 1991, and was canceled for good on September 20 of that year.

A nighttime version of Wheel, which is syndicated to stations around the country, debuted on September 19, 1983. This version still airs today, and after two decades the show continues to have the highest Nielsen ratings of any syndicated program. Pat Sajak and Vanna White have hosted the nighttime version since its debut. The original theme song from 1983-1989 is called "Changing Keys" by Merv Griffin. All others are alterations of this theme from 1989-92, 1992-94, 1994-97, 1997-2000, and a somewhat new variation from 2000-present.

When the show first aired, the money the contestants won had to be used to shop amongst prizes on the TV show, but now the game is played for cash. Eliminating shopping sped up the game, and allowed more time to plug the big prizes, such as cars. Shopping was eliminated beginning with the syndicated Wheel's 1987-88 season premiere, though it would remain on the daytime version until 1989, when the show moved from NBC to CBS.

The original puzzleboard was three rows consisting of 13 trilons on each row. On December 21, 1981, a new four-row puzzleboard (consisting of 11 trilons on the top and bottom rows and 13 trilons in the middle rows) was introduced, allowing for bigger puzzles and more cash to be given away. This puzzleboard would remain the same, except for light border changes and the "half-trilons" on the sides of the board being removed on road shows, and in 1994 and 1995. In 1997, the original board for displaying the letters was replaced with a digital electronic puzzle board, touching the letter spaces instead of turning them. A fill-in-the-blank puzzle is displayed on a grid of video displays in front of the players. The puzzle board itself has 52 spaces, divided into four rows (with 12 spaces on the top and bottom rows and 14 spaces in the middle rows; occasionally puzzles will use up almost all of the board).

In 2002, the boards that showed the totals for each player (right in front of them) were turned from simplistic lights to actual screens with graphic effects.

In 2003, as part of the 21st season, the entire studio was revamped. The gold, glitzy decoration that surrounded the wheel were changed to a neonized blue decoration similar to the decorations used on the wheel from 1990-1997. The puzzleboard was also changed from its more-related gold border to a neonized blue one that could change into different colors.

In November 2003, Wheel celebrated its 4,000th episode in syndication.

The series was produced in the U.S. by Merv Griffin's company, Califon Productions, until 2002, when Griffin went into retirement along with a small financial stake when Sony Pictures Television took over. Wheel is syndicated by King World, although Griffin still holds the show's copyright.

It is estimated that they will get a new puzzle board in the year 2007, celebrating 10 years

United Kingdom

The British version ran from 1988 to 2001. It was hosted by Nicky Campbell, Bradley Walsh, John Leslie and Paul Hendy with Angela Ekeate, Carol Smillie, Jenny Powell and Terri Seymour in turn being co-hosts. Steve Hamilton was the announcer.

Australia

The current Australian version began in 1981 on the Seven Network, with Ernie Sigley as host. Other hosts included John Burgess (from 1984), Tony Barber (from 1996), Rob Elliott (from 1997) and Steve Oemcke (from 2004). Co-host Adriana Xenides became the longest serving game show hostess in the world having featured on Australia's Wheel Of Fortune from 1981 until 1999 - a total of 18 years. This record stood until 2001 when Vanna White surpassed that total. Sophie Faulkner has co-hosted the show since 1999. John Deeks is the announcer. The Wheel is currently "resting".

There was also a version in New Zealand with Phillip Leishman as host and Lana Coc-Kroft as co-host. This version ran from 1991 to around 1996.

Other countries

Some other countries that air "Wheel of Fortune", and the titles used, include Belgium (Rad van Fortuin), Malaysia (Roda Impian), Brazil (either Roletrando Novelas or Roda a Roda), Vietnam (Chiec Non Ky Dieu), Ecuador, Spain (both use La Ruleta de la Fortuna), Italy (La Ruota Della Fortuna), Germany (Glücksrad), Canada (La Roue Chanceuse in French, Wheel of Fortune in English), Israel (Galgal Hamazal), Turkey (Çarkıfelek), Poland (Koło Fortuny), Finland (Onnenpyörä), Denmark (Lykkehjulet) and France (La Roue de la Fortune). Besides the Australian version, France's La Roue de la Fortune is the most famous non-American version.

