Pat Sajak Show, The

When CBS tapped Pat Sajak for a late-night talk show in 1989, a lot of industry folks wondered about the selection. He seemed awfully lightweight to compete against the mighty Johnny Carson. Then again, Sajak was the host of the enormously popular game show, Wheel of Fortune…and Carson himself had gone from hosting a game show to hosting The Tonight Show. Later on, everyone would say, “We knew it would never work” but not many were predicting that before Sajak’s debut on January 9 of that year.

Initial ratings were strong the first week, less strong the second…and by the time the first month was out, all talk of knocking Johnny off his throne had ceased. Most critics felt the show was Johnny Lite — too much the same format only not done as well. Within CBS, the complaint was that Sajak wasn’t giving it his all; that he still regarded hosting Wheel of Fortune as his “real” job and that hosting a 90-minute late night series was something he did in his free time. Sajak had given up hosting the daytime Wheel of Fortune but had kept the much more lucrative evening syndicated version.

In October of 1989, the show was cut from 90 minutes to an hour. Several CBS affiliates had bumped it to a later hour or were not carrying it at all…and from October on, that was happening at an accelerated pace. It became less a question of whether it would be cancelled as when. Sajak began working four days a week or skipping weeks completely and the show had a succession of guest hosts who were more or less auditioning for the time slot. By February of ’90, CBS was reportedly renewing the show a week or two at a time and on April 13, the last one aired with guest host Paul Rodriguez.

The show was regarded as a large failure but its initial tune-in did convince CBS that it was viable to compete with Carson; that they’d merely picked the wrong guy to do it. They began quietly scouting for the right guy and soon made an offer to Jay Leno, who was then Carson’s permanent guest host. When Leno instead opted to sign a contract with NBC that guaranteed him The Tonight Show upon Johnny’s eventual retirement, CBS went after David Letterman. He did a lot better in the time slot.