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Entertainment Mogul Merv Griffin Dies at 82

August 13, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: From his days in front of the camera interviewing an array of personalities…

MERV GRIFFIN, Television Entertainer: You look terrific.

TV GUEST: I feel marvelous.

JEFFREY BROWN: … to his production work behind the scenes as the creator of wildly profitable game shows…

ANNOUNCER: This is “Jeopardy!”

JEFFREY BROWN: … Merv Griffin was a television entertainer and innovator whose work on the small screen still resonates today. Griffin was born near San Francisco in 1925. He began in show business as a singer and had one big hit.

MERV GRIFFIN (singing): I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts…

JEFFREY BROWN: He then moved on to launch and host a daytime talk show that would run in various incarnations for more than 20 years. Before Oprah, there was Merv. He interviewed some 25,000 guests over 5,500 shows. Presidential candidate Richard Nixon appeared in 1967.

MERV GRIFFIN: You have that stigma because of losing two big contests.

RICHARD NIXON, Former President of the United States: The way you combat it is to win something.

JEFFREY BROWN: On another occasion, Griffin fawned over Sophia Loren.

MERV GRIFFIN: You’re a beautiful woman.

JEFFREY BROWN: And he hosted Orson Welles in 1985 in what would be the actor and director’s last interview.

MERV GRIFFIN: You celebrated a big birthday, didn’t you?

ORSON WELLES, Director: I didn’t celebrate it. I just had it.

JEFFREY BROWN: But perhaps Griffin’s greatest success came as a businessman in the entertainment field.

ALEX TREBEK, Host, “Jeopardy!”: Judy?

CONTESTANT: What are small fry?


JEFFREY BROWN: He created “Jeopardy!” and wrote its famous theme music. Griffin estimated that the little ditty alone had earned him up to $80 million in royalties. And his “Wheel of Fortune” is now the longest continuously running game show in history, on the air since 1975.

CONTESTANT: I’m going to solve, Pat.

PAT SAJAK, Host, “Wheel of Fortune”: You are? Go ahead.

Remembering Griffin

JEFFREY BROWN: In 1986, Griffin ended his talk show and sold his production company to the Coca-Cola Company for $250 million. He moved into real estate, focusing his efforts on the gambling and hotel businesses.

When he died of prostate cancer yesterday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, his fortune was estimated at more than $1 billion. Merv Griffin was 82 years old.

And for more on Merv, I'm joined by David Zurawik, television critic for the Baltimore Sun.

Well, David, let's start with the more familiar side of Merv Griffin, the man in front of the camera. He was, as we said, a singer and actor, but found his real niche as talk show host. Tell us about that.

DAVID ZURAWIK, Television Critic, Baltimore Sun: Well, you know, in just his career as a performer, the first thing about it is the longevity. He started in 1946 on radio, in 1945 on radio, and he went off the air as a talk show host in 1986. So you've got 41 years of performing.

And I think one of the most interesting parts of that is that his biography, his life history as a performer, is a microcosm of the history of American commercial television to a large extent. When I was researching the piece, that was what struck me most about it.

He arrived at network television in 1954, and that was really the year most broadcast historians agree that network television as we knew it in the '60s, '70s and '80s started to form as a business under Bill Paley and David Sarnoff and then Leonard Goldenson.

He started small. He started Sunday mornings on CBS a religious show called "Look Up and Live." But he was quickly the singer on their weekday CBS morning show, and that led to game shows and then ultimately to the talk show.

I think, in terms of measuring his career as a talk show host, you know, when someone of this stature dies, the tendency is to overstate the case. I think what we need to do is look at the years 1969 to 1972, when CBS gave him a late-night talk show host and put him up against Johnny Carson.

A lot of the obituary appreciations today made it sound like, "Well, and then he ran up against Johnny Carson, and as we know everybody got beat by Johnny Carson, so that's not a failure." But it was a failure, because if you really go back and look at the shows and look at those numbers, he not just finished second to Carson, he also finished behind Dick Cavett.

Johnny Carson had the entertainment program of that era. Let's not talk politics; let's just have fun. Dick Cavett had the culturally significant, politically charged show of the era, and even he beat Merv Griffin in the ratings.

But here's the thing about Merv Griffin. From the earliest days, he understood the business of television like almost no one else did. And you could actually take it back to radio. When he became a singer on a San Francisco sketch song show in 1945 -- it was called "San Francisco Sketch Song Show" -- but within a couple of months, it was called "The Merv Griffin Show."

Profiting from syndication

JEFFREY BROWN: But tell us briefly, I mean, the business model that he went to after competing against Carson was syndication, which also plays a big role in the history of television. Briefly, just tell us how that worked for him. How did he do that?

DAVID ZURAWIK: Well, that was the real genius -- that's how he got rich. Syndication, as you know, if you sign with a network, the network or production company makes your shows, and it's automatically distributed to all the affiliates. In syndication, you essentially build your own network a city or a station at a time. You sell yourself. People who do it in syndication own a big part of the show.

Now, in terms of syndication, Mike Douglas was there before him with Group W, I think in 1962. He came along, I think in 1964, and he and Mike Douglas were a powerhouse tandem for Group W, which was the Westinghouse stations on the East Coast, one of the earliest broadcasting giants.

And that's the model that Oprah Winfrey, as you guys said in your set-up piece -- without Merv, there wasn't Oprah -- that's true, in the sense that's really his accomplishment. He understood syndication before anyone really, except Mike Douglas. Let's be fair to Douglas here.

Griffin's entrepreneurial legacy

JEFFREY BROWN: And we just a minute, David, but Merv Griffin the entrepreneur, the game shows, really, that's the legacy that is still around. What explains the staying power of those programs?

DAVID ZURAWIK: Well, you know, he described himself as a puzzle freak, a self-described puzzle freak. And his game shows -- I mean, first of all, you have to come up with the question, not the answer. That's pretty clever in its own right.

But he also valued words. That game show is a game show that smart people can watch and not feel embarrassed about liking. You know, most of the graduate students in America I think spend more time sometimes watching "Jeopardy!" and trying to get on "Jeopardy!" than they do with their dissertations. I'm overstating the case.

But that's a show that intellectuals really love, and it's a show that all of us can take genuine pleasure from and not be embarrassed about it. You know, that show started in 1964. It was off for a while, and "Wheel of Fortune," his other creation, is thus the longest running show on television, but "Jeopardy!" is really the thing. I guarantee you, historically, "Jeopardy!" is what Merv Griffin is going to be remembered for.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun, thanks very much.