Wheel of Fortune
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.
The highly-successful format has been seen daily in one form or another since its NBC debut in 1975. The current US version, distributed by King World since 1983, is the longest-running game show in syndication.
- 1 Versions
- 2 Play
- 3 Special Rounds
- 4 Bonus Round
- 5 "Wheel" in popular culture
- 6 Slot machines
- 7 Wheel 2000
- 8 Episode Status
- 9 External links
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. Susan Stafford left a year later to pursue volunteer work. She was replaced by Vanna White. 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. Also, when the puzzle is solved, instead of the hostess turning the hidden letters to reveal the entire puzzle, the missing letters electronically fill in themselves. 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, making it one column wider than the old trilon board; occasionally puzzles will use up almost all of the board).
(Actually, the old four-row trilon puzzle had 52 spaces as in today's board, with 13 in each row, but the light border got in the way with the spaces in the corners, so that is why above it says that the top and bottom rows had 11 spaces.)
In 2002, the tote boards that showed the totals for each player were changed from eggcrate lights to monitors; the eggcrate lights had been in use since 1975. Incidentally, the eggcrate display had room for the "$" sign and four digits in 1975-1976 (although the "$" sign could be removed in the rare event someone had more than $10,000). Sometime around 1976, the display was changed to allow for five-digit figures (along with the "$" sign); six-digit figures have never been achieved, although the eggcrate display was again changed in the late 80s or early 90s so a six-digit figure could be displayed with the dollar sign. In 2003, as part of the 21st season, the entire studio was revamped. The gold, glitzy decoration that surrounded the wheel was changed to a neon blue decoration. The puzzleboard's border was changed to match that of the wheel.
In November 2003, Wheel celebrated its 4,000th episode in syndication with a retrospective of the series. One of the clips included rare footage of a circa-1978 Wheel opening, which featured the "Big Wheels" theme, the prize sets and Charlie O'Donnell's opening-spiel (including a shot of a Ford Fairmount station wagon, one of the prizes offered on that day's episode).
The series was produced in the U.S. by Merv Griffin's company, Califon Productions, until 2002. That's when Griffin went into retirement (but kept a small financial stake), and Sony Pictures Television, which had bought Griffin's company several years earlier, took over fully. Wheel is syndicated by King World, although Griffin, through Califon Productions, still holds the show's copyright -- which has been lucrative through its use in casino and lottery games.
Wheel is notable for having 'theme weeks' in which all of the set decorations revolve around a common theme. Other weeks invite sports stars to play for charity along with some of their fans.
On one of these theme weeks, College Week in 1996, Pat had laryngitis for almost that whole week. It became so bad on the Monday episode (aired on November 21) that Pat and Vanna had to switch roles for the bonus round. They switched back the next day. (Source: The Wheel of Fortune Timeline)
Frequently, Wheel went "on location" to cities across the United States. The first of these shows was taped in the fall of 1988 at Radio City Music Hall in New York, New York. Through the years, other stops have included Las Vegas, Honolulu, Hawaii, Philadelphia, Nashville, Fox Theatre, Seattle, and more.
Perhaps the most poignant of these "road" shows was New Orleans, Louisiana. Two weeks of shows were taped at the New Orleans Convention Center, just days before Hurricane Katrina struck the region and caused incredible devestation to the city and Gulf Coast region. A third week of shows was cancelled, and Wheel's production team barely made it out of New Orleans before the storm struck. In pre-taped promos that appeared before each "New Orleans" episode, Sajak and White urged viewers to contribute to hurricane relief charities via the American Red Cross (via the show's Web site), and noted that the show would provide up to $100,000 in matching funds; they also commented the shows were a celebration of what the city once was and would someday become again.
The British version ran from 1988 to 2001, produced by Scottish Television for the ITV network. 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.
The current Australian version began in 1981 on the Seven Network at ADS-7. The show moved to SAS-7 when the two stations swapped callsigns & affiliations at the end of 1987. It then moved to ATN-7 in 1996, where it has stayed ever since. The first host was Ernie Sigley, who hosted from 1981-84. Other hosts included John Burgess (from 1984-96), Tony Barber (from 1996), Rob Elliott (from 1997-2004) and Steve Oemcke (from 2004, 2006-). 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 early 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 May 1999. John Deeks is the announcer. The Wheel is currently "resting" and is confirmed to return to ATN-7 in early 2006.
