In 1988, a CBS late night executive named Michael Brockman believed he'd hit on the most promising Johnny Carson challenger in years With a smash hit in syndication, Wheel of Fortune (1983), and lots of experience as a funny weather guy in Los Angeles, Pat Sajak struck Michael Brockman as CBS's first hope in a generation to get something started in late night.
The CBS strategy was simple and straightforward: Get Sajak on the air, let him settle in behind Johnny Carson in the ratings, and then let him grow until the moment Carson finally retired. Then CBS would have the incumbent show in place, ready to take command of late night. Sajak would present no treat at all to Carson, especially to the young viewers that Carson was apparently losing.
Some doubters inside CBS questioned the decision to choose Sajak. Rod Perth, who was the manager of the CBS-owned station in Chicago, stood up at a closed door-session during a CBS affiliate meeting and asked, in a loud voice: "Why Pat Sajak?". Michael Brockman suggested Perth check the ratings for Wheel of Fortune (1983). Perth's protests didn't sway anybody and Pat Sajak had a late-night show on CBS, beginning in January 1989.
To host this show, Sajak had left the Daytime Network edition of Wheel of Fortune (1975) with his last show airing on January 10th, 1989. However, he did stay on the nighttime syndicated Wheel of Fortune (1983), which like the Daytime edition, moved production the CBS Television City where this show was recorded.
When he first complained about Sajak, Rod Perth had been the general manager of WBBM, the station CBS owned in Chicago. As soon as Sajak's ratings started their inexorable nosedive, Lucy Salhany, the head of Paramount Television, had called Perth in Chicago, telling him he had 24 hours to buy into the suddenly scalding-hot The Arsenio Hall Show (1989). WBBM had strong ties to Paramount, and Salhany was respecting those ties giving Perth first crack at Arsenio Hall in the Chicago market. Perth jumped at the chance, putting Arsenio on the air immediately after Sajak. Having a station that CBS owned snap up Hall only gave the restless CBS affiliates more reason to sign on for Arsenio themselves. But most of them used Hall to replace Sajak. By December 1989, more than fifty CBS stations made the switch, dooming Sajak even as they coronated Arsenio as the first truly viable challenger to The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1962).
When Rod Perth arrived in L.A. after getting promoted to an executive job at CBS, Perth's first mission was to try and save Sajak. Perth quickly discovered he was not going to get much help from the star. Sajak seemed unaccountably laid-back to Perth. Before he'd agreed to take the job, Sajak had made just one, very L.A. demand: He had to have a billboard of his face on Sunset Boulevard.
CBS got most of it's stations to agree to carry Sajak, promoted the show brilliantly, and sent the host off to a roaring start with a 6.2 rating, a full point higher than Johnny Carson's. That didn't even hold up for a week. Sajak was soon sinking through the 3 rating level. It got so bad that the show was having trouble getting audiences to come to the studio for the tapings. Yet Sajak didn't change his demeanor, or his show, at all. Perth came to regard him as one of the least ambitious people in show business, observing that Sajak would come in at noon, tape his show from 5:30 to 6:30 and he would be out the door by 6:45. The show was collapsing around him. With stations leaving every week, the distribution system was canceling him even before the network did. Yet Sajak remained unruffled.
While CBS's public posture was still 100% backing Sajak, Rod Perth desperately needed a talk show name to replace him that would keep the rest of the CBS stations from joining the growing "Arsenio" juggernaut and compete against Johnny Carson and began to broach the idea of getting Jay Leno to jump to CBS. Perth knew of Jay's hobby to restore old motorcycles and in a sweet coincidence, that happened to be Perth's hobby as well. Perth got Jeff Sangansky, the president of CBS's entertainment division to write a $6,000 check for a Triumph motorcycle as a gift to Jay. Within a few weeks of the first of the year, Perth scheduled a lunch meeting with Jay's manager Helen Kushnick to offer a 3 year deal for Jay at about $6 million a year and he would start late night on CBS in September of 1990. However, Jay was more interested in the Tonight Show gig since what CBS was offering was late night gig that had been tattered by Pat Sajak's woeful performance.