During the 1990s, taboos around a wide range of activities once considered “vices” began to fall away. TV shows “Will and Grace” and “Ellen” laid the groundwork for mainstream tolerance of gays and lesbians.
The silliness of Bill Clinton trying to hedge that he had tried marijuana but didn’t inhale jarred Baby Boomers and their progeny into realizing the absurdity of criminalizing pot while permitting the use of far deadlier and more intoxicating alcohol.
And on the gambling front, in 1996, IGT rolled out its first slot machines based on the middle-America game show staple “Wheel of Fortune.” In hindsight, that might have been the single-most revolutionary decision in the process of turning casino visits from a shadowy or exotic pastime into a broadly acceptable, commonplace entertainment option.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately for a few reasons. First, this week came the no-duh news that Sony Pictures, owner of all things “Wheel,” agreed to an extension through 2034 of its exclusive partnership with IGT.
Second, BetMGM launched a “Wheel of Fortune” app in New Jersey in March, which is being touted as the first brand-led online casino in North America. (It’s unclear why that honor doesn’t belong to the Sports Illustrated app, but marketers gonna market, I suppose). Real-money online slots are a staple of online gambling in the US.
Mostly, though, it’s because I caught a bunch of recently aired reruns from May 2022 of “Wheel” when the game show spent a week celebrating the 25th anniversary of the “Wheel” slots debut.
As I did, it struck me for the first time just how subversive the brand alliance was back in the day.
Coverage at the time didn’t see what was to come
When IGT brass announced the original brand licensing agreement with Sony subsidiary Columbia Tri-Star Pictures to build a “Wheel” slot in August 1995, the slots maker knew exactly what it was doing.
IGT President David Hanlon told the Reno Gazette-Journal in a front-page story about the deal:
“The demographics of the television audience are identical to those of the typical slot player. This game has the same potential for the gaming industry that video poker had when it was introduced.”
The media and the casino world, however, fixated on something else. At that time, there was discussion of the idea that the game would give players a chance to win more if they could solve word puzzles, so much of the focus was on this idea of pushing the boundaries of what kind of skill-based elements could be introduced into the slot machine.
In that same RGJ article, IGT spokesman Rick Sorenson cautioned that such a plan was in flux, though, because of fears the computing power required would slow down or glitch the game.
Eventually, the first versions of the game were basically a three-wheel machine with all the typical, non-Wheel symbols on them but in which players could land on a bonus to make the wheel above spin for extra winnings. There was no video, no Pat or Vanna. I’m not even sure if they had the now-familiar “Wheel! Of! Fortune!” sound effects that nobody in any American casino nowadays can avoid hearing.
For reporters interested in technology and au courant pop culture, everything about this was stodgy. There’s more evidence in the clippings of enthusiasm when IGT later announced a year later its “Jeopardy!”-themed line of slots, probably because Alex Trebek’s show was always seen as the brainier, less corny of the two Sony game show hits.
Not a lot of excitement for the online Wheel of Fortune in 1996
Indeed, around the time that “Wheel” slots appeared, the media was much more excited about Casino Data Systems and its visionary chairman, Steven Weiss. As the RGJ’s John Stearns wrote about CDS, which later would be acquired by Aristocrat, during the 1996 International Gaming Business Expo:
“Innovation — through games that are more entertaining and mind-stimulating than watching wheels spin — was cited often last week as something players want and the industry needs.”
In a companion piece published that same day, Stearns quoted Weiss as being dismissive of IGT’s coming “Wheel of Fortune” machines:
When he sees IGT, he sees a company with “the same stuff that they’ve been offering for a decade — good, solid, proven equipment.” What he doesn’t see are games that will entice people to want to play them. “I don’t see the vision for what they’re going to do next,” Weiss said.
The Los Angeles Times, in a lengthy July 1996 piece on innovations in the slots business, used Weiss as the throughline and mentioned the new “Wheel” slots just once in passing.
Of course, in hindsight whatever Weiss was cooking up was nothing in contrast to the game-changing, industry-shifting debut of “Wheel” on casino floors.
Wheel of Fortune online slot game was an instant hit that sparked a revolution
The immediate and massive success of the “Wheel” slots was stunning. Part of it was its wide-area progressive jackpots, which built loyalty to the game and encouraged casinos to put as many of them on the floor as they could.
But mostly it was the endorsement — at first implicit but later quite explicit — from Pat and Vanna themselves that slot machines were as much innocent fun as watching them banter on their televised game of Hangman.
“Wheel” at the time was seen by more than 100 million viewers a week in 53 countries, a worldwide phenomenon powered as much by the puzzles as by the hokey, sweet-faced hosts who were beaming into living rooms from Hollywood but didn’t seem to be of Hollywood.
Casinos exploited the connections immediately. An ad for Casino Magic in Bossier City, Louisiana, in December 1997 in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram was typical, making a big deal of “Wheel” progressive winner Mary Armstrong’s good fortune. Similarly, the tourism bureau in Laughlin, Nevada, took out an ad in May 1997 in the Tucson Citizen touting:
Locally, “Wheel of Fortune” machines are located (in addition to the Flamingo) at the Ramada Express, Harrah’s, the Pioneer, the Colorado Belle and Gold River. The Edgewater and Golden Nugget have ordered the machines and expect to install them soon.”
Looking for the next Wheel of Fortune
As casinos began proliferating in more states around the nation, the hook of having “Wheel” was critical. The branding would be followed by lots of others — from “Sopranos” to “Sex and the City,” from “The Hangover” to “Monty Python” — but none would ever have the intimate relationship between America’s mass audience and its beloved hosts.
It all seems so obvious, so easy, so mundane now. But what Weiss and others didn’t understand in the 1990s was that none of that means it wasn’t clever, innovative or risky. As Boris Hallerbach, IGT’s director of product management for premium products told the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Rich Velotta in 2021:
“Getting an entertainment and television company to consider their content on slot machines was a little difficult. Sensitivity to how we represented the slot game and the experience was important, and we wanted to have some separation from the television show and the slot machine.”
Casinos, you see, didn’t need to be cutting-edge.
Just as we gays won our marriage and public opinion battles by showing everyone how typical, familiar and often boring our domestic lives are and advocates for legalized pot made strong arguments about the drug’s pain-relief qualities to people suffering from arthritis or cancer, gambling needed a shotgun marriage with some pure Americana to expand as it did.
It needed “Wheel” — and judging from the news, it still does.
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