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), France (La Roue de la Fortune), Australia (also called Wheel of Fortune) and Argentina (La Rueda de la Fortuna, inside a show called Tiempo Límite XL). Besides the Australian version, France's La Roue de la Fortune is the most famous non-American version.
The American and Australian versions are the two oldest, in that order. The newest as of October 18, 2005 is believed to be the Argentinean version, but the author is not sure.
Even though usually the male co-host is the main host and the female co-host turns (or touches) the letters, this is not always the case: a tape of a 1998 episode of Spain's "Wheel of Fortune Jr." (the title has been translated into English) exists where this reversed (i.e. the female co-host is the main host and the male co-host turns the letters). This has happened for very short time in America too (scroll up).
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 (hyphens, 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.
If the pointer lands on a cash value, the player names a consonant (Y counts as a consonant). 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 (previously, if a contestant had landed on a prize wedge, they could automatically pick it up, call a right consonant and spin again). They must then solve the puzzle in that round to win the prize. The prize was lost if he/she landed on "Bankrupt."
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 letter not in the puzzle, the Free Spin can be redeemed to continue playing. (Note: Through 1989, the wheel had a "Free Spin" space in the game's first round, which automatically gave that player a Free Spin token; this idea was scrapped as skillful contestants often racked up six or more tokens before actually attempting to play the game).
In many countries, 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". This does not happen in the United States, although it was common early in the U.S. run, and sometimes still happens today if a contestant is asked to clarify his/her choice (for example, "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), the player 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 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; for many years it was $100, then $200. However, when you account for inflation, $250 in 1975 would be worth almost $1,000, 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 — which, it should be pointed out, was exactly the situation in 1975. (For those who are interested, if they consistently kept rising the cost of the vowel to keep up with inflation, and $250 was the value now, vowels would've originally cost approximately $65 [$66.74 to be exact].)
In Australia, not only do you need the $50 (not a typo — see the beginning of the section), you also must not have spun the wheel for the turn. That is, if it gets to your turn and you spin the wheel, you lose the ability to buy vowels until it's your turn again. The host usually (if not always) asks if you want to buy a vowel before you spin the wheel, assuming you have the money.
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. If the player's total is less than $1,000, a house minimum of $1,000 is awarded.
During the show's early months, the house minimum was $100; this was quickly increased to $200. In the early 1990s, the minimum was boosted again to $500, where it remained until 2005. In the current season, the house minimum is currently $1000
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. During a special "Retro Week" in 1999, shopping was re-instated except the "shopping" portion was treated as a special space, and the contestant "bought" a prize package from a turntable.
In recent years, various special rounds have been introduced.
This was made possible with the advent of an electronic board, compared to the mechanical board. A puzzle is revealed one letter at a time except for the last letter (similar to the Speedword on the Scrabble game show). A player may buzz in to solve the puzzle for a set amount of money ($1000, $2000, or $3000 in the U.S. version).
In the present U.S. version, two toss-ups for $1000 and $2000 start the game, with the second one determining who starts round 1. (The first one simply determines who the host introduces first.) 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.
The Australian version added their version of a toss-up (called a Flip Up there) in 2004, when the puzzle board was switched from a mechanical one to an electronic board.
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 (in other words it can only be won by solving the puzzle; he/she can only win $10,000, and the money cannot be used to buy vowels.)
When this space debuted in the 1994-1995 season, it was on the wheel starting in round three and remained on the wheel until a contestant landed on the $10,000 slot, called a good consonant, picked it up and placed it in his/her bank. This space was originally on top of one of the two bankrupt spaces, but is now over the orange $800 space in round one.
During the 1995-1996 seaon of the U.S. version, a special token called the "Double Play" was put on the wheel. A player can win the token if s/he landed on the space containing the token and called a consonant that was in the puzzle. The player in possession of the Double Play can use it before s/he spins. If the wheel landed on a dollar amount, that amount doubled only for that spin. If the wheel landed on the Lose A Turn, s/he only lost one turn, and if the wheel landed on a Bankrupt s/he only lost one turn in addition to losing any accumulated cash and prizes in the round. However, if the wheel landed on a prize immediately after using the Double Play, the host would return the Double Play to the contestant who used it for use in a future spin. A contestant was not required to forfeit the Double Play if s/he landed on a Bankrupt while possessing the token. The Double Play was no longer offered after the 1995-1996 season.
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, they must call a letter in the puzzle and solve the puzzle ALL IN ONE TURN. Pat usually asks the contestant if they'd like to solve for the Jackpot, so they know that if they can solve it, they'll win whatever is in the Jackpot.
