Games People Play

Produced by the same company, Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune are two of the longest-running hits on TV. The challenge for its directors—Kevin McCarthy and Mark Corwin—is keeping it fresh and entertaining.


"She's a jumper!" exclaims director Kevin McCarthy signaling to associate director John Pritchett that the contestant is moving from the $200 to the $800 clue rather than progressing in order of difficulty down the Jeopardy! board.

Sitting in the control room overlooking a wall of monitors that captures all the action onstage from multiple angles, McCarthy calls the camera shots and alerts his team, making sure they hear the clues and convey accurate information to the producer backstage who controls the game board. "This takes us out of our comfort zone," he says of the contestant's bold move. "We have to concentrate because we don't know what's coming."

Game Time: (Above) Stage Manager John Lauderdale (on set, stage right) on the set of Wheel
  of Fortune. (Top) Frontman Alex Trebek and (right) director Kevin McCarthy get ready for a show.

It is an unexpected digression from the standard routine of directing a 22-minute episode of television's No. 1 daytime quiz show, but McCarthy and his team handle the blip swiftly and decisively. It's not surprising. After all, Jeopardy! is in its 28th season, 19 of which have been made under McCarthy's direction. One of television's most enduring shows, with an average of 9 million viewers daily, the shooting schedule is fast paced and intense: 46 days a year, six shows a day on two days every other week. "The show flies like the wind," says executive producer Harry Friedman, who also executive produces Wheel of Fortune, which, like its sibling Jeopardy!, was the creation of the late Merv Griffin and falls under the aegis of Sony Pictures Television. "Kevin has to be super alert, and he is. He's a great fit as director because he's high energy and loves to be involved. He plays along as the show is being taped and his energy helps keep the show moving."

As director, McCarthy leads a tight-knit team of production veterans, many of whom have worked with him for decades. They understand what it takes to make a good show and operate, to use the old cliché, like a well-oiled machine. Technical director Bob Ennis sits in the booth alongside McCarthy and carries out the director's instructions for the five cameras situated on the floor. Stage manager John Lauderdale, who is also on the floor, moves between Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. "He's my communication onto the floor," says McCarthy. "He's also the liaison between me and Alex [Trebek]." A day of shooting Jeopardy! begins at 9:30 a.m. and wraps by 4:30 p.m. Trebek engages in small talk with contestants, a team of six researchers and 10 writers stand by ready to address any fact in question, and producers and technical crew perfectly carry out their tasks as McCarthy lets the game play. Sometimes, concedes McCarthy, the challenge is churning out consecutively flawless shows while not falling into the trap of lethargy.

In terms of the camera setup, McCarthy keeps two focused on the contestants: one is a three-shot while the other captures close-ups and what's happening on the podium. He keeps one camera focused on the middle contestant at all times so that when a question is ready, he can tell the camera operator to shift to the right or left depending on who is answering. Another camera is aimed at the game board so that if a contestant jumps categories, McCarthy can get a wide shot. And of course there is always a camera on Trebek. McCarthy has an additional camera on hand to pick up any unanticipated action that may arise and to go in and out of commercial breaks. Finally, a handheld camera captures interviews and reaction, audience shots, and anything else interesting that happens outside the range of the other cameras.

"The main thing is to not phone it in because sometimes crazy things can happen and you can't say, 'been there, done that,'" he says. "If you do, the show looks like no one cares. It's not rocket science, but it's following the action as closely as you can. We want the audience to feel an affinity for the players. That's why they keep watching. It's not about directing and having crazy angles and millions of cuts, but staying with the game."

A week later, in the same seat in the same control room on the Sony Pictures Television lot, Mark Corwin is directing six episodes of Wheel of Fortune in one day. The counterpart to Jeopardy!, it is a "game" show as opposed to a "quiz" show, but both shared Daytime Emmys this year for Outstanding Game/Audience Participation Show (and their respective hosts Trebek and Pat Sajak took home Lifetime Achievement Awards). Sitting next to associate director Robert Cisneros, who is a 22-year veteran on Wheel, Corwin shoots episodes on a schedule that is almost identical to McCarthy's.

"What makes both Mark and Kevin good is that they make it look easy, seamless, in and out," says Friedman, who has been executive producer of both shows since 1999 and is the man who lifted Jeopardy!'s five-day limit rule for contestants paving the way for the memorable 74-day run and record $2.5 million win of Utah software engineer Ken Jennings. "They came up through the ranks and learned their craft by watching and working with some of the best people in the business."

"I had the benefit of great mentors and tutors," agrees Corwin, who began his career as a stage manager and worked his way up to associate director at NBC on a variety of network shows before he was picked to step in and help then-Wheel director Dick Carson in the early 1980s. "I didn't have technical or educational training per se but came up through the ranks."

The experience of both directors is evident in how smoothly the shows run. But though they may appear ​seamless, the shows don't run themselves and both require a high degree of professionalism and expertise, balancing the action of the contestants and hosts onstage with an understanding that the audience at home wants to play along with the game. That means having the cameras in precisely the right place at the right time or risk disappointing viewers.

"The reaction of contestants is important because that's their moment of fame, and we all share in that," explains Corwin. "It's having the camera on the contestants for that great reaction, on Pat for his funny look, and developing a sense of timing with your hosts. After all these years, I can tell what Pat's going to say and I'm usually right there with him."

Clockwork: (Above left) Mark Corwin from his booth for Wheel of Fortune; (above right);
Technical director Bob Ennis on Jeopardy!; (below left) 19 seasons of Jeopardy! have been under
Kevin McCathy's direction; (below right) Associate director Robert Cisneros is a 22-year veteran. 

