A Brief History of Jeopardy!

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The long-running game show is adored by millions. But there was a time—and another time, and one more time—when questions swirled around its survival.

When he welcomed a reporter into his Southern California home, the 44-year-old Alex Trebek was on a roll. Trebek was an industry veteran. For years, he’d worked as a newscaster and sportscaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation while trying to kick-start his career as a TV personality. So far, nothing had stuck. But at the start of the 1984 TV season, he landed something promising—a job as the host of Jeopardy!

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Unfortunately, the program had a checkered history. Ratings had soared in the 1960s and early 1970s, but the show had also been canceled—twice. Now the high-paying trivia contest was being updated for a new generation. And as Trebek had quickly learned, Jeopardy!’s biggest hurdle was convincing station managers that a smart game show deserved premium air time. It was a hard argument to make. Programmers knew that established game shows like The Price Is Right and Family Feud could reliably draw a mass audience. But a show this cerebral was a gamble. In several major markets, including New York, Jeopardy! was relegated to a 2 a.m. time slot, a ratings wasteland. Trebek and the producers were pressured to dumb down the program and make the clues easier so viewers wouldn’t feel left out. Still, he remained optimistic.

As he and the reporter chatted, Trebek suavely flipped on his TV. At the time, Los Angeles was an outlier, airing the show at the decent hour of 3 p.m. But instead of seeing himself trot out to greet the audience, Trebek saw Jack Klugman. The local affiliate had replaced Jeopardy! with reruns of Quincy, M.E. “The fact that Quincy was a coroner seemed appropriate,” Trebek would later write. His optimism instantly disappeared.

What a difference three decades make. Trebek no longer worries about job security. But before viewers grew accustomed to shouting answers at the screen, its host and crew had to resolve one nagging question: Was Jeopardy! too smart for its own good?

Creating Jeopardy!

In the early days of TV, game shows were a network’s secret weapons. The programs were cheap to produce, with no highly paid actors, and they attracted rabid fan bases—everyday people who could identify with the ecstasy that came from winning a new oven. According to Olaf Hoerschelmann, Ph.D., director of the school of mass communication at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, “One successful quiz show could get a 50 percent ratings share or more—half of all households watching.”

At the height of the genre’s popularity in the 1950s, Twenty-One and The $64,000 Question became national obsessions. City streets, Hoerschelmann says, were quiet when they aired. But with ratings and revenue at stake, producers became hungry for melodrama, so they manufactured suspense by feeding answers to contestants. It was all fun and games until 1956, when one contestant blew the whistle, and Congress stepped in to investigate.

Having broken the audience’s trust—and inviting a federal law that prohibited the fixing of game shows—the genre all but disappeared. This didn’t sit well with Merv Griffin, a television host, producer, and game show developer for NBC. On a flight to New York in 1963, Griffin was discussing his worry with his wife, Julann: How could he convince a network to take another chance on trivia?

“Why not just give them the answers to start with?” Julann mused.

She was joking, but Griffin’s eyes lit up. Back in his office, he outlined a template: 10 subject categories, each containing 10 answers of varying difficulty, with a dollar value assigned to each. Griffin invited friends over to his Central Park West apartment for run-throughs. Although he wasn’t the first to use the inverted answer format—1941’s CBS Television Quiz had a similar premise—Griffin was sure he could create something special. He called his show What’s the Question? and presented it to NBC executives.

The network was intrigued, but skittish. To convince the execs, Griffin reminded them that, unlike in decades past, there was little money at stake. Instead of tens of thousands of dollars in prize money, some clues were worth just $10. Before long, he got the green light.

As Griffin refined the format, the network wanted to ensure that the show was compelling enough. What the game needed, one executive suggested, was “more jeopardies.” “I didn’t hear another word he said,” Griffin later wrote. “All I could think of was the name: Goodbye What’s the Question?, hello Jeopardy!” After months of tinkering, he presented his show for final approval.

The game was streamlined into six categories. The rounds moved from Jeopardy, to Double Jeopardy, with harder questions worth more cash. In NBC’s boardroom, Griffin pasted envelopes onto poster board and filled them with index cards revealing the answers. He emceed the run-through himself.

“It’s too hard!” Mort Werner, the head of NBC, cried, throwing up his arms in frustration. He hadn’t gotten one question right. Werner’s assistant leaned over to him and said, “Buy it.” 

Soon enough, Griffin had ironed out the details. Art Fleming, a game show novice, was selected to host, and for background music, Griffin composed a rather suspenseful tune. But the real proof of concept was the ratings, and Jeopardy! found itself in an unlucky spot, pitted against The Dick Van Dyke Show. Jeopardy! made its debut at 11:30 a.m. EST on March 20, 1964, and it was an almost instant hit. Within weeks, it had grabbed 40 percent of the viewers in its time slot. People were playing along on college campuses and during lunch breaks. Despite its success, NBC felt less demanding clues would reap greater rewards: They wanted 13-year-olds to be able to keep up. Griffin refused. He wanted the program to stay smart. This was a competition between adults, and he saw little sense in diluting a game meant to highlight intellect.

