Pat Sajak’s New Spin Zone

Wednesday, Mar. 12

Every once in a while, Pat Sajak gets a phone call, or is taken out for a nice meal, and is wooed to run for public office.

Mr. Sajak admits he lets these proposals linger and tantalize him for a moment, like a sweet whiff of cigar smoke. Pat Sajak for Congress …. Pat Sajak for Senate …. Pat Sajak for President!

“During that dinner, you find yourself going, ‘Well, oval is a nice shape,'” the 56-year old game-show host said in an interview the other day.

Pat Sajak for Something makes sense. This is the media-political age, of course, and Mr. Sajak, a registered Republican-you can’t give away the kind of dough he does and not be-is good on TV, articulate but not prickly, blue-eyed handsome but not too blue-eyed handsome, plus he’s got that nice poufy hairdo. Dangerous? Mr. Sajak is about as dangerous as a blue blazer at an Exeter reunion. He even smells like a Congressman. (It’s a nice, clean smell, nothing fancy).

But so far, Mr. Sajak has always said no to running. “It’s a dramatically life-changing situation, no matter what level of politics you’re in,” he said. Politics can screw up your life-and Mr. Sajak really, really likes his life. “If George Bush had lost, he’d be in Texas fishing right now. Instead, he’s a marked man.”

If Mr. Sajak won’t run for office, he now has the Earth’s Next Best Thing: a talk show on the politics-is-everything Fox News Channel. Pat Sajak Weekend made its debut March 2 and runs Sunday evenings at 9 p.m. E.S.T.

Don’t expect verbal fisticuffs with Terry McAuliffe and Eric Alterman, however. Mr. Sajak is keeping his show airy and entertain-y; guests on his March 9 show were Kate Mulgrew (the Star Trek lady currently channeling Katharine Hepburn on Broadway) and Inside the Actors Studio blubberer James Lipton. Everyone behaved themselves.

“We’re not going to be issue-oriented,” Mr. Sajak said.

Mr. Sajak wasn’t exactly hunting for work when Fox News called and asked if he’d be interested in hosting an interview show. He’s captained Wheel of Fortune since 1981, and for almost 20 years the simple, spin-the-orb program has been the top-rated syndication show on television. He’s got a production company and a record company and a family. He’s rich-not stinky, giant-yacht, Merv Griffin rich, but plenty rich-famous and comfortable.

But ….

“I like doing this kind of thing,” Mr. Sajak said as he sat at a table in Fox News’ New York studio, not long after wrapping his conversation with Mr. Lipton. He wore a sport coat and tie and his hair was well-poufed; he looked exactly like … Pat Sajak. “I just like having people on.”

Mr. Sajak had “people on” once before, of course, when he hosted The Pat Sajak Show , a late-night talk show CBS launched in 1989 to great fanfare that dodo’d after a year and a half.

He has mostly fond memories of the talk-show experience, from feeding straight lines to George Burns to meeting his boyhood idol, Jack Paar. (He commemorates the latter with a photo on his Web site, patsajak.com.) But it was an old interview he did on his show with Martin Landau that triggered his interest in trying the chat racket again.

“I saw him about a year or so ago on some other show and I thought, ‘That’s what I miss,'” Mr. Sajak said. “I miss the chance to spend time with people I admire. That was what was in my head when this [Fox News show] came up. So we can credit-or blame-Martin Landau.”

Martin Landau lust aside, there is no comparison between Pat Sajak Weekend and The Pat Sajak Show. Pat Sajak Weekend had a pretty stealthy launch. Mr. Sajak doesn’t face the kind of ratings pressure he faced at CBS. About a million people watched his cable-news debut, and that was fine with Fox, now trying to bolster its weekend lineup.

Fox News executive Kevin Magee said the network is looking to branch out, bringing on guests from other walks of life besides politics, and Mr. Sajak’s hiring may help recruit them.

“It doesn’t hurt to be able to say ‘Pat Sajak,'” Mr. Magee said. He called the host “a very well-known quality.”

“You only think nice thoughts when you hear ‘Pat Sajak,'” Mr. Magee said. “It’s not ‘Pat Sajak-that bastard !’ You just don’t say that.”

For Mr. Sajak, the Fox show is a chance to spend a little time away from the rotating wheel and Vanna White-still there!-and meet new people.

But there’s also a chance to rewrite history a little bit. History will show that Mr. Sajak was one of the most successful hosts in the history of television, but people still ask about the failure of his late-night adventure.

He’s philosophical about it.

“We had a couple of things going on at the time,” Mr. Sajak said. “No. 1, the conventional wisdom was that Johnny Carson was going to be leaving after that season. Our thought was, ‘We will do The Tonight Show .’ Essentially, that was what we were doing-Johnny will leave, Pat is already there, the format is there, the audience will just move over, turn the dial a couple of notches and there we are. Johnny screwed up and didn’t leave for a couple of years-so I’m still upset about that.”

