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King World Spins 'Wheel' Into a TV Forture : One of Hottest Syndication Firms

October 13, 1985|NANCY RIVERA | Times Staff Writer

"That's the kiss of death, and yet the viewers consistently found it," he said. "Our research showed that this show was a winner if placed in the right environment."

Unusual Selling Strategy

King World persuaded Merv Griffin Enterprises to let the company pursue an unusual selling strategy: King World demanded no advertising time as part of "Wheel's" licensing fees and it bypassed stations in the top three markets--New York, Los Angeles and Chicago--in favor of smaller markets where the company knew it would have a better chance of placing the show on the stations it wanted at the time period it wanted, Hersch said.

King World promised to sell the show to enough stations to clear 40% of the country, "then if it starts to work, we're home free and we could roll it out," Hersch said. "It was like we had a crystal ball."

"Wheel of Fortune" began airing in September, 1983, on 59 television stations covering 43% of the country. Ratings soared and King World was able to negotiate bigger and better deals for the show.

In September, 1984, "Wheel" was on 181 stations. King World was then taking 30 seconds of commercial advertising time per show and had increased average licensing fees to $92,000 per episode from an average of $32,700 the year before. This season, the price has risen to $160,000 per episode.

Also that season, Merv Griffin revived "Jeopardy!," a daytime game show that ran on NBC for nearly 11 years until it was canceled in 1975. King World syndicated the new version to 115 stations and "Jeopardy!" leaped in the ratings to become the third-highest rated syndicated show after "Wheel of Fortune" and "MASH."

Aren't Greed Shows

Murray Schwartz, president of Merv Griffin Enterprises, said the two game shows are so popular because "these are not greed shows, these are thinking shows."

"Wheel of Fortune" is a cross between the child's game of hangman and the more adult pursuit of roulette. The show, hosted by Pat Sajak and Vanna White, features three contestants who spin a large wheel to determine their potential winnings as they try to guess the puzzle--usually a phrase, like "thrill of a lifetime," or a title, a person, a place or a quotation.

"Wheel's" devotees include Occidental Petroleum Chairman Armand Hammer and rock star Mick Jagger.

"Jeopardy!" hosted by Alex Trebek, bills itself as "your daily dose of trivia with a twist." Contestants are given an answer and then must figure out what the question is.

Schwartz insists that the current popularity of game shows is not new, but "our timing and understanding of the marketplace was very important. We felt there was room for game shows again."

People watch game shows to escape, he said.

"There is so much unhappiness now in society, and disease and terrible news," he said. Viewers want to "play something and have a good time doing it and maybe get a little glamour."

Distributes Other Shows

King World also distributes Merv Griffin's talk show and a new daytime game show by Merv Griffin Enterprises called "Headline Chasers."

The life span of a game show is typically five to seven years, Hersch said. For "Wheel" and "Jeopardy," "it's hard to predict, but the minimums seem very much within our reach and if those minimums are achieved this company will have a tremendous amount of cash for other ventures."

Game shows are conspicuously absent from King World's coming syndication plans.

"You can't beat 'Wheel' with a game show," King said. "We are going to let the other game shows go against 'Wheel.' "

Heading the list of the shows King World will distribute next season is a daytime talk show starring Oprah Winfrey, whose current local Chicago talk show dominates the ratings there.

"The Oprah Winfrey Show" will be "an exciting alternative to Phil Donahue," King said. "She's commanding huge licensing fees."

King World also will syndicate two half-hour music-related shows that will air back-to-back in the late-night time period.

"Rock 'N Roll Evening News," produced by Andy Friendly Productions in association with A&M Records, will be a half-hour program devoted to rock news and interviews. It will be paired with a talk and variety show produced by Motown Productions that will feature comedian David Brenner and musician Billy Preston.

Seeks Other Ventures

King World also is looking at a variety of ventures on which to spend its growing cash hoard.

The company is interested in film production and is working with an unnamed "major producer" on a remake of "Little Rascals," that is scheduled to hit theaters in May, 1987, King said. King World already has made one "Rascals" movie, a film compilation called "Rascal Dazzle."

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