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“Wheel Of Fortune” Celebrates 30 Years

By Ken Foote, CBSDFW.COM
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Vanna White greets the contestants during a taping of “Wheel Of Fortune” at Radio City Music Hall on September 29, 2007 in New York City. (credit: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)

This season represents the 30th year that “Wheel Of Fortune” has been in local TV syndication. What a great run this show has had, and it’s not over yet!

I had just been transferred from Tampa, Florida to Phoenix, Arizona to KOOL-TV, the CBS station there owned by Gene Autry and his partner Tom Chauncey. The company I was with at the time, Gulf Broadcast Group, purchased the assets of KOOL Radio-TV, Inc. for approximately $78 million. Autry wanted to sell out in 1982, but his partner did not. Chauncey was true to CBS all the way; in fact, they had a standing rule that CBS network programming never be pre-empted at any time, including breaking news, and everything was be cleared locally in the time periods CBS wanted. Chauncy owned a ranch in Scottsdale that even had a road named after CBS Chairman William S. Paley. After some legal hurdles, Gulf took control of KOOL-TV on October 1, 1982 but sold KOOL-FM and Sun Country Properties, a subsidiary that owned Arabian horses, back to Chauncey. The station then changed its call letters to KTSP. Today, the station is KSAZ and is a FOX station; KOOL-FM is part of the CBS Radio family.

Michael King, heir to the King World Production company, along with his brothers Bob and Roger (and some others), came to see me as interim program director to pitch “Wheel Of Fortune” for local television for fall 1983. King World was, at that time, primarily known for selling shows like “The Little Rascals,” “Branded,” and “The Guns Of Will Sonnett,” but this was their first entry into first-run syndication. The show, created by Merv Griffin, was running on NBC as a daytime network show. Michael told me that this show was going to be the new hit of the fall season and it was a no brainer. I was still learning my craft at that time, so I wasn’t sure if he was being honest, full of bull or lying. He gave me the pitch, how much money he wanted, and what time period he needed (back then, “Wheel Of Fortune” could not air prior to 4:30 p.m. CT/MT to protect the NBC network run). We ended up buying this show, along with getting “Entertainment Tonight” from NBC affiliate KPNX, and these shows put this station on the map!

Pat Sajak, who was hosting the NBC version and was a former AFR Saigon radio announcer, and Vanna White, already a hostess on game shows, became host and hostess for “Wheel,” and they have remained with the show ever since. It is the number one syndicated game show in America, winner of six Emmy Awards, and reaching more than 30 million viewers weekly.

Locally, “Wheel” started off on KXAS NBC 5 in 1983, then moved to WFAA for nearly two decades before moving to CBS 11 in the fall of 2005, where it has remained since.

Congratulations to our distribution company, CBS Television Distribution, and to Sony Pictures Television, to Pat, Vanna, and our viewers for making “Wheel Of Fortune” the extraordinary success that it is today.

See you next time.

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