Play

Three players take turns. When a normal round begins, the spaces in a puzzle are shown as blank white spaces on the board. Any punctuation (dashes, commas, periods for abbreviations, apostrophes), and ampersand signs (&) are revealed. On a turn, a player can choose to spin the 24-sector wheel, buy a vowel, or attempt to solve the puzzle.

Spin

If the pointer lands on a cash value, the player names a consonant (Y and W counting as consonants). If the letter is in the puzzle, the co-host reveals all instances of that letter in the puzzle, and the player receives the cash value multiplied by the number of instances of that letter. For example, if the puzzle was "TOO LITTLE TOO LATE", and the player spun $700 and guessed L, he or she would win $2,100 (on the Australian version, the spun value is not multiplied; in the previous example, despite the fact that the player has three L's on the board, he or she would only earn $700). If the letter is not in the puzzle, or the player guesses a letter that has already been guessed, the player's turn ends.

If the pointer lands on a prize, the player gives a consonant, and if it is in the puzzle, the player picks up the prize and sets it in front of them. They must then solve the puzzle in that round to win the prize.

If the pointer lands on the wheel's "Lose a Turn" space, the player's turn ends. If the pointer lands on "Bankrupt", not only does the player's turn end, the player loses all earned cash and prizes in that round.

If the pointer lands on a Free Spin space, the player can win the free spin in the same way as a prize. If he or she later lands on Bankrupt or Lose a Turn, or guesses a nonexistent letter, the Free Spin can be redeemed to continue playing.

In many countries, but not the US, the contestant gives a word beginning with the chosen letter along with it. Hence: "C for Charlie" and "I for indigo" and the famous (in Australia, anyway) "N for Nellie" (although this was common early in the US run and is sometimes still allowed today if a contestant is asked to clarify his/her choice (e.g., "S as in Sam," although this is quite rare)).

Buying a Vowel

If a player has at least $250 in cash ($50 on the Australian version), they can pay that amount to have all instances of a single vowel (A, E, I, O, or U) in the puzzle revealed. If the letter is not in the puzzle, the player's turn ends, but the $250 must still be paid. The contestant does not pay for every copy of the vowel revealed; in the above example, if the contestant guessed E, although 2 E's are in the puzzle, the contestant would not have to give up $500.

Very early in Wheel's US network run, contestants had to land on a space marked "Buy a Vowel" in order to ask for a vowel. This proved to make the game ridiculously hard, and the space was scrapped in favor of a dollar amount before the show logged one month on the air. When the daytime show moved to CBS in 1989, vowels became $200, and then $100 when it moved back to NBC in 1991.

Vowel buying is very common on the US version, mainly since many puzzles have large numbers of vowels, particularly E's (it is not uncommon to see seven or occasionally even more of a vowel, especially E, in a larger puzzle - the record appears to be 11 E's). It is rarer in the UK and Australia.

Some people argue that, because of the inflating dollar values, the amount spent for vowels should increase. Indeed, the lowest value on the wheel nowadays is $300 — it was $100 for a long time. However, when you account for inflation, $250 in 1975 would be worth almost $1,000 ($936.40 to be more exact), meaning if you use this inflated price to buy a vowel with the current values on the wheel, most of the time you'd have to spin the wheel twice and/or get more than one instance of a letter to be able to buy a vowel.

Solve the Puzzle

Once enough letters have been revealed, a player can attempt to read the solution to the incomplete puzzle. If the solution is incorrect, the player's turn ends, although this seldom happens. Only the player who correctly solves the puzzle keeps the earnings from the round.

Shopping

From 1975-1989 on the NBC daytime version, and from 1983-1987 on the nighttime syndicated version, after a contestant won a round, he/she had the option of shopping for prizes amidst the studio, like cars, furniture, trips, furs (until animal activists had their way), and jewelry. When the player spent enough to not be able to buy the least expensive prize, or when they didn't feel like shopping anymore, they could choose to put their money on a gift certificate or "on account" (which meant they risked their money for the next round; they had to avoid Bankrupts and also had to win the succeeding round in order to keep the money and use it for shopping.) The "on account" option was rarely used.