As Corwin points out, his job is to assign each camera operator the shots he wants to see. "I'm calling hundreds of shots during the course of a show, and there is a repetitive nature to it," he admits. "I have 60 monitors on the wall in front of me and at any given time I'm looking at seven diligently and five others almost all the time, so I'm constantly scanning 12 monitors for activity. It's easy to get lulled into a sense that things are automated, but they're not."

Although Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune have a common lineage and share much of the same crew, their preproduction and postproduction processes are not the same. "Wheel is considerably different than Jeopardy!," says Corwin, who meets with the producing team to collaboratively decide what that week of shows will look like. "Jeopardy! has questions. We have multiple playbacks, Vanna [White] on locations, and special thematic things that have to be constructed, such as full-screen graphics."

As preproduction is more elaborate for Wheel, Corwin oversees a number of moving parts and convenes meetings with producers and graphics artists in advance of shooting. Each week Wheel has a theme, which necessitates the conceptualization and implementation of elaborate stages and backdrops. White has been the "letter turner" on the show for a mind-boggling 29 years, and doesn't look a day older. She goes out on numerous "locationers" to do promotional shots that are edited and inserted into the show during preproduction. These are used on current shows or archived for future use. "We try to maintain an evergreen philosophy in shooting, and this footage is often good for six years," says Corwin.

In postproduction, Corwin edits a week's worth of programs in 2½ days, then hands them over to Cisneros who inserts graphics, disclaimers, and closed captioning. Oftentimes, the corrections are minor and easily fixed. During "Cruise Week," for example, White did a promo aboard a ship on the Chicago River, but calypso island music was playing in the background. So that had to be replaced by the sounds of the harbor to capture the environment and put viewers in the mood.

Preproduction for Jeopardy! is relatively simple, consisting mostly of inserting video clues into the show, while postproduction is more complicated and takes longer.

McCarthy says he typically edits seven shows during an eight-hour session. This usually includes correcting minor typos in onscreen text or clarifying a word here or there that may not be audible. "We may need to work on a clue where Alex hesitated and add or change a word. We fix it with voiceover," says McCarthy. "Sometimes we're running a little long and have to make sure all the right questions get in so we have to take something out of an interview or pull up some words if there's dead air."

For all its predictability, however, both McCarthy and Corwin say directing their respective shows is like doing live television, and there are always surprises. This season, for example, in a clever twist on the part of Friedman, IBM's "Watson" computer defeated the top two Jeopardy! champions of all time during a practice round showcasing the future of artificial intelligence—and the limitations of even the smartest humans. From the perspective of McCarthy and his team that meant everything had to be done differently. For instance, he focused three cameras instead of the usual two on contestants so that one camera could be on the computer at all times. A brand new set was constructed at IBM where the show was filmed. "Their auditorium was much smaller than any venue so everything had to be scaled down, even the game board, and it was very confined," ays McCarthy, "and in a lot of ways more difficult."

In the end it was worth it. It turned out to be one of Jeopardy!'s highest rated shows. "All of a sudden people were discovering us again," McCarthy says proudly. That feeling is especially enhanced when the shows go out on the road with their crew for location shoots, which they do several times a year. Corwin, for instance, will lead the team to Portland, Oregon, for four weeks of shooting, scheduled to air in May. So if shooting in the studio of 150 spectators feels a tad tame, large venues with 3,000 people infuse Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune with a rock star energy that the directors find invigorating. McCarthy says directing Jeopardy! in front of an audience of 2,500 at Radio City Music Hall in New York is nothing short of thrilling. He employed 12 cameras instead of the standard six so he could capture the game onstage and the energy of a full house.

"With thousands of people it's a different game," McCarthy says. "In the studio you don't get that connection. Radio City was so large I tried to capture it for the viewers at home. There is still the game board, the contestants, and Alex, but we want angles where we can show the size of the arena."

And during the Jeopardy! College Championship tournament, which is shot on campuses around the country, thousands of students come out to root for their team. All of the location productions present a welcome challenge for McCarthy where he adjusts the camerawork and makes the audience a bigger part of the show.

"I love going on the road," says McCarthy. "We look at the ratings and know we're No. 2 among syndicated shows. But then you go to New York and see lines around the block, and we have two or three seatings of people. It reminds us, 'Hey, we're a hit.' It's great to see and feel, instead of always coming to the Sony lot, doing six shows and leaving."

Over the years McCarthy's and Corwin's job has been made somewhat easier by technological advances, such as improvements in lighting and computerized editing that offers flexibility in the order in which the show is shot. And Friedman tries to keep both programs relevant by adding new gimmicks and themes, changing rules, and making sure the shows are fresh enough to attract new viewers. Sometimes that means having a celebrity host or guest. As McCarthy points out, a celebrity guest can enliven a game unexpectedly. When Regis Philbin appeared on Jeopardy!, he did a shtick about not being able to ring his buzzer and comically walked away from the podium.

"All of a sudden we had a mini-comedy happening on stage," recalls McCarthy. "It was spontaneous, and we had to go wide with the camera rather than a close-up. It was completely opposite from what we had been doing and we adjusted."

From years of directing their respective shows, McCarthy and Corwin concur that their ultimate end game is to keep the audience at home engaged and coming back. "Wheel has a comfort level that viewers experience, like having a friend in the room," says Corwin. "We never take that for granted. As much as we may be in love with set elements and the beauty of what the art directors do, we have to also respect the idea that someone at home wants to play the game."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

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