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Remembering Merv

Merv Griffin, who died last week after a recurrence of prostate cancer, was responsible for creating what would become two of the most ground-breaking, industry-making shows in syndication and television —Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy.

Now owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment and continuing to be distributed by CBS Television Distribution, the successor to King World Productions, Wheel and Jeopardy have become responsible for billions of dollars in local TV station license fees and in local and national advertising business.

“He brought things to the TV business that we needed,” said Roger King, CEO of CBS Television Distribution and co-founder of King World Productions. “The King Family and King World will always been indebted to him.”

For Dick Robertson, former longtime president of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution and one of the architects of the syndicated-barter television business, Griffin “was one of the most influential men in the history of television, and what makes his success all the more remarkable is that he did it almost exclusively in syndication.”

Wheel and Jeopardy made King World Productions a dominant player in the syndication business for two decades, as well as lifting the fortunes of a number of local TV stations—especially in what would become a key and yet-untapped syndication daypart.

“He turned around the prime access time period,” said longtime programming veteran Bill Carroll, vp and director of programming for TV sales rep Katz Television Group. “Now, over 20 years later, both his shows are still No. 1 and No. 2 in that time period.”

But another major part of Griffin's TV legacy is his contribution to the daytime talk show format. The Merv Griffin Show ran from 1965 to 1986, mostly in syndication, following its host's careers as a big band singer and actor. To many, he essentially paved the way for the likes of Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey.

The Merv Griffin Show made its mark as a key programming piece for many stations, including one major independent station group, which was to become the basis for the Fox network.

“Merv was the centerpiece of our primetime lineup on Metromedia stations,” said former Metromedia executive Rick Feldman, president/CEO of National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE). “If you look at it from a historical perspective, he was really a pioneer.”

Wheel and Jeopardy then became key pieces of profit for a number of station groups—in particular, ABC's big market station that signed early deals to carry both game shows and, later on, Oprah.

The two shows were also instrumental in helping King World Productions' fortunes in launching other syndicated shows. “Then there was Oprah,” said Carroll. “And because of Oprah, there was Dr. Phil, and Rachael Ray. It's almost biblical.”

Now, 24 years after the launch of Wheel in syndication, King World Productions, now CBS Television Distribution, represents nine of the top 10 shows in syndication.

After a run on NBC, starting in daytime in 1975, Griffin and King World launched Wheel into syndication 1983, with Pat Sajak as host and Vanna White as letter turner. But not too many stations were willing to bite.

“There might have been less than 25 markets in access—but they were all great stories,” said Carroll. Since 1984, Wheel of Fortune has had the highest ratings of any regular scheduled syndicated program.

“The loss of a dear friend has made it difficult to focus on Merv's enormous contribution to the world of entertainment,” said Sajak, in a statement.

Jeopardy, created and launched on NBC in 1964, ran into the mid 70s. It returned to syndication in 1984 with host Alex Trebek, and it too was an instant hit.

“Whatever project he tackled, he did with gusto and great effort—music, television talk shows, game shows, casinos, hotels and most recently, horse racing,” said Trebek, in a statement.

Two years after re-starting Jeopardy, Griffin sold his production company, Merv Griffin Enterprises, to Columbia Pictures Television, now owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment, for $250 million. Griffin kept a continuing share of the profits of the shows. At that time, the transaction was reportedly the largest acquisition of an entertainment company owned by a single individual in the United States.

Griffin went on to become one of the wealthiest people in entertainment, with a net worth at the time of his death of around $1.6 billion, according to a number of sources. He owned the Beverly Hilton and casinos in Atlantic City, N.J., and the Bahamas. Griffin owned 17 hotels at his peak.

But that didn't stop Griffin in trying new syndicated/entertainment shows, such as Monopoly in 1990 and Ruckus in 1991. In 1997, there was a short-lived game show called Click, which had an Internet setting and teenagers as contestants and was hosted by a then unknown talent, Ryan Seacrest.

Other syndicated efforts proved more substantial —such as being the executive producer of Dance Fever, which ran for eight seasons in syndication from 1979 to 1987.

For this upcoming syndication season Griffin was touting a new game, Merv Griffin's Crosswords, a concept that brought Griffin back to his roots of providing viewers simple game formats so they could play along at home.

“His genius was that he could break the show down to its barest essentials, making hard things look easy,” said Josh Raphaelson, co-founder of Program Partners, which is syndicating Crosswords.

He envisioned the game to display only part of the crossword puzzle—a little bit at a time—before revealing the full puzzle at the end. The show will continue as planned with a September debut.

Wheel of Fortune—everyone says it is simple game show, that all you have to do is know how to read,” said CBS' Roger King. “But it's complicated; it's a very tough game.”

Griffin also took it upon himself to write the theme music for many of his shows, including Wheel and Jeopardy. He also continued to provide Wheel with puzzles up to a few years ago.

“How often do you find people that were as creative, and as interesting?” said NATPE's Feldman. “In the history of TV and syndication there are very few figures that are as towering as Merv.”