Special Rounds

In recent years, various special rounds have been introduced.

Toss-up Round

This was made possible with the advent of an electronic board, compared with using trilons. A puzzle is revealed one letter at a time, and a player may buzz-in to solve it for a set amount of money ($1000, $2000, or $3000 in the US version).

In the present US version, two toss-ups for $1000 and $2000 start the game, with the second one determining who starts round 1. The $3000 toss-up determines who starts the fourth round, which is usually the speed-up round.

An incorrect guess disqualifies that player for the rest of the puzzle. If all of the spaces are filled in or all of the players are incorrect, no cash is won, and play began with either the left-most contestant or (if it was Round 4) wherever it left off before.

If two or all three players are tied at the end of the game, then a toss up round is played for the right to go to the Bonus Round. No money is at stake in this round, and this has happened at least once.

Bankrupt/$10,000/Bankrupt (Round 1)

In the first round, a wedge is placed on the wheel that reads $10,000 in the middle peg gap and Bankrupt in the other two. Landing on Bankrupt results in a normal Bankrupt; landing on the $10,000 allows the player to guess a letter. If he/she is correct, the player picks up the wedge and it is treated as a prize; he/she can only win $10,000, and the money cannot be used to buy vowels.

Jackpot Round (Round 2)

After each spin, the value of the spin is added to the jackpot, regardless of whether or not the letter chosen is in the puzzle. The jackpot starts at $5,000 (when the Friday Finals existed, the Jackpot on that certain episode starts at $10,000 rather than the usual $5,000). If a player spins and lands on Jackpot, and then guesses a letter in the puzzle, they may then immediately solve the puzzle to win the jackpot.

Originally, this was Round 3.

Mystery Round (Round 3)

Two $1000 spaces marked with a stylized question mark are placed on the wheel. If a player lands on one of these mystery wedges and guesses a letter in the puzzle, they may either take $1000 per letter as normal, or turn over the mystery wedge. On the other side of the mystery wedge contains either a Bankrupt or a prize (usually $10-13,000 cars or a $10,000 prize). If the player reveals the prize, as with any other wheel prize, they must solve the puzzle without hitting Bankrupt to win it. After one mystery wedge is revealed, that space becomes a normal $1000 wedge, and the other mystery wedge acts as a regular $1000 space for the remainder of the round.

Up to the 2004 season, the Mystery spaces were worth only $500 each.

Speed-Up Round

Four consecutive bell-ringing sounds (with a brief pause between the second and third rings) are heard. Host: "That sound means time is running out. So I'll give the wheel a final spin." As the wheel is spinning down: "You give me a letter, and if it's in the puzzle you'll have three (previously five) seconds to solve it. Vowels worth nothing, consonants worth..." the value of the space on which the pointer lands. Often this happens in the middle of a round, usually the fourth round, although some fast-paced games continue to a fifth and (rarely) even a sixth round. In slower games, the final spin will start the fourth round.

In recent US seasons, $1,000 is added to the value of the final spin (e.g., landing on $550 means consonants are worth $1,550). Previously, the speed-up round was often anticlimactic, especially when the leader had a huge lead over the second- and third-place contestants and Sajak landed on a small dollar amount. The wheel almost always lands on $5000 if a contestant has not spun the wheel.

On some versions, such as in the US, the host intentionally aims for the top dollar value with the final spin; the wheel is set to give the host a better chance of hitting it. In other versions, the host gives a random spin. If the host spins bankrupt or lose-a-turn, or a remaining prize (when they were on the board on the final round) in the final spin, he spins again. In the current version, final spins that land on bankrupt or lose-a-turn are edited out.

Puzzle Round

Some puzzles have a question that can be answered in order to win some extra money ($3,000 on the US version). Categories for this puzzle include:

  • Clue: The puzzle describes a person, place, thing or event, and the contestant wins money for guessing that object.
  • Fill In the Blank: Three question marks appear by themselves in the puzzle, representing a common word. After guessing the puzzle, the contestant can identify the word that goes in the blank.
    Example of Fill In The Blank
    ? And Sour
    ? Dreams
    ? Home Alabama

The answer to the blanks is Sweet, and correctly guessing that earns the player $3,000.

