Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune producer Harry Friedman opens up about why they are such hits

By Gillian Telling
January 08, 2020 04:51 PM
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If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

That’s essentially the mantra for longtime Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune producer Harry Friedman, 73, who has spent two decades at the helm of the shows.

“Both have extremely solid formats, which at their core haven’t changed since the shows were introduced,” says Friedman, who recently made news for being one of the few game show producers to ever receive a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. The ceremony was attended by his show’s stars Alex Trebek, Pat Sajak and Vanna White.

Friedman is also the most decorated producer of game shows in history, having produced more than 6,270 hours of game shows — and over 12,000 episodes — throughout his career.

“The Jeopardy! format is pretty much the same as it was when the show first went on the air in the daytime in 1964 on the NBC network,” Friedman tells PEOPLE. “And Wheel of Fortune is also essentially the same as it was when the show was a pilot when I first saw it in 1974. The longevity of the shows has demonstrated that the formats are pretty forgiving.”

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Still, that doesn’t mean they haven’t tried to reinvent “the Wheel,” so to speak, from time to time by adding in special shows — like the current “Greatest of All Time” tournament on Jeopardy!, featuring three contestants who have won the most money in show history: Ken Jennings, Brad Rutter and James Holzhauer. (On the tournament’s debut Tuesday night, Ken Jennings bested Holzhauer by a mere $200.)

“We’ve added a lot of little different things to the shows, especially with Wheel,” Friedman says. “Certain risks and rewards. But our audience has always embraced the changes.” He says that despite meeting tons of fans who say they watch Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune “with their grandparents,” millennials are embracing the shows on their own just as much as older generations have.

“I think a lot of that is thanks to our growing social media footprint,” he says. “Our ‘Wheel Watchers’ club is very active, and at Jeopardy.com there are all kind of ways to interact with the brand. We have a feature called the J! Effect, where people talk about the show has affected them, whether as a viewer or a contestant.”

Friedman also admits the shows’ popularity has much to do with their longtime hosts: Trebek, 79, Sajak, 73, and White, 62.

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“They take their jobs very seriously after all these years,” he says. “These are things they don’t need to do at this point. They could just show up and walk through it, and none of them treat it that way. They treat the staff with respect, they treat their roles with respect, and they have tremendous respect for the viewing audience.”

He adds that Trebek always shows up to set very early to read through the games and make notes abut pronunciation, or confirm things are accurate. Friedman isn’t sure that the shows will have the same draw that they do now with different hosts, something that is unavoidable, despite each of them having several more years on their contracts.

“The shows and hosts have been so intertwined for 36 and 37 seasons, respectively, and I am thoroughly convinced, even though I can’t prove it, that these shows would not have been on as long as they have been without these three folks,” he says.

This May, after 20 years, Friedman will retire as producer of the shows to spend more time with his family. He says he’ll deeply miss the special bond the show’s share with their nightly viewers.

“The staff on both shows understand that there is a special bond between us and the audience,” he says. “They rely on us to deliver good, solid family programming that’s fun, challenging and reliable .. .but never predictable.”

Watch Jeopardy!’s Greatest of All Time championship on ABC at 7 p.m. ET or check your local listing.