Originally, the Jackpot Round was played in Round 3.
The current Jackpot Round debuted in 1996, and was quite different from a Jackpot Round that was part of the NBC daytime show from 1987-1989.
That version of the Jackpot Round worked just like the syndicated Prize Rounds. The Jackpot space went into the player's bank (for correctly guessing a letter), and won the value for solving the puzzle AND avoiding Bankrupt.
The Jackpot started at $1,000 and was non-accumulating; it increased by $1,000 for each show it went unclaimed. The resulting Jackpot was not a cash prize; it simply became available for shopping.
The Prize Round was added in 1983, for the syndicated version only. It was played in Round 2, and the prize usually was worth anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000. The prize space originally concealed a $150 amount. When the "all cash" format was added in 1987, a second Prize Round was added, usually in Round 4; both prizes were specific to that round. The Prize Rounds were added to the daytime show in 1989.
The player had to avoid "Bankrupt" and solve the puzzle to win the prize.
The Prize Round has changed several times through the years, and currently is played in Round 1. The prize – which is almost always a trip – now carries over to later rounds. The prize value is usually worth between $4,000 and $10,000.
Originally, a contestant who landed on the prize simply picked it up and it went into his/her bank. By 1989, a contestant had to guess a letter to be able to pick up the prize.
As of 2003, along with the announced prize, there were two or three smaller "prize tokens" on the wheel – usually gift certificates, gift packages or items such as an XM Satellite Radio. A crafty spinner could pick up several of these prize cards in a single round.
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 $500 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 $1000 each.
Four consecutive bell-ringing (similar to a tugboat's bell) 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. The audience is told to keep silent so the answer cannot be revealed.
In recent U.S. seasons, $1,000 is added to the value of the final spin (for example, 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 U.S., 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.
The record for the most money won in any maingame round is $54,000, set during a February 2005 episode from Las Vegas. The all-time maingame winnings record is $65,250, set during a 2001 College Week episode from Washington D.C.
Some puzzles have a question that can be answered in order to win some extra money ($3,000 on the U.S. 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.
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 sometime near the end of 2004 (which was during the 21st season), home viewers (in the U.S. only) were 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.
Apparently somewhere around this time, the prizes given away became exclusively trips.
The two letters are the winning home viewer's first and last initials. It is not known how the five digits are computed, and it is possible that either the numbers are randomly generated or how they come up with the digits is kept a secret.
Before and After
The puzzle often takes the form of a "before and after," usually three words where the middle word is the second word of one two-word phrase and the first word of anothoer with a completely unrelated meaning. For example, the solution might be "Ricki Lake Titicaca," a combination of Ricki Lake and Lake Titicaca.
A final puzzle is put up and the contestant chooses 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.
Several versions of the Bonus Round – including the long-familiar format introduced in 1981 – have been used, and are detailed below.
1975 "hour long WOF" version
The U.S. 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 the puzzle's difficulty. For example, if the contestant chose an easy puzzle, he/she might win a $1,000 television-stereo console, while solving a difficult puzzle would win them a $13,000 Cadillac Eldorado. The prizes varied widely.
1978 "Star Bonus" version
The "Star Bonus" round was played for a time in 1978, which would enable a second- or third-place contestant to possibly become champion by solving a Bonus Round-type puzzle.
A special "Star Bonus" disc was placed on the wheel. If the contestant landed on the wedge, he/she was provisionally entitled to play the Bonus Round if he/she was the second- or third-place contestant that day. The contestant had to play for a prize that was more than the difference between him/her and the first-place contestant; just like the hour-long Bonus Round, the prize's value corresponded with the puzzle's difficulty.
As before, the contestant was asked to pick four consonants and one vowel, then given 15 seconds to attempt to solve the puzzle.
Critics of this format point to several flaws, most notably that merely landing on the space did not guarantee the Star Bonus would be played. It was possible for the day's eventual first-place contestant to land on the Star Bonus. Also, the Star Bonus prizes were available during shopping rounds, meaning a dominant player could buy that $13,000 Chevrolet Corvette and thus render an opponent's Star Bonus token useless (since no available prize would allow him/her to overtake the first-place player). Then, there was the possibility that the Star Bonus token would not be landed on at all; plus, some haphazard editing also irked viewers.
1981-current "Bonus Round"
Pat Sajak's first show in 1981 was also when the current bonus round became a permanent feature, and adopted the long-familiar format.