  • Next Line Please: The puzzle is a sentence of some sort; the contestant wins money for continuing the sentence.
  • Slogan: The contestant must identify the brand or company that uses the slogan used in the puzzle.
  • Who Is It/Are They?: The puzzle is a description of (a) person/people, dead or alive, real or fictional. The contestant must identify the person/people the puzzle is talking about.
  • Where Are We?: Similar to to Who Is It? except that the puzzle gives landmarks, traditions, etc. about the location. The contestant has to guess where the puzzle "is."
  • Who Said It?: Like the category quotation, except that the contestant must identify who said it.
  • Fill In The Number/s: The puzzle contains numbers, except that the number/s is/are replaced with sharps (#). The person who solves the round has to fill in the number/s. For example, a Fill in the Number puzzle would look like this:
    TO BE ELATED IS TO BE ON CLOUD NUMBER #

The answer is 9, and guessing 9 earns $3,000.

Prize Puzzle

As indicated at the beginning of a puzzle, at seemingly random intervals there are Prize Puzzles that award the winner with a prize somehow relating to the puzzle.

Example: If the solution was "FUN IN THE SUN", the player would win a trip to a tropical island.

Starting recently, home viewers (in the U.S. only) are given a chance to win the same prize as the contestants with a "Special Personal Identification Number" (S.P.I.N), consisting the first letter of their first and last name, and five numbers (example: AB12345) from the show's web site, and having twenty four hours to log on and claim their prize.

Bonus Round

The player with the most winnings is then given a chance to take a large bonus prize, usually a vacation, car, or more money. In the US, there were several prizes available that a player could choose, usually cars, trips, and jewelry; however, the contestant almost always took the car, or the $25,000 when they introduced all-cash in 1987. In 1989, a blind-draw system was instituted where the contestant would draw a prize envelope from a choice of five identical envelopes, each behind a separate letter of the word WHEEL. Each prize could only be won once in a week. This was used until 2001, when a mini-wheel was instituted that a player spun; whichever spot it landed on was the prize the player would play for. (By that time, the only prizes available were cars and cash, mostly $25,000, but fewer $30, $35, $40, $45, and $50K spaces, plus the single elusive $100,000 grand prize spot.) The frequency of prize envelopes are as follows on the mini wheel:

- Six (6) envelopes containing one car

- Six (6) envelopes containing the other car

- Six (6) envelopes containing $25,000

- One (1) envelope each containing $30K, $35K, $40K, $45K, $50K, and the big $100,000.

(Since the mini-wheel's inception, only seven contestants - including two sisters playing as a team and just recently two teen best friends - have won the top prize)

A final puzzle is put up and the contestant nominates several consonants and a vowel. Occurrences of these letters are revealed and the contestant has a small amount of time, but as many guesses as necessary, to solve the puzzle.

The US version tinkered with a bonus round format for six weeks in 1975, when the show was 1 hour long. The winner of the show would play a sort of bonus round, and have the choice of four different puzzles—easy, medium, hard, and difficult. When they chose the puzzle, they were asked to give four consonants and a vowel. Then they were given 15 seconds to guess the puzzle. If the puzzle was solved, they won a prize based on what they won (ie: if they solved an easy puzzle, they won a $700 trip; if they solved a difficult puzzle, they won a $13,000 car).

In 1978, the bonus round was played around with again. This time, a wedge on the Wheel called the Star Bonus was placed. If anyone landed on the wedge, they had the chance to play a special bonus round. If the bonus round was played, then the rules would go as follows: Based on the score of the last played round, the contestant holding the Star Bonus played a bonus round similar to the one played on the hour-long version. Also, the Star Bonus allowed the contestant to overtake the person in the lead, unless they were in the lead.

