“Jeopardy!” fans received some surprising news Wednesday. In a video released online, longtime host Alex Trebek revealed he has been diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer. While Trebek said he would continue hosting the show for the time being—he recently signed a three-year contract extension—he acknowledged that the type of cancer he has does not usually come with a good prognosis.
As they wish the 78-year-old Trebek a speedy recovery, fans should also stop to appreciate his television legacy. The arc of Trebek’s career speaks to the way that game shows, once common finds on the television airwaves, have become scarce commodities.
Life Before ‘Jeopardy!’
While most viewers know Trebek from his 7,943 episodes (as of Wednesday) of the answer-and-question quiz created by Merv Griffin, he hosted numerous game shows in addition to “Jeopardy!” Canadian by birth (although a naturalized U.S. citizen as of 1998), Trebek first came to American television in 1973 to host “The Wizard of Odds,” a show produced by Alan Thicke (Robin Thicke’s late father).
In the 1970s, he also hosted the games “High Rollers” and “Double Dare” (no, not the version of “Double Dare” with the physical challenge). While he hosted the first several seasons of “Jeopardy!,” Trebek from 1987-91 emceed a revival of the show “Concentration,” reruns of which the game show network Buzzr recently started re-airing.
That history makes Trebek the last of a breed: The professional television game show host. During the period from roughly the 1960s through the 1980s, several men hosted a series of game shows:
- Bert Convy: “Password,” “Tattletales,” “Win, Lose, or Draw”
- Bill Cullen: “Name That Tune,” “The Price Is Right (the original version),” “Chain Reaction,” “Blockbusters,” “The $25,000 Pyramid,” “The Joker’s Wild,” and many more
- Bob Eubanks: “The Newlywed Game,” “Trivia Trap,” “Card Sharks” revival
- Monty Hall: “Let’s Make a Deal,” “Split Second,” “Beat the Clock”
- Tom Kennedy: “Split Second,” “Name That Tune,” “Password Plus,” “Body Language,” a nighttime version of “The Price Is Right”
- Jim Lange: “The Dating Game,” “Name That Tune,” “The $1,000,000 Chance of a Lifetime”
- Allen Ludden: “Password,” “GE College Bowl,” “Win with the Stars”
- Wink Martindale: “Tic-Tac-Dough,” “Gambit,” “High Rollers”
- Jack Narz: “Now You See It,” “Concentration,” “Beat the Clock,” “Dotto”
- Jim Perry: “Card Sharks,” “$ale of the Century”
- Chuck Woolery: “Wheel of Fortune” (the original version), “Love Connection,” “Scrabble,” and “Greed”
While most people associate Bob Barker only with “The Price Is Right,” just as people today associate Trebek only with “Jeopardy!,” he hosted “Truth or Consequences” for more than a decade prior to the start of his 35-year-old run at “Price.”
Few Game Shows Today
By comparison, few individuals currently on the air besides Trebek have hosted multiple game shows. Regis Philbin might qualify as a possible exception, having hosted a brief revival of “Password” after having helmed “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” But few individuals have hosted multiple game shows because so few game shows currently air.
Television dynamics have changed substantially in recent decades. The growth of syndicated daytime talk shows, beginning in the 1980s, eroded one block of time slots for game shows. And the launch of “Survivor” in 1998 heralded a new era of “reality” television programming in prime time, with cheaper costs and greater appeal to network executives.
From time to time, game shows have reappeared on the television landscape. “Millionaire” single-handedly resurrected ABC’s flagging fortunes in 1999 and 2000, prompting a series of imitators to launch big-money game shows. But ABC aired “Millionaire” episodes so frequently they ran the franchise into the ground, forcing it into daytime syndication, while “Greed,” “The Weakest Link,” a “Twenty-One” revival, and others soon disappeared entirely.
Television studios do occasionally air game shows, often during the slow summer season. When they’ve had a need, they have usually hired comedians—Steve Harvey at “Family Feud,” Drew Carey for “The Price Is Right,” Alec Baldwin for “Match Game”—or talk show hosts—Regis Philbin at “Millionaire” and Michael Strahan for a revival of the “$100,000 Pyramid.”
But the days of a single host making a stable living going from show to show, and developing a distinct identity as a game show host, have long since disappeared from the television marketplace. That makes Trebek not just an icon for fans of “Jeopardy!,” quiz shows, and trivia, but the last of his kind for an entire television genre.
The author appeared in the appeared in the 1995 “Jeopardy!” Teen Tournament.