As Pat Sajak Steps Away From Wheel of Fortune, Has the Golden Age of the Game Show Come to an End?

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Phrases like "the end of an era" and "TV legend" might be tossed around a bit too often these days.

But in the case of Pat Sajak and the end of his 43-year run as host of Wheel of Fortune, such descriptions couldn't be more apt.

As you've likely heard by now, Sajak is retiring from the show that made him famous, and Ryan Seacrest will take over when Wheel returns for its 42nd season in September.

Pat Sajak on Wheel of Fortune

Seacrest is well-suited to the gig, and while he's got some very big shoes to fill, we're sure he's up to the task of introducing prize puzzles and selling vowels.

But it's unlikely that he'll ever be regarded as an indispensable weekday night staple, as Sajak was for so many decades.

There are many reasons for this, and only a few of them have to do with the respective charms and talents of the OG host and his Gen X predecessor.

There was a time when the evening news, Wheel, and Jeopardy -- the order varied depending on the market in which one lived -- were as much a part of American Tuesday nights as meatloaf and economic anxiety.

In most households, however, nightly gatherings around the living room television have gone the way of the landline phone.

Vanna White and Pat Sajak on Celebrity Wheel of Fortune

Streaming services have given us a wealth of entertainment options that would have been unfathomable to previous generations.

And smartphones, tablets, laptops, and generation-specific platforms such as TikTok have transformed home entertainment from a communal affair to a private one.

Related: Jeopardy & The Bachelor Have Become Springboards to Fame: Here's Why That's Bad For TV's Most Populist Genres

For several years, Wheel was the highest-rated syndicated show in the US, but it was dethroned by reruns of Two and a Half Men in 2010.

But the decline in ratings only tells part of the story.

Yes, fewer households are tuning in to nightly game shows, but another metric that's harder to track has likely plummeted at about the same rate -- namely, the number of people who are watching within those households.

Pat Sajak, Alex Trebek

The image of the American family gathered around the electronic hearth to shout answers at the screen is a quaintly outdated one these days.

Such gatherings must surely take place in 2024, but they're likely much fewer and farther between than they used to be.

That's why you still say, "I'll take Things That Didn't Happen for $400, Alex," when you're accusing a friend of exaggerating.

Will Ken Jennings ever take his rightful place in jokes based on Jeopardy's iconic quirks in phraseology?

Probably not, for many of the same reasons that Vanna White's eventual replacement is unlikely to ever achieve her predecessor's level of mainstream fame.

Pat, Vanna, Alex

(White has signed a contract extension that will keep her on the show at least through the 2025-2026 season. She's declined to comment on her plans beyond that but has suggested that Pat's daughter Maggie Sajak would make an ideal replacement.)

The popularity of reality competition shows suggests that Americans are still interested in watching their fellow citizens compete for cash.

But the monoculture that created so many shared touchstones and universally understood references has become a thing of the past.

Related: The Age of Nostalgia: Why Young Audiences Are Seeking Out Old TV

It might seem melodramatic to talk about the retirement of Pat Sajak in terms of broader societal trends and the tense climate of the American political landscape in this strangest of election years.

It's worth noting, however, that the loss of common cultural experiences does seem to have coincided with recent increases in distrust and hostility both online and in many brick-and-mortar communities.

Pat Sajak Wins an Emmy

We're not saying the world would necessarily be a better place if everyone forgot their problems and prejudices for an hour and watched a couple game shows with their loved ones.

But we are saying that this is a good time to reflect on the role that towering figures like Alex Trebek, Pat Sajak, and Vanna White have played in our lives -- and remind ourselves that these folks did much more than just remember contestants' names.

This nation might always be a puzzle, but for 43 years, Pat and Vanna showed us the value of temporary solutions.

What do you think, TV fanatics?

Is Seacrest a suitable replacement for the esteemed Mr. Sajak?

Hit the comments section below to share your thoughts and your favorite Wheel of Fortune memories.

Tyler Johnson is an Associate Editor for TV Fanatic and the other Mediavine O&O sites. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, cooking, and, of course, watching TV. You can Follow him on X and email him here at TV Fanatic.

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