A little more than 30 years ago, CBS went all-in with The Pat Sajak Show, and less than 15 months later executives killed it off on April 13, 1990.
The show was bland, to say the least. Sajak was charming, but the gags were instantly stale and fairly pedestrian for a late-night show. The show was effectively televisual wallpaper — inoffensive and unremarkable. And CBS wanted Pat Sajak to do the impossible: compete against Johnny Carson, the King of Late Night. The Pat Sajak Show had little chance to win that battle.
Sajak wasn’t the only person thrown to the late-night lions. Magic Johnson, Joan Rivers, and Chevy Chase both had failed late-night talk shows against Carson. Few stood a chance against Carson during his 30-year run on NBC. Arsenio Hall, whose show started a week before Sajak’s, came close.
CBS wouldn’t field a viable competitor to The Tonight Show until 1993 when David Letterman jumped ship from NBC. He had been passed over as Carson’s replacement for Jay Leno.
Why ‘The Pat Sajak Show’ Failed So Quickly
In 1989, Pat Sajak left the Wheel of Fortune and producers replaced him with former San Diego Chargers placekicker Rolf Benirschke. Around the same time, CBS was looking to compete in late night. Carson was constantly using fill-in hosts to take his desk, and the network saw an opportunity. So they turned to Sajak.
CBS build Sajak a $4 million studio and paid him $60,000 a week. The show premiered on January 9, 1989.
Ratings were good to start, but that was likely because of curiosity. And despite big bookings like Dolly Parton, Chevy Chase, and the Judd Family, viewers began to return to Carson or Hall soon after the premiere. But Sajak and producers stuck to their formula. Unfortunately, Carson was already doing that formula and better.
“We set out just to make a good, solid talk show,” Sajak said at the time. “There are a limited number of things you can do. If you set out to be different, you end up with The Wilton-North Report.”
Almost immediately, CBS began to meddle with the show. They cut the time slot from 90-minutes to 60. And began using a guest host every Friday night. Fans were perplexed when they turned on The Pat Sajak Show to see someone besides Pat Sajak behind the desk. Producers would often make wide swings also, hoping to get new viewer attention. Rush Limbaugh hosted once and was the audience booed him.
The network realized its mistake quickly and canceled the show on April 9, 1990. Sajak was in Europe on his honeymoon, the LA Times reported at the time.
CBS went ahead with the final week of shows using guest hosts to fill in for Sajak. Paul Rodríguez guest-hosted the final show.
Sajak eventually returned to Wheel of Fortune and has said he’d never consider a late night show again.