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How ‘Jeopardy!’ Made Their Football-Themed Show Worse For Contestants


The days before the Super Bowl see discussion of myriad topics surrounding the “Big Game”: The strengths and weaknesses of the respective teams; the health of the players; the halftime performers and commercials; and, in this year’s case at least, the weather. But game shows normally don’t feature prominently in many pregame conversations.

Until Thursday, that is. That evening, an episode of “Jeopardy!” taped months ago to air during Super Bowl week contained a category on football to coincide with the event. Suffice it to say that the contestants on the game show don’t watch much football:

A category of five straight “Triple Stumpers”—clues where no contestant answers correctly—is rare, and an entire category where no contestant even attempts to buzz in rarer still. Combine that with the pop-culture nature of the category—with millions of viewers collectively shouting at the screen, “C’mon, even I knew that one!”—and all manner of online mockery immediately ensued.

As a sports fan who didn’t watch Thursday’s “Jeopardy!” episode as it aired because I was busy covering, and attending, the Super Bowl, I can relate to the shouts and sniggers. But as a former “Jeopardy!” contestant myself, I can relate to the contestants also.

The Category I Knew Nothing About

When I appeared on the “Jeopardy!” Teen Tournament in 1995, I faced a similar situation to that confronting Thursday night’s contestants. The Teen Tournament traditionally includes a greater percentage of pop culture categories than “normal” “Jeopardy!” episodes. While I knew I had a good shot with sports-related questions, if the subject turned to music or movies, I figured myself toast.

Sure enough, in the first round of my first game, what category crops up: pop music. Gulp.

Looking back on that episode nearly a quarter-century later, while I know the correct responses to the clues now, I don’t think I knew many, if any, of them then. (I didn’t remember the clues until looking at the tape again, and the tape doesn’t make clear whether I attempted to ring in, but got beat to the buzzer.)

In other words, but for a couple of pop music enthusiasts standing next to me, I might have faced a very similar scenario to Thursday’s contestants, albeit without the added sting of social media to amplify the public criticism.

Moreover, I also recognize from firsthand experience that “Jeopardy!” penalizes guessing. In my second game, I decided to buzz in late and take what amounted to little more than an educated guess on a clue. Bad move. I got the question wrong, losing $800 in the process.

That foregone $800 ended up creating what host Alex Trebek calls a “runaway”—a game in which neither I nor the third-place contestant had enough money to catch the leader in Final Jeopardy. Given that I alone responded correctly on Final Jeopardy, that $800 lost me the game by preventing me from overtaking the leader.

Could one of the contestants have had a hunch about a clue or two, but decided not to risk losing the money by ringing in? It’s certainly possible. But if they didn’t have a reasonable degree of confidence in their response, they made the right decision not to ring in.

The Social Media Environment Doesn’t Help, Either

That said, the collective silence prompted no small manner of laughs from the audience, and sarcasm from Trebek, who asked, “Do you think we should go to commercial?” Back in 1995, several of my fellow contestants said they didn’t much care for Alex, likely because of that type of snark. At the time, I disagreed with that consensus. I had had the opportunity to meet and chat with Alex at my contestant search in Philadelphia, and found him personable and engaging.

However, social media in recent years has altered “Jeopardy!,” with Thursday’s episode a prime example. Several months ago, I noted multiple instances where categories required Trebek to read rap lyrics—with the repeat occurrences potentially designed to generate audience reaction and Twitter buzz. Just as the three contestants might have responded correctly had they decided to gamble and ring in, so too could Trebek have decided to “ham it up” in his reactions to create another viral video moment.

So to borrow some football lingo (and a clue from the category in question), Thursday night’s “Jeopardy!” episode featured offsetting penalties—one on the contestants, yes, but another one on Trebek and the show as well. “Jeopardy!” should look to make itself relevant to younger viewers in the social media age, but shouldn’t resort to cheap stunts or insults to do so. There are enough of both on Twitter already as it is.

Mr. Jacobs is founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, a policy consulting firm based in Washington. He has appeared on episodes of “Jeopardy!” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”