“Everything that happened to me
happened by mistake.
I don’t believe in fate.
It’s luck, timing and accident.”
Art Fleming host of Jeopardy! circa 1964
For the past week, the game show Jeopardy! has been airing old historic episodes. As I watch these episodes, I came to realize I’ve been watching one of the oldest game shows on television. Since it first aired March 20, 1964, this show was so popular in my home, my parents bought us the first Jeopardy! board game which quickly became a family favorite.
Over five decades, Jeopardy! remains popular even as game shows come in and out of fashion. This show is largely responsible for re-energizing the quiz show format following a series of quiz show scandals in the 1950s. The rife scandals broke viewing audience’s trust and so began federal law that prohibited the fixing of game shows and their genre across the networks began to disappear.
In the early 1960s, Merv Griffin, a young genius in designing game shows for NBC, was not happy about all the negativity happening to his livelihood. As a television host, producer, and game show developer for NBC, he began to craft a game show that would change the format forever.
On a flight from Duluth to New York City, Griffin and his wife Julann were discussing game show ideas, when she noted that there had not been a successful “question and answer” game on the air since the quiz show scandals. Griffin recalls his wife asking, “Why not do a switch, and give the answers to the contestant and let them come up with the question?” She then fired a couple of answers to her husband and that’s where the show was born. After landing in NYC, he went straight to executives at NBC with the idea.
The shows name, What’s The Question? which Griffin first pitched to NBC executive Ed Vane was very skeptical about the show. Vane claimed the game format didn’t have enough, “jeopardies”. Griffin went back to the drawing board and came up with a new format as well as the fitting new name, Jeopardy!. NBC bought and green lit Griffin’s show without even looking at a pilot show.
Merv was searching for his game host star, when Art Fleming caught his attention after seeing Fleming in a few tv commercials and shows. Although Art was a game show novice, Merv selected him to host. The show needed background music, so the multitalented Griffin composed the current and rather suspenseful tune.
Within weeks of Jeopardy! first airing, it grabbed 40% of viewers in its daytime slot. People were playing along on college campuses and during lunch breaks. Despite its success, NBC felt fewer 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.
Despite solid ratings, in 1975 NBC abruptly pulled the plug on the show. Executives at the network wanted to appeal to a younger, female demographic. The show was reinstated in 1978, then just six months later the show was canceled once again.
Merv Griffin never gave up on his show and in 1983 he met with executives at King World Productions about doing a syndicated version. Luckily, King World executives agreed, and they had reason for their optimism. The board game Trivial Pursuit, which had debuted in 1981, had grown into a sensation, proving consumers had a healthy appetite for trivia.
Alex Trebek circa 1984
Griffin updated his show in the 1980s with a high-tech game board made up of video monitors instead of paper cards and rerecorded his theme music with synthesizers. But, the biggest update was in 1984 when Art Fleming was replaced with the younger, more polished Alex Trebek and the show started airing in the early evening. Ratings immediately improved in this new time slot.
In 2004 the show removed its five-game limit for returning champions. With that rule removed, contestant Ken Jennings was able to win an unprecedented 74-show winning streak making headlines across the country. The $2,520,700 he won from 2004 to 2005 during this winning streak, still holds the record for the most money an individual has ever won on an American game show making Jennings a minor celebrity.
Trebek continues to host Jeopardy!, despite his recent diagnosis of stage 4 pancreatic cancer. However, during the coronavirus quarantine the show has not been taping any new shows since March, the longest hiatus in the history of the show.
There’s no denying this game show is a staple in America. It’s won 16 daytime Emmy awards for Outstanding Game Show, the most ever by one program. It will be a sad day when Trebek retires from his hosting job, but it will be a sadder day if the show ever becomes in jeopardy of cancellation.