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THE GOOD FORTUNE OF ‘WHEEL’

“Stay tuned,” says the announcer, “for all the excitement on ‘Wheel of Fortune.’ ”

Curious thing, though. There is no excitement on TV’s most popular syndicated show, a half-hour seen in 182 markets constituting a whopping 98.6% of the nation and attracting a peak audience of more than 40 million earlier this year.

Although the nighttime “Wheel of Fortune” (7 p.m. on KCOP Channel 13) rolls over the opposition in most cities and has sparked bidding wars among some stations, it offers no big stars or gimmicks or suspense or challenges or big laughs. Nor is there any other compelling reason to watch this astoundingly successful and bland program whose national audience far exceeds such other syndicated biggies as “MASH” and “Three’s Company” reruns, “Jeopardy,” “PM Magazine,” “Entertainment Tonight,” “People’s Court” and even the big lipper himself, Richard Dawson, and his “Family Feud.”

“Wheel” nearly doubles the ratings of its nearest competitor, “MASH,” and tops all audience demographic categories, except males 18 to 49. And what do they know anyway?

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“Wheel of Fortune” is the Lawrence Welk of game shows, still a corny polka after all these years, an NBC daytime entry in 1975 that exploded in the ratings after being cloned for nighttime and sold to individual stations in 1983.

Distributed by King World, “Wheel of Fortune” is another game-show creation of Merv Griffin, who patterned it after the Hangman game he played as a kid. No particular skill is involved. Contestants are asked to fill in the blank letters to word puzzles that usually turn out to be famous people and things, or cliches (“life of the party,” “time of your life” and so on). They spin a giant roulette wheel to determine how much money (up to $5,000) they’ll be allotted for winning. They use the money to buy prizes ranging from autos and posh vacation trips to things more modest (“I’ll take the TV trays, please”). Whoopee.

The biggest puzzle is not the game, but why the game is so popular. It’s unimaginative and undemanding, and perhaps that’s the ticket.

TV audiences seem to crave simplicity as a release from reality. So what if the world you faced today was increasingly complex and fragile, ready either to explode or shatter? So what if the rat race was rattier and the frustrations larger than ever?

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Tonight we’ll spin the wheel with Pat and Vanna, fill in the blanks and vicariously pick up the prizes.

Oh, yes, Pat Sajak is the host and Vanna White the hostess of “Wheel of Fortune.” They are scoops of vanilla, metaphors for game shows present and past, the quintessential pairing of the affable white male major-domo and the alluring white female minor-domo.

With few exceptions, the white-male-run TV industry continues to recoil from non-white and female authority figures. Throughout American game showdom, for example, there has been only one black host, the singing Adam Wade, who presided over the short-lived “Musical Chairs” on CBS in 1975.

There also have been scant female hosts, a particular irony because the audience for daytime game shows has always been predominantly female. Game-show females instead have been ghettoized, irrevocably cast as the speechless “lovely assistant"--even Gypsy Rose Lee once had that job on a game series--who operates on the edges of the show.

The true breakthrough game show will have a female asking the questions and a male opening the refrigerator doors in a sequined suit. Fat chance.

Sajak, meanwhile, is your basic, pleasingly benign, seamless and comfortable host, a former KNBC weathercaster who is smooth but not slick, earnest but not unctuous, witty but not riotous. The target of satirist Martin Short’s hilarious jokes on “Saturday Night Live,” Sajak was born to host.

White is such a hot dish in some lusting eyes that the San Francisco station that airs “Wheel of Fortune” made her its guest weathercaster on the news when she was in town for a syndicated programming convention. The station promoted her as if she were Dolly Parton arriving on an elephant.

On “Wheel of Fortune,” however, her duties are limited to flipping over letter cards, applauding for contestants and engaging in snappy show-ending patter with Sajak.

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Pat: Have a good time?

Vanna: Yes.

Pat: Good. We’ll have more of the same next time.

Vanna: On “Wheel of Fortune.”

You could safely assume, then, that America doesn’t tune in to “Wheel of Fortune” to hear the repartee. Why does America tune in? It doesn’t really matter, does it?

I’ll take the TV trays, please.


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