Merv Griffin hatched the idea for "Wheel of Fortune" as a child. During a long family car trip in the summer, he played Hangman with this sister Barbara in the backseat. Years later, he would take the idea and turned it into a game show.
At first this nighttime edition had a small clearance, only reaching 59 markets, but the show caught on and exploded in popularity by the end of 1984. It became the most popular show on syndicated television, a title it has kept since.
When first working on the show, Producer Harry Friedman was not pleased with the fact that it took nearly 1 hour to tape a 30 minute show. After each puzzle the crew had to stop tape which allowed the crew to manually pull out the letters from the last puzzle and set up the letters for the next puzzle. This time consuming process took about 10 to 15 minutes to do. Within 30 days after attending a taping as Producer, Friedman started asking around about what would it take to get the puzzleboard electronic. Eventually, in Season 14, the old trillion puzzle board was retired in February 1997 and was replaced with a new electronic one using touch screens. The letters were no longer manually put in, instead a button is pushed and a new puzzle magically appears. Friedman felt this was also necessary for a cosmetic change as that is the same time the red, yellow, and blue backdrops were no longer used. The change didn't really affect anything on air but for taping the shows there were no more stops in taping the shows and a 30 minute episode could be taped in 30 minutes.
This nighttime edition was so popular and such a ratings machine that it caused the cancellations of many nighttime syndicated editions of daytime game shows, including Tic-Tac-Dough, The Joker's Wild, Name That Tune, and the former number one nighttime syndicated show, Family Feud.
For Season 12, their 6th year recording at CBS Television City, the puzzleboard had its light border changed in the fall of 1994 to the spring of 1995, keeping the same frame. The new boarder features golden flashing lights. Later, when moving to Sony Pictures Studios for Season 13 in the fall of 1995, the board was changed to the one when Wheel is taping a show elsewhere in the United States. This board was used until February 1997.
Harry Friedman received a call from Alan Levine, the CEO of Sony Pictures and an old friend, who asked him if he was interested in interviewing for Wheel of Fortune to produce the show. Levine told Friedman the show feels it needs to be taken in a new direction and Freedman agreed to an interview. In 1995, Friedman was hired and became the driving force behind many of the new changes on the show.
Originally, contestants who won rounds used their cash in the shopping round to buy prizes. That was changed in 1987 to the now familiar concept of contestants building a cash bank during the "Month of Cash". "Month of Cash" was originally supposed to be only a month long but became a permanent change replacing shopping.
Originally in the Bonus Round, contestants chose to play one final puzzle for a grand prize they selected from five on stage. They chose five consonants and a vowel. In 1988, they were spotted five consonants (R,S,T,L,N) and one vowel (E), and chose 3 more consonants and one vowel. In 1989, the prizes were hidden under letters W H E E L, and the contestant picked a letter, winning whatever prize the letter concealed. That changed in 2001, to where contestants spun a mini wheel that selected the prize.
Upon the move to CBS Televison City in 1989, the sound effects were updated. The wrong-letter buzz, Bankrupt slide whistle, "only vowels remain" beep and category chimes were all updated for the 7th Season.
The 1983-1989 theme was written by Merv Griffin and was titled "Changing Keys". The 1989-1992 theme was a jazzier remix of "Changing Keys", and the 1992-1994 theme was a slower remix of the 1989-1992 remix. The 1994-1997 theme was a big-band version of "Changing Keys" performed by Mort Lindsey's Orchestra, and the 1997-2000 theme was a slower remix of "Changing Keys" of big-band and rock mixed together.
After Merv Griffin stepped down as Exective Producer in 2000, the show received a new theme song called "Happy Wheels" arranged by Steve Kaplan. The theme was changed in order not to pay Griffin residuals for his theme. However, new theme contains a portion of the 1997 mix of "Changing Keys". The theme was remixed in 2002 again by Kaplan for the 20th Season. In 2006 the theme was remixed again and this edition was by John Hoke and Frankie Blue and does not feature a portion of "Changing Keys".