When it debuted in 1981, the contestant chose a prize (tagged with a special gold star, usually worth $1,500 or more). He/she then was presented a puzzle and told its category. He/she then was asked to choose five consonants and one vowel. The contestant was given 15 seconds to guess the puzzle's solution. If correct, he/she won the prize.
For the record, the first "permanent" bonus round puzzle (in the category "Fictional Character") was FROSTY THE SNOWMAN. The contestant was unable to solve the puzzle, and lost a car in the process. Contestants stood at their podiums during the bonus round during the first week; the rule of standing before the puzzle board took hold during Sajak's second week.
A statistical analysis shows that R, S, T, L, N, and E are the best choices, and these were almost always selected by contestants. Starting in 1988, the contestant is automatically given the R, S, T, L, N and E, and then asked to pick three more consonants and one additional vowel. The contestant is then given 10 seconds to guess the solution.
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.
Changes to the 1981 bonus round
- 1987 syndication – When the syndicated "Wheel" began its all-cash format, much larger bonus prizes were offered. Examples: a Ferrari, a vacation for six on a private island in Jamaica, a 5-acre plot in Maine, a motor home plus an invitation to tour Alaska with an RV club, a cabin cruiser, tickets to every major sporting event for the next year, a time-share vacation home at Lake Tahoe, and valuable annuities. One of the prizes was always $25,000 in cash. The cash quickly became far and away the most popular bonus prize, while cars were second. The NBC daytime show, meanwhile, used the 1981 Bonus Round format until the blind-draw method was introduced in 1989, no cash was offered and contestants just chose what prize to play for. On the CBS run, one bonus prize was always $5,000 in cash.
- 1989 – Each of the week's prizes went into a blind draw, each hidden in an envelope and placed behind a letter in the word "WHEEL." Each prize could be won just once in a week. The extravagant prizes continued on the syndicated version, meaning someone could win such items as a Hummer, a speedboat or a log cabin as their bonus prize. This was not done on the CBS daytime version (and later on when it moved back to NBC for the final few months); contestants simply picked which one of the five prizes they wanted to play for. The CBS version's bonus prizes were decidedly more modest (e.g., a Caribbean cruise and a Geo Metro, which coincidentally were sometimes offered as Prize Round prizes on the syndicated version).
- By the mid-1990s, with contestants still preferring $25,000 (or at least one of the available cars), the cash was eventually made available every day, even if it was already won that week; the other prizes, like the cars, could only be won once per week. The off-beat prizes, such as the "Precious Gems Package" were eventually scrapped. For the last two months of this format during the 19th season, 3 contained cars, and the other two had the cash.
- 2001 – The Bonus Round was revamped and allowed the contestant a chance to play for $100,000. The contestant first spun a small, 24-section wheel to determine which prize he/she would be playing for. 11 of the wedges held $25,000. There were 4 wedges for each of the 3 cars available that week. The remaining envelope concealed the grand prize of $100,000... where the streamers and confetti fells down.
- In 2002, the Bonus Wheel prizes were revised, with cash amounts of between $30,000 and $50,000 hidden in the mix (each in increments of $5,000). The prize distribution was thus:
- * 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 $100,000.
- Three solo contestants and two teams have won the $100,000 prize. Douglass Ross was the first to do so in December 2001, and was the only one to win it during the 2001-2002 season. It was won three times during the 2002-03 season, with two solo contestants and one team winning it. It was not won at all during the 2003-04 season.
- The all-time winnings record on the show is $146,529, set by Peter and Deborah during "Sweethearts Week" in 1996. The one-day record is $121,831, set by Bonnie and Karen in a memorable episode during "Family Vacations Week" in December 2002, in which they solved all the puzzles on the show, including the bonus round puzzle, for a total of 9, which is currently an all-time record. The one-day record for a solo contestant is $119,100, by Byron Pope in April 2003. Nancy won $105,500 in 2003-04. In 2005 Best Friends Week two girls had won $117,640.
The Bonus Round in foreign countries
- In other foreign countries, the "R, S, T, L, N, E" is never given to the contestant, although Germany used this sort of format around the late 90s to the early 2000s.
- 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. Theoretically, enough money ($38,000) can be earned so as to call every consonant.
- Some other versions, like Glücksrad in Germany, still use the 15-second time limit for their bonus rounds.
"Wheel" in popular culture
- On Dead Like Me, the moment George realises she has just died is represented by a fantasy Wheel of Fortune scene: staring at the letterboard which is displaying YOU'RE D_AD, she proclaims: "I'd like to solve the puzzle."