Pat Sajak's first show in 1981 was also when the current bonus round became a permanent feature. The puzzle was shown, and the contestants were only given the choice of five consonants and one vowel, and 15 seconds to guess the puzzle. A statistical analysis shows that R, S, T, L, N, and E are the best choices, and these were almost always selected by contestants. Since 1988, the contestant is shown the puzzle with R, S, T, L, N, and E already revealed, and then they choose 3 more consonants and one more vowel, but are only given 10 seconds to solve. Since then, the difficulty of the bonus puzzles has gone up, sometimes with only one or two instances of the automatic letters appearing in the puzzle.

In other foreign countries, RSTLNE is never given to the contestant.

In Australia, the contestant earns two consonants and a vowel, but can earn an extra consononant for every $2,000 scored in the main game.

Some other versions, like Glucksrad in Germany, still use the 15-second time limit for their bonus rounds.

Trivia

  • Sajak and White appeared as themselves on an episode of The King of Queens. The show figures into a series of dreams that Doug Heffernan (Kevin James) has while he is sick. Doug, his wife Carrie (Leah Remini) and father-in-law Arthur Spooner (Jerry Stiller) are contestants on Wheel. At the beginning of the Wheel sequence, Arthur tries to guess a number (which is never allowed on Wheel), then gets buzzed out while he tries to figure out what letter he wants to guess. Then it is Carrie's turn to spin the wheel. After the wheel has stopped, Carrie suddenly decides to solve the puzzle. Almost immediately, Doug freaks out and rushes to the letterboard, apparently trying to prevent Carrie from guessing the intended solution to the puzzle: "Doug Heffernan is a Big Fat Liar."
  • Other TV shows that have featured WoF as part of the plot included "The A Team" and "Gimme a Break."
  • Chuck Woolery and Pat Sajak have appeared as guests on each of their respective talk shows over the years.
  • During a celebrity WoF show in New Zealand, boxer David Tua became a local legend while requesting a vowel by asking for "O for Awesome".

Wheel 2000

In September of 1997, a children's version of the American version was created and aired on CBS every Saturday. Former Roundhouse star David Sidoni was the host, and instead of a real-life hostess, a virtual one took over. The digitalized fictional character was named Lucy, and the moves were that of Tanika Ray. Game play was very similar to the Pat and Vanna version, only that contestants got to choose among three "educational" categories, like "Globetrotter" (which is On The Map on the regular show) and "VIP" (Proper Name on the regular show).

Contestants rather played for points rather than money, so if they solved the puzzle, instead of having their points transversed to money, they got a prize such as a Game Boy.

Also, the wheel was redesigned; the Bankrupt was rather "The Creature" which came up from under the wheel and ate the contestant's points, and the Lose a Turn space was renamed "Loser." The 250 space was enlargened to a six-peg wedge, and the first person to hit it was to play a stunt to ask for three letters at the same time. They had to do some sort of stunt, like feeding a mechanical dinosaur, or picking up phones and guessing who was on the other line. Every time they completed a part of the stunt, they got a letter chosen randomly. When they got three letters the stunt was complete.

They went back to the wheel and had the option of seeing if there were letters that they earned or continuing play as if there were no stunt played. Of course, since the letters were chosen randomly, the letters might not be useful ones, like X, Z, or K.

The bonus round was like the adult version, except that the contestant had only a choice of two secret prizes to choose from, rather than the regular five.

Unlike the syndicated Wheel of Fortune, viewers were not enamored to this series, thanks to the slow game play. The series lasted one year on CBS (as part of its Saturday morning lineup), and ran concurrenly on Game Show Network (now GSN).

Episode Status

The original pilot with the host Edd "Kooky" Byrnes still exists from 1974, this pilot was made for NBC. A clip was shown in the 3000th episode celebration. Most of the Woolery-Stafford episodes have been destroyed by NBC; however, surviving examples circulate among – and are treasured by – tape traders. All Sajak syndicated episodes are intact, however, and have been shown on GSN.

The status of the Sajak/Benirschike/Goen daytime versions is unknown, though it is likely that all of Vanna White's episodes were preserved since a clip of her first show was played during the 1997 April Fools episode of Wheel, in the 4000th episode celebration.

Clips from early episodes – including several from the Woolery-Stafford era, early Sajak daytime episodes and Vanna's first show – surfaced on the recent E! True Hollywood Story special chronicling the show's history.

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