Harry Friedman (right) is the executive producer of two of the most enduring and successful syndicated programs of all time: Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. He is one of television’s most prolific producers, and his success is marked by his ability to maintain the traditions of both long-running shows while tweaking each just enough to keep them current and on the cutting edge. He will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences on April 28 at the Daytime Creative Arts Emmy Awards.
Harry Friedman: He’s Got Games
It’s a pretty impressive achievement to run show that has been at the top of an entire genre of syndicated shows for years. It’s even more impressive when you double it like Harry Friedman has done for the past 18 years as executive producer of daytime legends Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy for Sony Pictures Television and CBS Television Distribution.
Friedman’s work on Wheel and Jeopardy has earned him several Emmy Awards and three Guinness World Records: for most game show episodes produced with 11,128 (as of March 31, 2016); most Emmy nominations for a game show producer with 42; and most Emmy wins by a game show producer with 13. In addition, in 2011, Wheel and Jeopardy tied for the Outstanding Game Show award, and Friedman became the first producer ever to win two Emmys in the same category in a tie with himself.
“We’re pretty happy that the shows seem to continue to thrive [they consistently finish second and third in the game show category week after week] and I think a lot of the credit goes to the formats,” Friedman says. “They’re easy to understand, easy to learn, easy to become engaged with as viewers. We stopped explaining how the games are played quite a few years ago.”
Another component of both shows’ success, he says, “is Pat [Sajak] and Vanna [White] and Alex [Trebek]. I will tell you the thing that impresses me most about them besides their obvious talent is the way they connect with the audience and that they are remarkably highly engaged in the shows” after all these years — Sajak since 1983, White since 1982 and Trebek since 1984.
A native of Omaha, Neb., Friedman developed an early fascination with television programming and personalities, including a young, local celebrity named Johnny Carson. Long before the concept of student internships was created, Friedman began hanging around Omaha’s TV stations, learning by watching and doing whatever management permitted.
In 1971, a few years after graduating from the University of Nebraska, Friedman decided to give up news reporting and writing and move to Los Angeles, where, without contacts, he gave himself six months to find a job in show business. With less than 24 hours remaining on his self-imposed deadline, he talked his way into a part-time question-writer spot on Hollywood Squares. Over the following 11 years, Friedman wrote and produced thousands of episodes of the popular series and was also actively involved in the development of several other game shows, including Gambit and High Rollers.
He cites those early game show jobs as very influential. “My first long-term job in this business was with Hollywood Squares and that spoiled me. It was a great show. I was working with great people, smart people, really very generous people and I pretty quickly realized how lucky I was to be there … I learned so much and people were so kind with their time, allowing me to learn and observe. So I think that set a pretty high standard for me.”
He joined Wheel as a producer in 1995, adding producer duties for Jeopardy in 1997. In 1999, he was promoted to executive producer of both shows.
Friedman is known for staying ahead of the curve with innovative game elements. “Probably the biggest change is the energy level in the shows because we have tried to really make them much more exciting, to move a little faster. When I first came to Wheel, we were doing four puzzles in a half hour, maybe five and now we’re doing eight and nine puzzles, part of that is because we’ve added the toss up rounds and things like that. We’re just trying to do everything we can to sort of keep in mind that we like the games to be reliable, but, but never predictable.”
He’s also known for incorporating the latest technology. In September 2006, Jeopardy and Wheel made television history when they became the first syndicated programs to be broadcast in high definition.
Friedman has also championed the development of Wheel and Jeopardy extensions for mobile devices, along with versions for Facebook, Nintendo’s Wii and PlayStation. “I think social has been a tremendous boon to us. With both shows, we have extremely active and popular websites, we have our Wheel Watchers club which has had close to 10 million members. [At] Jeopardy, we have lots of other ways to interact with the show — we have something called Infinite Final Jeopardy which has pretty much every Final Jeopardy that’s ever been on the show on a continuous loop on our website.”
It’s that kind of forward thinking that’s kept Friedman at the top of his games.
Mary Hart, longtime former host of Entertainment Tonight, will also receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from NATAS next week. Hers will be presented on Sunday, April 30, at the 44th Daytime Emmy Awards. You can read our profile of her here.