Ryan Seacrest, “Wheel of Fortune” and the Lasting Pull of Game Shows

One by one, as streaming services grow in popularity, old standbys of the TV landscape are falling by the wayside.

The number of soap operas, a decades-old linchpin of daytime television, has fallen to a small handful. Hit daytime talk shows — once hosted by the likes of Phil Donahue, Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres — are becoming rarer by the year. Late-night shows are dwindling.

But one golden oldie is still standing strong: game shows.

ABC’s lineup this fall is populated by many of them. On CBS, one of the longest-running shows, “The Price Is Right,” is getting a new studio. And ratings for “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune,” tops in the category, are among the most-watched programs in television — at least outside of live sports. Both attract around nine million viewers on a typical night, and generate tens of millions of dollars in profit each year.

This week, Sony, the studio behind both “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune,” gave the genre an emphatic vote of confidence. The company signed Ryan Seacrest, one of television’s most recognizable personalities, to a long-term deal to replace Pat Sajak as the next host of “Wheel of Fortune.”

The audience for Sony’s two shows is, in the words of one executive at a rival studio, “shockingly big.” Adam Nedeff, a researcher at the National Archives of Game Show History at the Strong National Museum of Play, said “Wheel of Fortune” “has survived even beyond the wildest expectations of success.”

“‘Wheel of Fortune’ remains this giant,” said Mr. Nedeff, who is the author of “Game Shows FAQ,” a history of the format. “As the TV business changes, and streaming takes over the world, ‘Wheel’ is one of the things that endures on the old traditional model of TV.”

Game shows offer two big benefits for executives: They are one of the least expensive programs to create, in part because many episodes can be filmed in a short period. And they are attractive to the largest demographic group that still consumes traditional television — people 60 and older.

The median “Wheel of Fortune” viewer is in the oldest age bracket that Nielsen tracks: “65+.” (The median ages of many of the higher-rated entertainment shows in prime time in the most recent television season — “Survivor” (62.1), “Abbott Elementary” (60.2), “The Voice” (64.8) — are not far behind.)

Among adults under 50, the demographic that most interests advertisers, the two game shows draw similar ratings: “Jeopardy!” averages 1.1 million viewers in that bracket and “Wheel of Fortune” one million.

Game shows have been around since the earliest days of television. From the quiz shows of the 1950s to the dating shows of the 1960s and 1970s, game shows have been as much a tradition for American television as football on Sunday afternoons.

The biggest success stories these days are thoroughbreds that have endured decades. “Family Feud,” which began in 1976 and is currently hosted by Steve Harvey, draws nearly eight million viewers per episode, one of the highest viewership totals in all of syndicated television, according to Nielsen. CBS announced that “The Price Is Right,” hosted by Drew Carey since 2007, will move into a “state-of-the-art facility” in Glendale, Calif., for the show’s 52nd season this year.

Beginning in September, ABC’s lineup will feature an hourlong edition of “Celebrity Jeopardy!” on Tuesday nights and a full Thursday prime-time lineup of “Celebrity Wheel of Fortune,” “Press Your Luck” and “The $100,000 Pyramid.”

Many of the current network prime-time game shows are not exactly ratings blockbusters. But their relatively small budgets make them easy for network executives to swallow, especially compared with the ballooning production costs of scripted television.

Sony’s new deal with Mr. Seacrest suggests that the company plans for “Wheel of Fortune” to continue long into the future. The deal is expected to last through the early 2030s, a person who is familiar with it said.

Selecting Mr. Seacrest, however, is not without risk. When Merv Griffin created “Wheel of Fortune” in 1975 as television’s answer to hangman, it spent its early years on ratings life support. It wasn’t until Mr. Sajak and Vanna White, his co-host, joined in the early 1980s that the show took off. By the mid-1980s, it was drawing more than 40 million viewers a night.

Whether viewers tune out because Mr. Sajak isn’t on the stage is an open question. He and Ms. White both have above-average favorable views among viewers, according to Q Score, the research firm that measures the likability of celebrities. Mr. Seacrest, however, is below average, according to Q Score, suggesting he may be polarizing to a segment of the audience.

Additionally, Ms. White’s future with the show is uncertain. She is under contract for another year and is in negotiations for a new deal. Puck reported last week that Ms. White made significantly less money than Mr. Sajak and had not gotten a raise in nearly two decades. Many “Wheel of Fortune” fans on social media had expressed hope that she could replace Mr. Sajak — if she departs, will droves of viewers leave with her?

Mr. Seacrest, though, has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to bring a steady hand to longtime franchises. He successfully took over Dick Clark’s long-running New Year’s Eve show. He assumed a seat that once belonged to Regis Philbin — as well as Michael Strahan — on “Live,” the show he co-hosted for six years with Kelly Ripa. And in 2004 he took over the radio show once hosted by Casey Kasem.

Mr. Seacrest’s rapid appointment — Mr. Sajak said only two weeks ago that he would leave “Wheel of Fortune” in 2024 — also is a way for Sony executives to avoid the succession crisis that enveloped “Jeopardy!” two years ago. In 2021, Sony executives quickly pushed out Alex Trebek’s successor, Mike Richards, amid a public uproar after sexist and offensive comments Mr. Richards had made surfaced online. Sony eventually named Ken Jennings and Mayim Bialik as Mr. Trebek’s permanent successors.

Mr. Nedeff, the game show historian, said that as long as Mr. Seacrest recognized who the true star was, he should be successful.

“The big driver for the show is the game,” he said. “The game is the star of the show.”

Brooks Barnes and Benjamin Mullin contributed reporting.

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