“Griffin’s genius in designing games was, if you’re changing channels and hit one, you don’t need anything explained to you,” says Bob Harris, a multi-time contestant and strategy expert who penned a memoir about his experiences, Prisoner of Trebekistan. “The shows that have failed spend half their time explaining what’s happening.” Griffin’s instincts were spot-on. Between 1964 and 1975, Jeopardy! taped more than 2,500 episodes. The show regularly beat reruns and soap operas.

Then, in 1975, the network abruptly pulled the plug. Despite solid ratings, NBC wanted to appeal to a younger, female demographic. The show was reinstated in 1978, then canceled again less than six months into its run. Daytime soaps had come to dominate afternoon time slots. Worse, network research indicated that viewers weren’t interested in another incarnation of Jeopardy! The show was at risk of becoming a footnote in Griffin’s career.

Jeopardy! in Jeopardy

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In 1983, Griffin met with executives at King World Productions about doing a syndicated version of Jeopardy! Though the show had fizzled, Griffin’s career had not. Wheel of Fortune—a game that had grown out of his childhood passion for Hangman—had become a monster hit by the fall of 1983. Griffin had other successes too, including Click and Ruckus. But for all his hits, Griffin couldn’t let go of Jeopardy! He still believed his quiz show had legs. Luckily, King World execs agreed, and they had reason for their optimism: The board game Trivial Pursuit, which had debuted in 1981, had grown into a phenomenon, proving consumers had a healthy appetite for trivia. Additionally, they knew if they paired Jeopardy! with Wheel, it would be easier to sell networks on the programming block.

As Griffin envisioned updating his show for the 1980s, a decade blinking wildly with VCRs, video games, and MTV, Griffin dreamed up a glossier, flashier show—one with a hightech game board made up of video monitors instead of paper cards. Decades removed from the quiz scandals, he also wanted higher monetary stakes, with individual clues worth up to $2000. The original theme song would be rerecorded with synthesizers.

Fleming was the revamp’s earliest casualty. King World suggested that Griffin hire the younger, more polished Trebek to helm the faster-moving game show. “He’s like a pilot for the show,” Harris says. “He knows how to keep the tone right and when to lighten it up.”

Trebek’s charms notwithstanding, King World executives parroted the same concerns as their predecessors, advising Griffin to dumb down the questions. Again, Griffin refused. But this time, he had an ally in Trebek.

“We were getting feedback saying, ‘It’s too tough,’ ” Trebek recalled later in an interview. “I told them, ‘Well, I’ll ease up on the material.’ And I didn’t ease up.”

Rather than placate the syndicate, Griffin and Trebek raised the intensity of the game. Runners-up would no longer be allowed to keep their winnings. The original show proved that players sometimes wanted just enough to make a specific purchase and would stop buzzing in once they met their goal. (One contestant needed money for an engagement ring and stood silent as soon as he earned enough.) Now, players would be tempted to wager on Final Jeopardy, ensuring the entire game would remain suspenseful.

When Jeopardy! reappeared in the fall of 1984, the makeover wasn’t noticed by many. The show, perceived as a warmed-over relic of the 1970s, was stuck in deadend time slots. Then, shortly after its debut, New York’s ABC station tried it out in the early evening. Ratings immediately improved. Other affiliates noticed and followed suit. While Jeopardy! was still a poor fit for daytime, its pace proved perfectly suited for evening airings.

Trebek suggested viewers could be drawn in better if they felt more like participants. In its earlier iterations, contestants could ring in before the host finished giving the answer, which made for a frenzied game. By 1985, the show prevented players from hitting the buzzer until Trebek finished reading so the home audience could shout out answers too. As they tweaked the formula, King World and Griffin realized they’d struck gold. The faster pace, the syndicate’s patience, and Trebek’s tailor-made emcee skills all turned Jeopardy! into a permanent and profitable fixture on the dial.

Five years later, Jeopardy! was being watched by more than 15 million people daily, and 250,000 applicants applied each season for one of the show’s 500 available slots. As the show went on, its rituals—the pervasive theme music, phrasing answers in the form of a question—became cultural touchstones.

A last significant tweak was the removal of the five-game limit for returning champions. With that ceiling removed, Ken Jennings famously went on an unprecedented 74-show winning streak in 2004, garnering headlines across the country and further embedding the show in the cultural consciousness. Jennings’s celebrity, Hoerschelmann says, meant that the quiz show genre had come full circle. “It was no accident the show got more popular once it lifted the limit,” he says.

The current 2013–14 season is Jeopardy!’s 30th in syndication. Pulling in an average of 25 million viewers a week, it shows no signs of slowing—though Trebek has hinted he’ll step down in 2016. While producers will face a challenge finding a successor, it would seem a sure bet that Jeopardy! will continue to celebrate a brand of cognitive aptitude rarely found on television. In the smartphone era, when information is instantly accessible, it’s more impressive than ever to watch someone conjure answers without Wi-Fi.

Jeopardy! is a very classic hero’s journey,” Harris, the former player, says of the show’s enduring appeal. “The contestant is achieving goals with escalating stakes and obstacles. There’s even a three-act structure. The only difference between this and what Joseph Campbell laid out is there are three heroes.” Four, if you count the viewer at home, a pen standing in for a buzzer, realizing they know a lot more than they thought they did.


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March 26, 2014 - 12:00pm
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