By Todd Leopold
It's an enduring game show that engenders affection while challenging even the most erudite among us.
What is "Jeopardy!"?
Yes, for 50 years the famed answer-and-question show has maintained a steady popularity, through an 11-year network run, a short-lived reboot and, finally, a syndicated version with Alex Trebek that debuted in 1984.
It's an unlikely success story.
At the time "Jeopardy!" premiered on NBC on March 30, 1964 -- "History" was the first category introduced on the game board -- trivia-style game shows had been off the air for half a decade, a victim of the quiz-show scandals. The first host, Art Fleming, was an actor who'd never done a quiz show in his life. CBS dominated daytime with a combination of soap operas and sitcom reruns. And yet the first "Jeopardy!" lasted more than 10 years.
Years later, when the syndicated show debuted in 1984, it faced equally long odds. A second Fleming version had failed. Trebek was best known for hosting a string of ratings losers such as "The Wizard of Odds" and "Battlestars." Moreover, the show was initially given absurd time slots and pulled from many stations.
But here we are, 30 years later, and "Jeopardy!" is still one of the highest-rated syndicated programs, with runs such as Arthur Chu's recent winning streak keeping it in the news. (Disclosure: I was a contestant in 1988, though not nearly as successful as Chu.)
What's the answer to its success?
"It's still the best mental exercise on television," says game-show authority Steve Beverly, a professor at Union University in Tennessee. "It has one of the greatest play-along capacities. And if you're sitting at home, and you're good on respective categories, it gives you as a viewer the ability to sit there and say, 'You idiot!' when a contestant misses the question."
A model quiz show
The best game shows, says Beverly, are the simplest -- and the easiest to play along with at home. "Million Second Quiz," NBC's recent foray into a prime-time quiz, was a flop not least because nobody understood the rules. (We'll leave the host out of it.)
Carrie Grosvenor, game shows expert for About.com, agrees.
"I can't think of any other trivia-based show that has the same longevity, and I think it's because of the lack of gimmicks," she says. "You could have watched it 30 years ago, and you watch it today and you can jump right in."
"Jeopardy!" itself struggled in a late-'70s go-round because a couple of unnecessary wrinkles were added.
That version was one of the rare missteps in the history of the program. More often, thanks to its quick pace and clever questions, "Jeopardy!" has been regarded as a model of the quiz-show format. Only the old "G.E. College Bowl" is held in such high esteem among trivia players.
Certainly, the show has become part of the pop cultural fabric. The catchphrase "The answer is ..." comes from the game, as does Trebek's sympathetic "Sorry" (best said with a Canadian accent). The "Final Jeopardy!" music is as well established for contemplation as "Happy Birthday" is for celebrations.
Sitcoms have parodied it, celebrities have appeared on it, and a supercomputer used it to establish its superiority over humans (including 74-game champion and celebrity puzzlemaster Ken Jennings).
It's even been tangential to a least one movie star's life. In 1968, Hutton Gibson -- Mel's father -- won more than $5,000 on the show. The money probably came in handy: Gibson soon moved his family to Ireland and later to Australia.
Treating the game with respect
Beverly doesn't think any show will ever match it. Networks now want their game shows to run an hour, he says, but most play better at 30 minutes. Also, the last trivia-question game show to have an impact was "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" more than a decade ago. Even with its success in syndication, it's still no "Jeopardy!"
Perhaps a more interesting question is who could succeed Trebek, who's now hosted for almost three times as long as Fleming (a man whose name has probably become a trivia question itself).
The venerable emcee is now 73, and though "Jeopardy!" remains in the Top Five among syndicated shows -- right behind longtime stablemate "Wheel of Fortune" -- its average viewer is 64 years old. A younger host might be able to pull younger viewers, who are increasingly distracted with other games -- on their cell phones. (In the NBC version's heyday, "Jeopardy!" was a favorite of college students, who flocked to its noon ET time slot.)
CNN's Anderson Cooper has been suggested; so has the "Today" show's Matt Lauer. Both Beverly and Grosvenor are fond of Pat Kiernan, a Canadian like Trebek, who's hosted several game shows while also serving as an anchor for the New York news station NY1.
Whoever it is, says Beverly, has big shoes to fill.
Trebek, he points out, does the subtle things very well: He not only asks the answers and questions, but he keeps the game moving, takes an interest in the contestants and shows a sly sense of humor.
"It's got to be somebody who the viewer feels like treats the game with respect, and isn't trying to make it something that it isn't," he says.
After 50 years, can anyone question that?
She contributed the excellent lead sentence of this story. Who is Lisa France?
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