October 29, 2014

What Does Wheel of Fortune Need To Stay Fresh?

Wheel of Fortune is on the verge of losing its syndicated dominance. It needs some fresh new ideas to stay on top.

Hey, did you hear about Wheel of Fortune‘s last Million Dollar Winner? You probably did, because you’re a game show fan. Did your mom? Did your co-workers? Probably not. Wheel of Fortune‘s been a mainstay of the syndicated TV landscape for the better part of two decades, but as time goes on, it feels like the game is coasting by.

The game’s been largely unchanged, except for some special wedges, and clearly people are still watching it. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, WoF executive producer Harry Friedman said, “We try to make Wheel of Fortune reliable—not predictable.” It’s evident that the game is reliable, and from game to game, no event is predictable. There are still big winners, including two recent car winners. But the general population just doesn’t care.

Jeopardy!‘s benefitted from three specific events in the past year: The Battle of the Decades, Julia Collins’ historic run and Arthur Chu’s villainous persona. Those three things generated buzz and refreshed the show to a load of new viewers. Family Feud‘s meteoric rise is well-documented, but a dynamic, entertaining host; fresh writing and a careful balance of gameplay and comedy have elevated it to its best ratings in over 20 years. Moments from each episode of Feud are shared, re-shared and have gone viral.

Wheel of Fortune needs something big in order to continue its dominance atop the syndicated ratings list. Here’s a list of a few things WoF can do to maintain its stature.

A New Look and Feel

More of the same old, same old. Shiny black floor, neon light posts, generic theme song. The Price is Right makes it a point to improve, change and otherwise update their set once a season to make things feel fresh and exciting. Other than a few graphical changes, Wheel’s set has stayed stagnant for a few years now. Sure, Jeopardy! hasn’t changed much, but the center focus of Jeopardy! isn’t a 2-ton spinning wheel filled with lights and colors. Is it time to make things bigger, brighter, or different? You bet. Shockingly, this clearly-90s composition is still widely recognized as the theme song for Wheel of Fortune. This infomercial background song is currently gallivanting around as the current Wheel of Fortune theme song. Wheel needs to look to its past for a new theme song and into the future for a new, more dynamic set.

Make Vowels More Expensive

Mostly because I know that if I write this article and don’t say it, one of our loyal readers will. I got you, homies. $250 for a vowel? That’s not a penalty. That’s a minor inconvenience. Up it and the strategy of the game slightly changes. The more you up it, the more of a risk it becomes in the name of securing the solve. The more game strategy we can shove into Hangman, the better.

More Interesting Prizes

Trips, cars, gift tags. Yawn. Part of the early allure of Wheel of Fortune was the wide variety of prizes available. Anyone over 40 probably would understand when you talk about the “ceramic dalmatian.” The Price is Right makes a big deal about their Big Money weeks or Dream Car weeks. Imagine: 10 dream cars on stage. 10 dream car envelopes in the Bonus Round wheel. It’s a tangible, visual product that’s easy to market and even easier to link to in a YouTube video. Every show gives away a trip, but trips can be varied with more exotic locations and supplemented with experiences. There’s always a gift tag on the wheel, but is it ever something anyone actively wants rather than being pleased to have? Usually not. Even on my episode of Wheel in 2004, I wasn’t hot on the big prize of knock-off Segways.

Make the Game More Competitive

The competitiveness in Wheel of Fortune is mostly passive—there are three people playing against the wheel and the puzzle. You can’t directly compete with an opponent outside of the Toss-Up puzzles. You mostly have to be good at Hangman and hope your opponents hit a bad space or call a bad letter. What’s the solution? That’s a good question. There’s not a lot of way to make the game more directly competitive without completely changing the fundamentals of the game. What I had devised is a Battle Round, where each consonant is a flat $1,000. One player calls a letter. If the letter is in the puzzle, they get to call again. If it’s not, then the next player to buzz in gets to call a letter. No solving, either—keep calling letters until you get the whole puzzle filled in. Will this work in actuality? Probably not. Is it something that’s worth investigating? Absolutely.

Bring Back Your Winners

Julia Collins

What made Julia Collins’ run on Jeopardy! so exciting? Her double-digit winning streak. What made Ken Jennings’ run so exciting? His double-digit winning streak. Big money comes with big streaks. Imagine the possibilities: a superb Wheel of Fortune player like Emilbert giving a week’s worth of amazing solves? Racking up $60K and episode? It’d quickly become life-changing for a stellar Wheel of Fortune player. Could it possibly break the bank? Oh, definitely. In the aforementioned interview, Friedman said of Sony and the show’s budget: “They’ve been unbelievably supportive where it counts—and that is, in the area of financing these changes. They’ve always believed the money should be reinvested in the show, and the money should be on the screen.” There would be no better return on investment than record-breaking ratings. I bet someone on their fifth game of Wheel of Fortune with a chance to win $1,000,000 more would definitely break records.

If Wheel of Fortune wants to stay atop the syndicated ratings, it’s going to need to do something drastic and fast. Whether it’s these ideas (please—take them and run with them, Harry!) or something different and new, Wheel of Fortune definitely needs to do something different.

Special thanks to Jessica from the Buy-A-Vowel boards and BuzzerBlog friend Benjamin Williams for their input in writing this article.