Fox News banks on Sajak's fortune

TV/RADIO COLUMN

A different spin for game show host

March 05, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Now, from the nation's top-rated, toughest-talking, highest-decibel cable news station, comes a new hour-long show from one of the country's least threatening people: game--show host Pat Sajak.

Pat Sajak Weekend premiered Sunday night at 9 on the Fox News Channel, with talk show host Regis Philbin and comedian Robert Klein as guests. At 56, Sajak's cherubic cheeks may seem a bit thinner and his graying hair a little pouffier, but he still has his youthful charm and energy.

Sajak, a former local television weather forecaster known best as the long-time host of Wheel of Fortune, says he hopes to create a place of respite each week for people exhausted by the news.

"People on the weekends are a little less engaged in what's going on in the world," says Sajak, who lives with his wife and family in Anne Arundel County. "We're trying to get people I like - that I think are interesting and fun to talk to. We're not trying to get the biggest names on the show."

Sajak promises that the new show won't distract him from Wheel of Fortune - it'll be like a moonlighting gig.

"It's a high-class paper route," Sajak says of the Fox News program. And here's why you should believe him: Sajak tapes a full year's worth of Wheel of Fortune in 35 days. That means he pulls down a reported $6 million each year for seven weeks of work. Not a bad job if you can get it.

"If you have children, they should all grow up to be game show hosts," Sajak says. "My life is a series of two-week vacations."

Pat Sajak Weekend displaces Fox Wire, a harder-edged show. Kevin Magee, Fox News' vice president for programming, says the new show provides a place for entertainers to receive gentle on-air treatment. "To get on The O'Reilly Factor, you have to be controversial," he says. "For Hannity & Colmes, you have to have a distinct point of view, politically."

"I think there's a place on the news channel for a softer interview show. It's a celebrity show."

The new program will be taped in New York, Washington and Los Angeles, depending on Sajak's other obligations. In Sunday's debut episode, Sajak was overflowing with nervous energy, and he stepped on his own questions a bit. Familiar topics, such as comedy in the wake of the terrorist attacks, were rehashed.

But he was also generous, enabling Philbin's natural ease on television to shine through as the two talked about former Tonight Show host Jack Paar. And Sajak coaxed Klein into telling an anecdote about hyperactive censors at CBS decades ago: The comic's rendition of a make-out song as footage played of a paramecium's asexual reproduction was judged too erotically charged. "I thought, this would take a very esoteric pervert," Klein said.

Sajak says he's appreciative of Fox News' strong ratings position, because it eases any pressure on him to produce results. His last foray into the world of talk shows came in 1989, when CBS tried to take on Johnny Carson and NBC's dominant Tonight Show. Called The Pat Sajak Show, it lasted little over a year.

"I don't want to make more out of this than it is," Sajak says. "It's very low key. I hope if I have entertaining conversations with people I like, people will find it interesting."

WJZ takes lead

Two strategic shifts at WJZ-TV have sent the station's ratings surging above those of rival WBAL-TV.

Last fall, WJZ launched the city's first 4 p.m. news show and adopted a more serious tone throughout all of its newscasts. Now the early news program beats out WBAL's perennial winner, Oprah Winfrey's syndicated talk show, and boosts ratings for WJZ's evening news shows by capturing viewers who tune in early.

"We're very pleased for what we're seeing on air for product, promotion and branding," says Jay Newman, the CBS station's general manager. "We took what was already a very strong brand identity and to evolve that in a purposeful way that effectively fills a changing audience's needs."

Pointing out that WJZ's success was magnified by several weeks of audience-grabbing news events such as snowstorms and the build-up to a possible war, WBAL's President and General Manager Bill Fine says the competition will tighten over time. WJZ has had "a very fortuitous run here. They definitely have taken the leadership away from us, but we're coming right back at them."

He also says his station's ratings suffer in comparison to last year, when NBC's 2002 Olympic coverage buoyed its audience size.

There is an argument to be made that WJZ's resounding ratings win is based on something of a fiction: that its highly promoted hard-news tenor reflects strong and improved news reporting. On the whole, it doesn't.

The sweeps month promotions depict anchors soberly conducting interviews around the city as though they're actually doing the legwork required for breaking stories. But, in reality, while the station is devoting more time to news, its reporting staff is stretched thinner and rarely breaks news.

(Its approach to news has resulted in some good coverage: During last month's snowstorm, for example, the WJZ helicopter provided compelling video images of the B&O Railroad Museum's collapsed roof.)

Nonetheless, the station keeps pounding away on its hard-news promotional theme - and it seems to have worked. "There is definitely an appetite," says Drew Berry, general manager for WMAR-TV, Baltimore's ABC station. "You can't deny that." As at WJZ, audiences for WMAR news shows grew in comparison to last year, too - though Berry's programs were starting from much smaller levels.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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