The stars and producers spoke to Monsters and Critics editor April MacIntyre at Sony soundstages in Culver City, California on September 12, 2006
Sony ventured into groundbreaking territory when it commenced recording its two hugely successful game shows in HD: Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune.
Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy were originally creations of impresario Merv Griffin, who came up initially as a singer / songwriter before breaking into television as a popular host of his own talk show, and journey as a prolific producer.
These two game shows are the first in syndication to be entirely transitioned to crystal sharp 16:9 ratio HD format.
According to Phil Squyres, Senior VP of Technical Operations for Sony Pictures Television, “It went relatively smooth, without any major problems in the process.”
Wheel and Jeopardy are entering their 24th and 23rd (respectively) seasons, and are the two most popular game shows on television. Wheel is number one in syndication, with more than 46 million viewers a week. Jeopardy is on Wheel’s heels, number two in syndication ranking, and a little over 37 million viewers following Trebek and company.
Wheel of Fortune follows Jeopardy in my Los Angeles market; and usually are the backdrop during the busy dinner hour. I confess to being the worst Wheel of Fortune player, so bad I could never go on as a contestant without mortifying my living family at my dismal abilities to deduce the phrases. Five year olds guess quicker than I do.
Jeopardy, however, is where I make my bones. Like Radar O’Reilly from M.A.S.H., or even inebriated like Kevin Bacon as “Fenwick” in Barry Levinson’s film, Diner, the answers come to me fast and usually while Alex Trebek is finishing the question. Exception being the category of Sports.
Squyers did tell me that Sony uses the 1080i HD format, so stations that are 720p will have to “transcode”. Once the Pathfire system is ready to roll for HD programming, the HD satellite feed will go away and the Pathfire sat feed will take over, making it a lot easier on the stations.
He took pity on me as my eyes began to glaze over as I began looking at him like a dog looks at someone performing a card trick, and kindly put in it digestible format to understand the reportedly four million dollar financial and technical investment in updating these iconic shows.
Squyers had Mark Corwin join our conversation, Corwin directs Wheel of Fortune, and had a lot to share regarding challenges for the new wider ratio and shot accommodations.
“It was a shot headache, initially” Corwin said. “The stage had to be made wider to accommodate the new ratio, the cyc line brought down too.” (Cyc refers to cyclorama- a permanent background built in a studio which is nearly always curved at the floor line to create a shadowless, unending backdrop.)
“This is a high end show, everything is first-class, the travel, and we have very little turnover with our keys, (department heads) the usual problems associated with HD we haven’t been experiencing. Our makeup isn’t an issue, the artists all learned a new airbrushing technique and lighting has been adjusted.” Corwin elaborated.
Executive producer Harry Friedman who, since his hiring in 1995, has revamped the shows to join the interactive age by setting up online and mobile phone versions and involving viewers via the internet as well, welcomed us Tuesday, September 12th into their newly remodeled studio by thanking the crew, King World and Sony bosses for their combined efforts. Friedman unveiled a side by side demo to show off the goods.
I confess, prior to this unveiling of this upgrade, I wasn’t on board the HD revolution bandwagon, and have been happy with my old, fat, 36 inch Toshiba. Friedman showed the latest footage of Jeopardy and Wheel in High-Definition TV next to a standard television.
Night and Day. The standard monitor seemed as if you were watching the images through cataract afflicted eyes. The HD television with the suited programming was light years better.
The stars of the shows, Trebek, Sajak and White were also there for this Sony HD celebratory launch. I bee lined it for Vanna White as soon as I saw an opening.
Vanna is stunning in person, with major kudos going to Roberta Wagner, her stylist for Wheel. Vanna’s makeup and hair was flawless, simple and light.
A native of North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Vanna has been the Yin to Pat Sajak’s Yang, her calmer persona balancing the kinetic Sajak during each season. Stylist Wagner said “dressing Vanna is really like doing a major award show, as if she is going to the Emmy awards for every single show.”
Its mind boggling work when you find out that they tape five shows a day, two days a week, the outfits for each host have to be completely organized and arranged with shoes and accessories. The garments themselves have to be picked by Vanna and Pat prior to the season.
“Vanna updates her look each season, and selects her shoes as well-she does a lot of walking on these shows, so the shoes have to fit right and be comfortable” said Wagner.
According to Wagner, this season Vanna is currently wearing more baby doll and empire dresses, her favorite shoes to accompany the outfits are made by designers Gucci, Prada and Michael Kors.
White’s background and natural poise won her spot on Wheel shortly after arriving in Los Angeles after attending the Atlanta School of Fashion Design.
Her lithe frame shows off her commitment to a healthy lifestyle of diet and exercise. A devoted mother, she has two children, Nicholas and Giovanna. Vanna recently received a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, and is listed by Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most frequent clapper, with an average of 720 claps a show.
When Vanna was asked about the challenges and changes she was noticing for the HD format, she said, “My clothes are brighter, and I am not wearing any busy prints, for me, everything else seems the same.”
When asked if she could tell me something her loyal fans may not know about her, she confided to me she was a toe nail polish junkie. “I love unusual toe nail polish, blues, greens, murals, really wild toes!” Vanna then graciously showed me her toes, which were indeed pedicured to perfection in lovely colors.
Jeopardy host Trebek had soon left the party to go home after a long days work taping five shows, my bad. Wheel host Pat Sajak was within grabbing distance; I made my move.
Sajak is warm in person, and a natty dresser. He has a love of fine men’s couture and is usually sporting Gucci suits and shoes. “Gucci in New York is very gracious to us” said Wagner regarding Sajak’s annual buying trips. “They pre-pull garments and get Pat fitted for the season”
Sajak shared with me his opportunity to return to higher education during his off time, enlisting as a college student to finish his degree.
Sajak majored in broadcasting at Columbia College in Chicago, his hometown. He joined the Army in 1968, and soon was on the radio in Vietnam a la Robin Williams, regaling fellow soldier’s with “Good Morning Vietnam” wake up calls.
“I was a Vietnam veteran and did not finish my college education, but now I have this opportunity” Sajak said. “I’m a college student on the sly!” He is currently enrolled at Hillsdale College in Michigan, where his current studies are European history.
Wrapping up, I noticed a group of grips and an electronics supervisor sitting in a corner of the newly refurbished Wheel of Fortune set.
I asked Best Boy Grip, Rick Johnson, the youngest crew member on Wheel and the least tenured, only being there for a scant one and a half years, what show was more difficult to produce.
“Wheel of Fortune, by far, it’s a prizes oriented show, so there’s a lot more work for the crew” he opined. “It’s a more involved show, lots of set changes, and location and remote shoots too.”
Bill Monk, the Electronics Supervisor for Wheel, a long time crew member from the Chicago days, shared some interesting facts: “Six miles of new cable have been installed for an entirely new tech area, and plasma screens were integrated on the set of Wheel (not on Jeopardy).
My questioning veered into the realm of food. I asked them about their craft service table. (Craft service is a term for the beverages, snacks,goodies and deli noshes given to crew during shoot and prep to keep them going between meals.)
“We don’t have a table, we have a room” smiled Monk. The crew also discussed the fact that the producers usually assembled the entire crew for all location shoots, flying them wherever they need to be versus hiring local crews.
“If you work in production, it’s a fantastic job.” Said Johnson.
More information can be found at www.wheeloffortune.com or www.jeopardy.com.
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