THE Romans had gladiators to help them forget the troubles of empire. We have television game shows. An overwhelming case in point: ``The Wheel of Fortune,'' watched by 40 million Americans daily.
How would a viewer describe ``The Wheel of Fortune'' to the proverbial man from Mars, who, judging from the ratings, would be the last living being in the universe not to have seen the show?
You could start with Pat Sajak, formerly a TV weatherman, who has adapted smoothly to the intricacies of his second trade. He knows how to say a flawless ``Howdy!'' when he meets a contestant. Still better, he wears a look that says, ``A-a-aw! I am sorry'' when a contestant flubs up. Even his pocket handkerchief seems to develop a sympathetic droop. If he is ever bored, he masks it amiably -- the last of the carnival barkers, telling the rubes to step right up, folks.
Pat interviews the contestants, very briefly. The pattern goes something like this:
Pat: What hobbies do you have?
Contestant: I love tennis. I love to cook. I love theater.
Pat: Sounds like you love life.
Contestant: I do.
Pat's assistant, Vanna White, boasts a smile that makes Farrah Fawcett look positively sullen. She is the perennial female stage assistant -- sawed in half by generations of magicians, abused as straightwoman by sexist comedians, the fetcher of props: everybody's ``gofer'' from time immemorial.
Now and then Pat spins the wheel of fortune that determines the amount of the prize. Vanna has the harder job. She turns over the letters correctly guessed by contestants until words appear. She does it with flair, as if listening to an inner drumroll. Vanna deserves Pat's job. She'll never get it.
Aside from Vanna, everybody's a winner. The show is orchestrated to cheers. After ooh-ing and ah-ing on cue -- a regular Greek chorus of suspense -- the audience treats the successful solution of the phrase ``You've got to see it to believe it'' like the end of World War II. When they win, contestants even clap for themselves.
The only serious moment -- and a solemn moment it is -- occurs when a winner must choose between, say, a VCR or a camera, between diamond and ruby earrings (plus a Mexican vacation) or a camper.
A holy hush descends.
Pat plays it for all it's worth, like a pause in a revival meeting.
Then it's hallelujah! and ho-ho! time again.
The detailing of this most successful, and most elementary, of game shows might be an instance of trivia-on-trivia if it were not for the consequences -- what gets displaced by the spinning wheel.
No need to pretend that the great-grandparents of those who gather around their electronic hearth for ``The Wheel of Fortune'' were gathering around a real hearth and reading Dickens aloud. Perhaps they were, and perhaps they weren't.
What is verifiable is the way ``The Wheel of Fortune'' has been wiping out its betters among the present-day competition -- especially news broadcasting.
Of the 163 stations that carry ``The Wheel of Fortune,'' all but one are network affiliates, and most of them run the program just before, during, or after the prime-time evening news. Depending on the affiliate, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, or Peter Jennings is getting clobbered. Or perhaps a local news program is sent spinning.
In Chicago, the ABC affiliate bought ``The Wheel'' and the CBS affiliate found its local news program no match. When declining ratings cost the general manager his job, he was quoted in the New York Times as saying: ``You try to do everything right journalistically, and you succeed to a large extent, and then the most successful game show in the history of the land comes along and cuts your head off.''
Spoken like an unread Roman historian, passing the Colosseum and hearing the lions roar. And unread Roman historians didn't have to depend on advertising revenue!
This is the sobering quote that drove a couple of us to watch ``The Wheel of Fortune'' out of self-interest. Bad news if you're in the news business! Up against all that happy hoopla, a journalist must feel as if he's trying to lure a child from cotton candy with a bowl of boiled asparagus.
How can you fight a game show? All those goodies being given away to instant winners in 30 minutes or less! It's the American Dream, packaged in pink plastic.
Who wants to hear about terrorism and taxes and nuclear reactors running amok, even from charmers like Dan and Tom and Peter?
This truly spinning world is quite beyond us anyway, right? Leave it to the computers!
Well, it's not that drastic, even though watching ``The Wheel of Fortune'' has the effect of making you think the whole country has closed shop and gone Bingo. As they say, ``You've got to see it to believe it.''
A Wednesday and Friday column