This Day in Entertainment History: Wheel of Fortune Premieres (January 6th, 1975)

By: Sean Sporman
By: Sean Sporman

Wheel of Fortune has gone through several hosts, set changes and format tweaks, but the gameshow based on Hangman has endured over 30 years and is still going.

On January 6th, 1975, Wheel of Fortune debuted on the daytime lineup of NBC. The show was originally hosted by Chuck Woolery, with Charlie O'Donnell announcing and Susan Stafford turning the letters on the puzzleboard.

The early years of Wheel of Fortune are referred to as the “shopping era.” The backbone of the format—contestants spinning a wheel with various cash amounts and guessing letters in a word puzzle—was there from the start. To keep the money, contestants would need to successfully solve the puzzle. Consonants earned money, while vowels had to be bought.

However, in the “shopping era,” instead of playing for cash, players accumulated money which they would then “spend” on various items after a successful solve. The “shopping” format would endure through the 1980s.

Woolery would replaced in 1981 by Pat Sajak, and Vanna White would join the show a year later in 1982. Woolery would go on to host other successful gameshows in the future such as Scrabble and Lingo.

While the daytime version would continue, a nighttime syndicated version with a larger budget began in 1983. Sajak would host both the daytime and nighttime versions until 1989. He would remain on the nighttime version, but would be replaced by former football player Rolf Benirschke in the daytime. Benirschke's run on the daytime version would last less than a year, and the daytime version would go onto CBS.

By this time, both versions of the show would move away from the original shopping format and would go onto a pure cash format. Bob Goen would host the daytime version on both CBS and its return on NBC until it was finally canceled in 1991.

In 1997, the familiar analog puzzle board with letters that had to be manually turned by an electronic board that is still used to its day. Since the mid-1990s, new additions have been added to the format such as toss-up puzzles, prize puzzles and the eventual elimination of the free spin.

Despite the many changes, the nighttime syndicated version remains successful and recently entered its 31st season. You can watch Wheel of Fortune weeknights at 6:30 on WTVY, immediately following the WTVY News 4 news at six.

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