On September 8th 2003, after twenty years with basically the same set design and gold and green color scheme, the whole set received a makeover and a brand-new look was introduced on the show to kick off the 21st Season. As a result...the base for the wheel, the puzzle board boarder, and the video wall boarders became Plexiglas fixtures that have over 200 specialized, computerized LED lighting instruments capable of up to 2 million different color choices interwoven into the framework. Later in the season, the bonus wheel was also updated with LED lights.
The show used red, yellow, and blue backdrops starting with sunburst ones from 1983 until 1989. Starting on the Wheel in New York week in 1988, Diamond backdrops were used for road shows. In 1989 upon the move to CBS Television City, new backdrops that had golden spikes and doubled as a second score display were used. To distinguish the show from the daytime edition, the show used the Diamond backdrops on a full time basis starting fall 1990. In fall 1992, for the 10th anniversary, a new set of backdrops were debut. In February 1997, the red, yellow, and blue backdrops were removed in favor of a display that fit the theme for that week's set of tapings. In 1998, a video wall replaced the themed backdrops displayed behind the contestant and this video wall was upgraded in 2003.
Starting in the 27th season, the Free Spin disk has been discontinued in favor of a new "Free Play" wedge. The "Free Play" wedge allows the player to pick any letter - a consonant or vowel. If the chosen letter is not in the puzzle or has already been called, the player gets to continue on without losing their turn. The consonants are worth $500 apiece and the vowels are worth nothing, but they won't cost the player anything.
Over the summer of 1988, announcer Jack Clark died. Before his death, he requested that Charlie O'Donnell take over as announcer. However, O'Donnell was under contract with Barris Industries and unable to work on the show until the contract was up. In the meantime to begin Season 6, Merv Griffin asked M.G. Kelly to fill in on an interim basis for regular shows and Don Pardo was asked to fill in for the road shows. In March 1989 Charlie O'Donnell was able to take over duties as the show's permanent announcer.
On November 1st 2010, announcer Charlie O'Donnell died. Johnny Gilbert filled in for 2 weeks of shows taped prior to, but aired after O'Donnell's death. Rich Fields, Jim Thornton, Lora Cain, Joe Cipriano, and John Cramer have filled in as guest announcers in order to land the gig permanently. On June 13th 2011, after Season 28 ended, Jim Thornton was officially announced as the show's third permanent announcer and made his official debut on the Season 29 premiere.
During Season 28, Charlie O'Donnell's remaining shows following his death have been dubbed over at the Executive Producer's request by Johnny Gilbert and Guest Announcers: Rich Fields and Jim Thornton. For Season 28 summer reruns, all those shows as well as all shows that originally had a Guest Announcer besides Thornton, were all dubbed with Thornton's voice added in because he was named permanent Announcer on June 13th. Any show that originally aired with O'Donnell, retained his voice, but had Jeopardy! Clue Crew member Sarah Whitcomb do the plugs that had to be updated.
Starting in the 31st season, the Jackpot round was discontinued and during the 3rd round, a new "Express" wedge was added to the wheel and gives the player a chance to do what's called "The Wheel Express," which will give $1,000 apiece for the consonant that the player calls and then they have the choice to hop on the express, where they can keep calling consonants and get $1,000 apiece for them and/or buy vowels as well until they can solve the puzzle without spinning. However, if they call a letter that's not in the puzzle or has already been called, it's a bankrupt. The player can skip the express route and continue to play the normal game play if they wish.
Originally, all contestants played just for one show. Starting with Season 7 in 1989, the returning champions rule was adopted. The Returning Champions rule allowed contestants to appear on the show for up to 3 days. Starting with Season 14 in 1996, the "returning champions" idea was reworked and replaced with a "Friday Finals" format. Three new contestants appeared Monday through Thursday, with the week's top winners returning on Friday (regardless if they were their show's top winner) to play for a jackpot prize package. However, when Season 16 started in 1998, all returning champs ideas were dropped and once again contestants played just for one show.