Merv Griffin dies

The legendary former talk-show host and producer, who basically put first-run syndication on the map with Dance Fever, Wheel of Fortune, and Jeopardy!, has died at the age of 82, due to a bout with prostate cancer.

Mr. Griffin was a bandleader, singer, TV star, and a performer at KFRC-AM San Francisco before he became involved in the backside of the business.

Griffin became inolved in television in the 1950’s, when he hosted a game show called Play Your Hunch. He hosted The Tonight Show for a few weeks in 1962, in between Jack Paar’s depature and Johnny Carson’s arrival. He was also Paar’s substitute host.

In 1965, Griffin launched his own daily syndicated talk show with Group W Productions, then moved it to a late-night slot on CBS in 1969, where he unsuccessfully competed with Johnny Carson. His talk show returned to daytime syndication in 1972, which was syndicated by Metromedia Producers Corporation, and later by King World Productions. That show lasted until 1986.

After his first daytime talk show effort was canceled by NBC in 1963, Merv Griffin created a game show for the network called Word for Word, via his new production company. In 1964, he created another daytime game show called Jeopardy!, one that would last on the network until 1975 and would run again in 1978-79.

In 1975, another new game game showed he created for NBC’s daytime lineup, Wheel of Fortune, debuted on January 6 of that year.

In 1979, Griffin expanded his presence in first-run syndication by producing a weekly dance contest show called Dance Fever for Twentieth Television. That show ran for eight seasons.

In 1982, Merv Griffin Productions decided to put Wheel into nighttime syndication and struck a deal to syndicate the show with small syndicator King World Productions – a New Jersey based company only known at the time for selling Little Rascals shorts in syndication. The syndicated version of Wheel debuted in September 1983 in only half of the country, without New York and Chicago (those large markets would not come on board until January 1984.) The nighttime version became a surprise monster hit, and in the process, knocked Family Feud out of the number one slot in syndication. With a few exceptions, Wheel has been there ever since.

In 1984, Griffin and King World struck again by reviving Jeopardy! for syndication, and it has been the number two show since. Stations started pairing Wheel and Jeopardy! in prime access (7-8 p.m. ET) and it has been a winning combination for them (and King World) for more than 20 years. However, Griffin’s and King World’s bid for a hat trick failed the following year with the ill-fated game show Headline Chasers.

Griffin sold his production company to Coca-Cola owned-Columbia Pictures in 1986; Coca-Cola would spin-off its entertainment assets into Columbia Pictures Entertainment, Inc. in 1987. Columbia was sold to Sony in 1989 (Both Wheel and Jeopardy! are now produced by Sony Pictures Television and distributed by CBS Television Distribution.)

Griffin later produced another new game show scheduled to launch in syndication called Ruckus, a program that was tested on WNBC-TV in New York in 1991 in a weeknight 7:30 time slot. Ratings were subpar, and the host left because of a contract dispute. The project was subsequently dropped.

Griffin went into real estate, including purchasing and restoring the Beverly Hills Hilton, and he owned numerous other hotels, including Resorts Hotel & Casino, where Ruckus was taped.

Recently, Merv Griffin created another new game show called Crosswords, for Program Partners and the William Morris Agency that premieres in syndication Sept. 10 (locally on WMAQ-TV.) Griffin was a noted crossword fanatic.

Griffin also was a songwriter – he wrote the Final Jeopardy! theme and the second theme that was used on Wheel of Fortune from 1983-2000, called Changing Keys.

Update: Program Partners’ executives said late today that the fall rollout of Merv Griffin’s Crosswords would not be affected by his passing, and the name of the show (which has already changed from Merv Griffin’s Let’s Play Crosswords) will stay the same. You can read a statement from Program Partners’ founders Ritch Colbert and Josh Raphaelson, embedded in a larger article about Griffin’s death from Marc Berman in Mediaweek by clicking here.

Update 2: Phil Rosenthal from the Tribune has a story remembering Merv Griffin, noting an memorable episode of Seinfeld where Kramer tries to re-create The Merv Griffin Show – in his apartment.

Updated at 22:22 on 2007-08-12