- 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, except for a Fill in the Number puzzle), 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."
- On Full House, D. J. Tanner (played by Candace Cameron) has a nightmare about taking the SAT. In her dream, Vanna White pays a visit to the test room. On the puzzleboard, it was revealed that Kimmy Gibbler (Andrea Barber) was going to Stanford while D. J. was going to "CLOWN U"!
- Other TV shows that have featured WoF as part of the plot included "The A-Team," "Gimme a Break," "227," "Friends," "L.A. Law," and "Santa Barbara."
- There is a point in "Rain Man" where a Wheel of Fortune episode can be heard on Raymond's TV, but the show has little to do with the plot; in fact, the episode in question could have been a regularly scheduled episode. (Raymond does say the "Look at this studio…" line, but the line was regularly done on the show at the time.)
- 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".
Given creator Merv Griffin's fondness for gambling (including being a successful casino owner), it would seem natural that Wheel would be featured as the basis for a slot machine. International Gaming Technology licensed the rights to make Wheel-based games in the 1980s. The first machines (and still the most popular) featured standard IGT traditional three-reel slot machines, each with a reporoduction of the show's famous wheel above the reels. When a "SPIN" symbol lines up on any reel, the player presses a button to start the wheel spinning, and a player could win as many as 1,000 credits (with no "Bankrupt" wedges). Lining up three "Wheel of Fortune" symbols wins the progressive jackpot, which is usually linked with other Wheel machines throughout a given state and reaches into the millions of dollars.
In more recent years, as video-based slot machines with many paylines have become popular, video versions of Wheel machines have appeared, all with the familiar wheel above the screen. These also feature wide-area progressive jackpots. In 2004, a version featuring Sajak and White was produced as a "Special Ediiton," the only machines in the series to feature human voices, aside from the familar show-opening audience chant.
The Wheel slot machines are widely believed to be the most popular slot machines ever distributed in North America. Indeed, one can hardly walk through a casino anywhere on the continent without repeatedly hearing the "WHEEL ... OF ... FORTUNE!" audience chant that comes from a machine when a player gets to spin the wheel.
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 on-screen fictional character was named Cyber Lucy, and the moves and voice were those of Tanika Ray. Game play was very similar to the nighttime version, only that contestants got to choose the puzzles for each round among three categories, like "Globetrotter" (which is Place/On The Map on the regular show), "Just Stuff" (Thing on the regular show) and "VIPs" (Proper Name on the regular show).
Contestants played for points rather than money, so if they solved the puzzle, instead of having their points turned into money, they got a prize such as a Game Boy. The top point value in each round increased 1,000-2,000-5,000; the remaining wedges did not change. The speed-up round was played as normal (one episode had the speed up round played at the end of the second puzzle.) After each solved puzzle, a short video clip would be shown that related to the solved puzzle.
The Wheel was redesigned with brighter colors and different names for various spaces:
- Bankrupt became "The Creature". It would come up from under the wheel and eat all of the player's points for that round,
- Lose a Turn space was renamed "Loser."
- The 750 point wedge allowed a home viewer to win a Wheel 2000 t-shirt and cap if the in-studio contestant managed to choose a correct letter in the puzzle.
- A 500 point space could become 1,000 points if a puzzle-related question was answered correctly; if not it was still 500 points.
- Three 250 point spaces became six-peg wedges, and the first person to hit it was to play a stunt to receive three random letters at the same time. They had to do some sort of simple stunt, like feeding a mechanical dinosaur, matching shapes on cubes or picking up phones and guessing what famous person 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, or when time was up (they had 60 seconds) the stunt was complete. They went back to the wheel and had the option of seeing if the letters that they earned are in puzzle or choosing to spin the wheel and choose a letter of their own, meaning that the stunt only took up gameplay time. The 'stunt' wedges then became regular double-wide 250 point spaces.
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.
The show did not catch on with viewers, and was cancelled after one year on CBS's Saturday morning lineup. Reruns continued to air on Game Show Network (now GSN), which had been rerunning the show concurrently with CBS, for several years.
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 episode chronicling the show's history.
- Official site of the U.S. version
- The Classic Wheel of Fortune Page, focusing on the Chuck Woolery/Susan Stafford era of the show
- The Wheel of Fortune Timeline, a work-in-progress chronicling the history of the show
- UK Gameshows Page: Wheel of Fortune
- Funny Wheel of Fortune mis-solves (scroll about 1/4 of the way down)