Mr. Sajak laughed. “The other thing that happened was that Arsenio Hall came on the air,” he said. “The conventional wisdom then was that younger people didn’t watch late-night-but suddenly it was a very hip kind of thing and introducing a different audience. So we were kind of stuck in the middle. We were Johnny Carson Lite, and why do you want that if you’ve got Johnny Carson, and I was a 42-year-old white guy-I wasn’t going to be doing Arsenio Hall stuff. So I don’t think we ever found our footing.”

Mr. Sajak knew early on that The Pat Sajak Show was doomed. Shortly after the show launched to decent ratings and reviews- Time called him “the man to beat as Johnny Carson’s spiritual heir”-he was summoned by CBS executives. He thought they were there to talk contract extension. They told him his show had horrid demographics.

“Their opening line was ‘We’re in trouble,'” Mr. Sajak said. “The head of CBS entertainment turned to me and said a line that I’ll never forget. He said: ‘Your audience doesn’t matter.'”

Though he remained grateful to CBS for giving him a shot, and he accepted full blame for his show’s collapse, Mr. Sajak conceded he understood some of David Letterman’s angst last year when Mr. Letterman chose between offers from CBS and ABC.

“I have nothing against CBS, but it’s odd: I never understood this until I saw Letterman’s issues,” Mr. Sajak said. “It may have changed, but I’m not sure CBS ever understood exactly what talk was. One of the first meetings I had was with Laurence Tisch, who was running CBS-he came in and I was introduced and he said to me, ‘Do you need a director for a show like this?’ And there’s a pause while you wonder, ‘Is he making a joke?'”

It wasn’t a joke.

But when Mr. Sajak lost late-night, he still had Wheel- blessed old clunk-clunk-clunk Wheel . The show is now 28 years old (Chuck Woolery hosted it for seven years before Mr. Sajak took over), and though it’s as familiar as an old shoe, it’s still a syndie juggernaut. “You get real spoiled by it,” Mr. Sajak said. “You don’t look at the ratings.” He said his family is planning trips for two years from now. “What other show can you do that with?”

Asked about the now-deceased prime-time game-show bonanza, Mr. Sajak said it wasn’t really a bonanza, but a case of one hit- Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? -and a bunch of lame imitators. While he liked Millionaire, Mr. Sajak-who was offered a number of the shows, including Millionaire before Regis-felt that network executives got too Cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs about cash prizes, instead of creating interesting games.

“Game shows have never been popular because they give away a lot of money,” Mr. Sajak said. “If we cut our money, we could give away hot dogs and do pretty well.”

Sans hot dogs, Wheel continues to prosper. Though the show tapes in Los Angeles, Mr. Sajak and his brood live in Maryland. Every couple of weeks he flies out to the West Coast to tape a bunch of Wheels, then flaps back. “My life is a string of two-week vacations,” Mr. Sajak said. “If you have or plan to have children, make them game-show hosts. It’s the best job in the world.”

Mr. Sajak said he just signed a contract that will keep him on Wheel for the next four years. He’s not sure how much longer he’ll stay. “I’m not really interested in breaking Bob Barker’s longevity record,” he said, referring to the Price Is Right host, still on the air at 235 years of age. “God love him and more power to him, but at some point I’m going to want to sit on the front porch and whittle.”

Fox News might not let him whittle on the air-MSNBC might beat that!-but they will allow Mr. Sajak to play it loose. He said he expects to tape something between 40 and 44 shows this year, mostly in New York, but also in L.A. and Washington, D.C. “He’s got a pretty good gig and doesn’t need this, so we needed to make this attractive to him,” said Mr. Magee.

“I admire the network,” Mr. Sajak said of Fox News. “From a selfish point of view, it’s a luxury to be able to hop aboard a fast-moving train rather than being the one who is supposed to pull the locomotive down the track. You don’t want to be the savior of anything.”

But as for politics, Mr. Sajak intends to leave that to others.

“I admire people who want to serve, but talk about a rough game!” Pat Sajak said. “Television is patty cake compared to that.”

Tonight on Fox News, Bill O’Reilly asks, “When does freakin’ Chuck Barris get a show?” The O’Reilly Factor . [FNC, 46, 8 p.m.]

Thursday, Mar. 13

If you’re going to evaluate a pair of partisan blabbermouths gabbing back and forth at each other about politics, it’s best to ask the opinion of another pair of partisan blabbermouths gabbing back and forth at each other about politics. So we went to Fox News’ Hannity & Colmes to ask them about … Clinton/Dole on 60 Minutes.

They were- surprise !-unimpressed.

“The problem was that it wasn’t back and forth,” said Alan Colmes (he’s the one with the glasses, thus the liberal). “It looked like they taped their stuff separately. It looked very canned. You had Clinton saying something and then Dole saying something-it didn’t look like they were actually responding to what the other person said.”

“This is a rarity!” said Sean Hannity (he’s the one with the black hair and square jaw, thus the conservative). “I agree with everything Alan said. They’ve got to be face-to-face. But I am willing to offer my services to them, for a small fee.”

