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Winning and Losing on Jeopardy

I lost on Jeopardy, baby, but after winning twice. After a lifelong interest in all things trivial, I took the screening test for the long-running TV show in 2011, was called to an in-person audition that August, and then was tapped to tape shows in August 2012 that aired in October. (I wrote up a more complete behind-the-scenes tale for BoingBoing and my strategy for studying at The Economist. I also talked about the show on The Incomparable podcast.)

It is a fascinating thing to be sucked into a mainstream cultural phenomenon, but it also tells you something about what “broadcast” television has become. When I alerted folks a few days before my first appearance, the outcome of which I kept secret, that I would be on Jeopardy, the near-universal response among most of my friends and colleagues was, “I used to watch that show all the time!” It turns out that, like my household, many people I know have cut the cable and satellite TV “cord,” and either don’t live in broadcast range or never considered installing an indoor or outdoor ATSC antenna for digital television broadcasts.

Jeopardy is a syndicated program carried by hundreds of American television stations; it used to have a worldwide reach, but in recent years that has contracted back to our shores. In syndication, the show sells advertising and sponsorships that appear nationally as part of the program, and local stations in turn sell advertisements as well. Stations pay Sony Pictures Television, the production company, to air the show in their local market.

Jeopardy isn’t streamed, sold as digital downloads, or made available on DVD or Blu-ray except for a handful of episodes from several years ago in a small collection. It’s a strange phenomenon in the Internet era to have a program that not only must be watched via a broadcast station, but can never be viewed again once it’s aired unless it’s re-run. A few clips are on YouTube — including the last few minutes of my first win — but the company clearly monitors the Internet carefully, as I have found it impossible to find complete episodes anywhere. (Jeopardy reruns are fairly popular. In some markets, a station may show two reruns each day plus a new episode. In others, such as Seattle, new episodes air on weeknights and a rerun appears on Saturdays.)

As a result, I had a huge cheering squad on Twitter and Facebook, but only a subset of those people could watch any of the episodes. I threw a viewing party and invited quite a few local friends and family, partly so they’d get to see my first episode on Thursday, 18 October 2012. (My shows were aired Thursday, Friday, and Monday. The program tapes five shows a day, typically on two successive days every two weeks. So I taped two episodes as the last two of the day on a Tuesday, and came back to lose first thing Wednesday morning.)

Other broadcast events also prevented the show from being seen on schedule or at all. On Thursday, for instance, a football game preempted Jeopardy in the San Francisco Bay Area, which prevented a large number of technology friends from seeing the show. In other places, Jeopardy aired later that night. On Monday, the presidential debates bumped or delayed the airing of my ignominious defeat. Good! (I made an excessive wager on a Daily Double near the end, lost everything, and came back with $2000 into the final round, where I had the right answer, but wagered $0 since I couldn’t beat the leader. This assured me a second-place finish, which comes with $2000 rather than the $1000 that third-place contestants receive.)

Jeopardy currently has about 9 million nightly viewers and about 25 million different people across a viewing week. It once had 50 million viewers, according to one of several books on the show. Ken Jennings, the winner of 74 consecutive episodes of the show, said he was recognized on the street for quite a while after his run in 2004, but nowadays, only 70-year-olds notice him. This is close to the center demographic on the show, which I can testify to given my popularity at my in-laws’ retirement home after two episodes were aired.

Given the intense interest in trivia among younger people, it’s odd that Jeopardy hasn’t reinvented itself completely for a new generation. While the show has a Web site, it’s mostly devoted to information about the broadcast show. Its Twitter feed, with 20,000 followers, just posts clues and little else. There’s a Facebook game, but it’s only similar in form, not nature, to the TV program.

Jeopardy is in its 29th season of its run with Alex Trebek in the current format, and I would hate to think that it’s petering out. The show is exciting, well designed, and fun to play at home. My kids have developed an addiction even though they know few of the right “questions.” But unless Sony figures out a way to thread a path into a world of streaming, deferred, and on-demand post-broadcast watching, I worry that I’ll be among the last group of champions instead of part of an ongoing tradition.


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Comments about Winning and Losing on Jeopardy
(Comments are closed.)

Anthony Reimer  2012-10-26 16:06
The Weird Al parody that Glenn cites right off the top has been my earworm for the week. I swear the next time he is on the Macworld Pundit Showdown, this *must* be his theme song!
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-26 17:36
From your mouth to Phil Michaels' ears.  2012-10-26 19:11
A long time ago, but in this here galaxy, I was a regular Jeopardy viewer, but the last time I watched it before Glenn's stint was for the showdown with Watson.

Funny, I really enjoy Jeopardy, and it's not like there's that much decent competition at that hour. But the bottom line is, I just don't watch it that much anymore.

Congratulations Glenn.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-26 19:21
I think it's possible to "run down the clock" on Jeopardy in that after watching for years, you may simply be familiar with enough of the routine material that it's no longer novel. There's a finite set of older information from which the writers draw clues; they drop in "2012 Olympics," but a lot of the show is history and facts.
tom powers  2012-11-05 21:37
I'm a trivia fan, and very good at it, but I found that the shape of the clues in Jeopardy has changed to include more hints than in the old days. Watching at home (under no pressure,of course) got too easy.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-11-06 12:13
Try it again. The show varies a lot. Some nights, I'm thinking, the writers are on crack: these are too easy. Other nights they have, I swear, a category devoted to obscure questions about Huguenots!
J.M. Heinrichs  2012-10-29 04:22
Before he moved to LA, Mr Trebek was a host for "Reach For The Top" in Ontario. He was the host for the 1973 National Finals in Ottawa, and my team played two matches with him as host.

Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-29 10:37
Astonishingly, Alex has hosted ten game shows! Nine before Jeopardy, and now Jeopardy for 30 years. That's some hosting career!
Brian Ogilvie  2012-11-05 22:00
There's no video archive of Jeopardy!, but there's a fan-created archive of games, with participants and questions (including the order in which they were revealed), at J-Archive:
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-11-06 12:13
A constant studying source for the weeks leading up to the show's taping. It helped. The site is where Jeopardy fans and former players meet to kibbitz.
nicky y schleider  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2012-11-13 18:21
I love Jeopardy. it's my only must watch tv. Since I get up at midnight, thus going to bed very early, I tape it. When they switched networks, I thought it was gone and that must be the reason I missed Glenn's appearances. There are always reruns. Frankly, it's one of the few shows I really find worth watching.