Tuned In

Robo-James' Time Machine: The Golden Age of Wheel of Fortune

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The Tuned In Jrs. have recently become fans of Wheel of Fortune, which addiction we’ve been supplementing by Tivoing reruns of the 1980s episodes currently airing on GSN. Among their discoveries: Vanna White’s job was much more physically taxing. Below, someone’s YouTube tribute to the old puzzleboard, on which she then had to turn the letters by hand, just as serfs did in medieval times:

But there are plenty other differences between WoF then and now, some of which are just changes in the game, others of which may bespeak changes in our society itself.

* No more shopping. This is the most obvious change, and the first one most WoF nostalgists think of. In the old days (including the Chuck Woolery era, which predates even GSN’s current reruns), you didn’t keep the cash you won. You spent it, after the round, in a “shopping round.” (Skip to around 1:35 on the clip.) You had to spend every possible dime, which meant at the end you were usually forced to blow cash on a cement flamingo or the like. Then the decision: be optimistic and put the money “on account,” or play it safe and get a “gift certificate”?

* The prizes were bigger. Admittedly, I base all this on anecdotal watching of reruns, not statistical study. But the ’80s era GSN reruns, adjusted for inflation, seem to have more generous payoffs than today’s show, with grand prizes like mobile homes, that top the biggest bonus-round prizes offered today. (Except, I guess, the theoretical $100,000 space and million-dollar wedge, which have astronomical odds against them. Insert theory about the American lottery mentality and stratification of wealth here.)

* Things were slower. Part of this, I suspect, has to do with changes in editing; the current version of WoF feels tighter-edited, in everything from the contestant banter to the wheel spins. But the contestants a couple decades ago also seem more deliberative in their answers, more languorous in their spins. I wonder whether that’s not a function of the fact that, today, average people are simply more media-ready than they once were. (That fact is even more pronounced when you watch news and documentary shows from the 1950s and 1960s, when more of the subjects grew up without TV.)

* The show assumed we were smarter. It’s not like WoF was ever exactly the College Bowl. Or even Jeopardy! But in the 1980s episodes, there was a set of categories that assumed more extraneous knowledge of contestants. One category, “megaword,” would have you solve a large vocabulary word (e.g., “hypothesis”) then use it in a sentence. The answers may not have been great (“He was famous for his hypothesis”), but it’s hard to even imaging the show trying that today. Ah, it was a Periclean age, the 1980s.

* People had more dignity. Fine, I’m a crabby old man. But I swear it’s true. Contestants, in the 1980s, still regarded television more as an event one had to dress for; sure, there are shoulder-pad monstrosities, but men were also more likely to wear suits. (Having said that, each game show has its own dress code. By the 1970s the dress-down Price Is Right was barely requiring shirts and shoes.) And there was just a general lower volume: fewer fist pumps, screams, and whooo!s in general.

* The contestants were ballsier. Watching the new episodes, contestants seem much more likely now to solve a puzzle as soon as they know the answer. On the ’80s shows, you can tell (from the letters they guess), that contestants are more likely to push their luck and run up their scores. I don’t honestly know the reason. Is it a function of the gameplay (today, you have more “prize puzzles” that encourage quick solving)? Is it a change in our very characters? Someone needs to do a thesis on this.