“We’ll both coach them,” said Mr. Colmes. “We can show them how it’s done. I’ll coach Dole and Sean can coach Clinton.”

What about the idea of an ex-President and an ex-Senator doing a point-counterpoint show? Did they think it was unseemly?

Mr. Hannity thought so, especially- surprise !-as far as Mr. Clinton was concerned. “Between Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and their almost daily critiques of this President, it really breaks a tradition where former Presidents aren’t sitting on the sidelines berating those who have taken over the reins,” he said. “For example, Bush 41-he had an awful lot he could have criticized Clinton for, and by and large he stayed quiet.”

“Well, I think you have a right to free speech,” Mr. Colmes countered (see, they’re doing their Hannity & Colmes thing!). “I know it may go against tradition, but I think we’re in extraordinary times where the country is taking extraordinary steps. When you talk about a run-up to a war, I can’t begrudge a former President of either party from speaking out forcefully, if necessary, about what a President is doing.”

Mr. Hannity was unmoved. “You had an impeachment of the President of the United States, and George Bush senior had the class to stay out of …. “

Alright, we get the point. You know what’s really nuts about Clinton/Dole? It’s that the show will be Dole/Clinton next week. We know Mr. Clinton had his, er, troubles, but let’s see here: one guy’s a two-term ex-President, the other is a retired Senator who lost 17 straight bids for the White House. And they’re sharing the top line? Who’s Bill Clinton’s agent? Sidney Falco?

Tonight, Hannity & Colmes ( they don’t even share a top line) tangle and untangle themselves-live, not in separate studios!-on Hannity & Colmes . [FNC, 46, 9 p.m.]

Friday, Mar. 14

Ravenous as they are, Fox News seems to be to be taking it a little easier on CNN in recent months, attributable probably to the war buildup (unseemly to rip the competition in such serious times), CNN’s management shakeup (no more Walter Isaacson and Jamie Kellner to pile on) and the fact that Fox is comfortably in first place (you look like a bully jackass, beating up on No. 2).

But CNN has taken a kind of half-swing at Fox by borrowing a page from Roger Ailes’ network’s playbook: It’s installed a big billboard for Paula Zahn’s American Morning newscast on Sixth Avenue, not far from the News Corp. building and the Fox News studio.

Though CNN-which is down the street on Sixth and 50th Street-said the billboard is just part of a promotional effort, it is understood that the placement near Fox News was not a coincidence. Fox, after all, is famous for such (adjective from the right: plucky ! Adjective from the left: obnoxious !) stunts, like when it threw up a massive promo billboard outside CNN headquarters in Atlanta.

There are a couple of weird things about CNN’s billboard, however. The first is that American Morning -a newsy show, as the billboard lets you know-is getting whupped in the ratings by Fox’s silly-but-successful breakfast show, Fox & Friends . The second is that the billboard is actually not across the street from Fox-Fox’s studio is on Sixth and 48th, and the billboard is on the east side of Sixth and 47th. The result is a kind of close-but-no-cigar attack.

“If they were hoping to get a rise out of us, they did,” said a Fox spokesperson. “We were laughing.”

This morning on American Morning , Ms. Zahn announces that the billboard is not designed to rile Fox, but to remind her co-host, Jack Cafferty, that he’s getting close to the office. [CNN, 10, 7 a.m.]

Saturday, Mar. 15

Tonight on the History Channel, Lee Marvin and Mark Hamill star in the sounds-like-a-porno war epic, The Big Red One . [HIS, 17, 8 p.m.]

Sunday, Mar. 16

Tonight on Fox News, it’s Pat Sajak Weekend at 9 p.m. On VH1 at the same time, it’s the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: Class of 2003 celebration. Speaking of which, you know what cliché should be retired? The all-star rock ‘n’ roll jam. It was fine when it was Keith Richards trading riffs with Bo Diddley, but who the hell wants to see Gwen Stefani and Steven Tyler sing with the Police? Talk about “Sending Out an S.O.S.”! Just give us Sting, Andy and Stewart and get it over with, you egomaniacal stage hogs. [VH1, 19, 9 p.m.]

Monday, Mar. 17

David Letterman, please get back to work, before the inevitable David Brenner guest-host appearance! The Late Show kingpin remained sidelined with shingles this week, and as of March 11 it was unclear when he would return. In the interim, F.O.D.’s like Bruce Willis, John McEnroe, Regis Philbin and Whoopi Goldberg have hosted. Most of the interim hosts have done a nice job, though we nearly keeled over when Ms. Goldberg compared guest Dave Chapelle to a young Richard Pryor.

Tonight on the Late Show, Mr. Letterman makes his triumphant return, or maybe it’ll be … Joan Rivers! [WCBS, 2, 11:35 p.m.]

Tuesday, Mar. 18

Tonight on TBS, Outbreak . This Dustin Hoffman science caper takes on new meaning these days, since Saddam Hussein has made no secret of his desire to catapult disease-carrying monkeys into the U.S.-if he can only build big enough catapults. [TBS, 8, 8 p.m.]