The television impresario Merv Griffin would have turned 86 on July 6. Krishna Andavolu takes a look back at how deeply he transformed the business of television and entertainment. Originally published on Obit-Mag.com.
In 1950, Merv Griffin recorded the song “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts,” a jaunty, enjoyable march about the joys of simple possessions. Over the course of his 82 years, Merv Griffin accrued a lovely bunch of entertainment properties ranging from game shows and talk shows through his production company, radio stations, hotels, casinos, and more. He was worth well over a billion coconuts when he died on August 12, 2007, but he has been remembered more for his loveable antics as an entertainer than for his savvy business decisions that changed the way Americans watch television.
His most enduring contributions to date have been the game shows “Wheel of Fortune,” which has been running continuously since 1975, and “Jeopardy,” which ran initially for ten years starting in 1964 and continued in its current incarnation in 1984. These successes came after Griffin’s first attempt at hosting his own show failed.
In 1962 NBC gave Griffin, who had previously guest hosted and acted in movies, his own show. It flopped initially and was cancelled. After building his own production company’s reputation for innovation and ratings success, via his game shows, he developed a system by which he could eschew the traditional network-based distribution system and re-incarnated “The Merv Griffin Show.”
He syndicated the show for purchase by individual stations across the country, and it was a major success. The show also provided the paradigm for daytime talk shows ever since: Celebrities revealing their personalities, everyday people dealing with problems of life, and musical guests, the whole lot. Merv orchestrated the show majestically with his wide smile and gracious hosting.
Meanwhile, he deftly compiled numerous business endeavors, all centered around the media and entertainment industries. He developed a national system of off-track horserace betting, he built casinos and hotels, including a rehab of the Beverly Hills Hilton, and he bought radio stations.
His business operations were always clandestine projects. Griffin projected the manner of a carefree entertainer rather than a prodigious businessman. He was the son of a stockbroker and a housewife. He picked up the piano as a child and performed and weddings and parties. More than just establishing the paradigm for some sorts of television programming, Griffin carved some of the first grooves for entertainers turning into business moguls.
From this perspective, Hip hop artists like Jay-Z and Puff Daddy, men who were once only rappers but are now successful business owners in industries as far ranging as fashion and basketball, owe Griffin for the model of performing artist-turned-businessman. Mass media enabled this change. Can you imagine a star of Vaudeville move into business?
And as media continually changes, and businessmen act more like entertainers (think Donald Trump or Richard Branson), Merv Griffin’s prescient abilities as an innovator in a nascent medium seem even more astounding. Thanks to Griffin, there are many more coconuts to go around.