NEW YORK — When producers of “Wheel of Fortune” named Ryan Seacrest — probably the most ubiquitous man on entertainment television — as its next host this week, it surprised virtually no one.
The idea that Sony Pictures Television would appoint someone relatively unknown as the figurehead of one of its most valuable properties was far-fetched. But it wasn’t always that way for a genre of television that minted such celebrities like late “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek, Bob Barker of “The Price is Right” and current “Wheel of Fortune” emcee Pat Sajak.
With Sajak’s impending retirement, after the show’s next season, it’s the end of an era: Game shows are now the provenance of the already famous.
WHY IS PAT SAJAK THE LAST OF HIS BREED?
Back in 1984, a much younger Sajak was pictured on the cover of TV Guide alongside Wink Martindale, Monty Hall, Bill Cullen, Jack Barry and Barker.
Each of the other men was known primarily as broadcast television game show hosts.
Now, so is Sajak. He has a handful of other entries on his resume, disc jockey (many of his ilk also got their start in radio) and television weatherman among them. But he was 35 years old when he started hosting “Wheel of Fortune” and will be 77 when he leaves next year. He’ll be forever known for standing onstage at the wheel, with Vanna White at the board.
“He’s kind of the last of the old school,” said Adam Nedeff, author and researcher for the National Archive of Game Show History at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.
Game shows were once shown live, or taped with hardly any interruptions, so the skill of an experienced broadcaster used to those conditions was prized, Nedeff said. Dick Clark would need it when taping 10 episodes of “The 10,000 Pyramid” in a day.
Trebek similarly had a strong pedigree of television hosting, much of it in Canada, before he became host of “Jeopardy!”
WHERE’S THE PIPELINE NOW?
Game shows were once a mainstay of daytime broadcast television, the land of the unhip, but are much less common today. The Game Show Network and Buzzr exist on cable for aficionados, but are heavy on reruns of the classics.
And, let’s be honest, who watches, anyway?
To create interest in game shows these days, producers look for a name. That makes actors, comics or other celebrities attractive to front these shows (some of which have nevertheless been canceled) — people like Drew Carey (“The Price Is Right”), Howie Mandel (“Deal or No Deal”), Meredith Vieira (“Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”), Wayne Brady (“Let’s Make a Deal”), Steve Harvey (“Family Feud”), Alec Baldwin (“Match Game”), Michael Strahan (“The $100,000 Pyramid”) and Mayim Bialik (“Jeopardy!”). Ken Jennings wasn’t an actor, but any fan of “Jeopardy!” knew who he was.
“We have a generation of stars who grew up watching game shows,” Nedeff said. “We have just reached a point where nobody sees any shame in hosting a game show.”
No one considers a game show low-rent anymore.
AND WHY SHOULD THEY?
Seriously. Trebek would tape two weeks’ worth of shows over two days. There’s only 52 weeks a year, and that didn’t count the show’s vacation periods, for a salary most of us couldn’t conceive of.
Carey replaced Barker on “The Price is Right” in 2007. Soon, many viewers will know him as a game show host instead of an actor and comedian, if they don’t already.
Why would he leave?
Such relatively easy money is why a job like “Wheel of Fortune” is coveted; Whoopi Goldberg openly campaigned for the job. And it’s behind the request Jamie Foxx surprised his management with in the 2010s.
“Years ago, I was telling my agent, I said, ‘Man, you gotta get a game show,’” Foxx told The Associated Press in 2019. He succeeded with “Beat Shazam,” on the Fox network. Foxx got a payday, and Fox got a bankable star to entice viewers to a new game.
Several game shows air in prime time now. Even if networks offer a big check to a star like Foxx, it’s nothing like paying for the writers, directors and actors of a scripted series (to remind you, said writers are now on strike).
Oddly enough, Seacrest’s career path resembles some of the old-time hosts. Merv Griffin, the legendary game show impresario, even offered him a job hosting a quiz game show for kids when Seacrest was only 23, Nedeff said. Seacrest has experience as a disc jockey, a talk show host, a New Year’s Eve concertmaster and as the longtime host of “American Idol,” once television’s biggest sensation.
Unlike many game show hosts of yesteryear, he’s already a celebrity in his own right. “Wheel of Fortune” is an empire Sony needs to protect: not just a television show, but video games, a casino game, a live show and an online merchandise store complete with a “Wheel” umbrella and silver tote bag.
Seacrest, to be sure, is highly unlikely to muck that up.
The 48-year-old’s reward is a job he can surely count on as long as he wants to do it.