Vanna White's daily chores on Wheel of Fortune could most charitably be described as minimal. At the beginning of each show, the blond ex-model poses with the "fabulous prizes" on display and greets Host Pat Sajak with a cheery hello. Then she takes up her station at the puzzle board, briskly turning over lettered tiles and scooting out of the way like the ball boy at a tennis match. Yet White has become TV's most improbable cult heroine. "I've gotten tons of fan mail," she marvels. "Love letters, marriage proposals, children being named after me, which is quite an honor. Every year on Sept. 4, I get a picture of this adorable little Vanna."
In a world where letter turners become superstars, it is perhaps not surprising that Wheel of Fortune, an almost comically unassuming game show, is the highest-rated syndicated series in television history. Or that the venerable game-show genre has suddenly hit the jackpot once again. Following the No. 1-rated Wheel of Fortune, two more games, Jeopardy! and The New Newlywed Game, currently rank in the top five on A.C. Nielsen's list of the most-watched syndicated shows (those sold directly to local stations by independent syndicators rather than distributed through the networks). In addition to the ten games aired weekdays by the three networks, at least 15 game shows are currently running in syndication, and no fewer than 19 new ones have been proposed for next fall.
The current crop includes specimens of most of the genre's major varieties: big merchandise giveaways (Price Is Right), sophisticated parlor games spiced with celebrities ($100,000 Pyramid), R-rated competitions between couples coaxed into revealing embarrassing personal secrets (The New Newlywed Game). But most of the new hits are an odd throwback to an era of simple games and conventional contestants. Wheel of Fortune, in which players spin a giant wheel to reveal letters in a hidden phrase, is a variation on the old word game Hangman. At least three current imitators feature similar fill-in-the- blank word games. A number of other shows depend on question-answer quizzes, exemplified by the challenging Jeopardy!, now a success in syndication after two earlier versions aired on NBC.
It is back-to-the-basics television. "Rules just clutter up the game and confuse people," says Alex Trebek, the host and producer of Jeopardy! "People should be able to understand the show in the first half-hour, even if it's their first time watching." That may help explain why the same shows keep reappearing. Password has resurfaced as Super Password, and among the retreads planned for next fall are The New Hollywood Squares and We Love the Dating Game. Death is only a temporary state in game-show heaven. Dan Enright, producer of Tic Tac Dough and The Joker's Wild, plans to retire his two aging shows at the end of this season but is not taking it as a defeat. "They are two perennials," he says. "I'll just rest them a while and bring them back in a few years."