In the middle of a season in which the show looks to replace its late legendary host Alex Trebek, “Jeopardy!” began its Tournament of Champions last Monday. In it, 15 top winners from the last year’s worth of episodes compete for a $250,000 prize. Brayden Smith, one of the last multi-day champions under the Trebek regime, died earlier this year before the tournament’s taping; Cohen honored his life during Friday’s episode.
Guest hosting this year’s tournament: Buzzy Cohen, winner of the 2017 Tournament of Champions (“Jeopardy!” announced that, as with Ken Jennings, Cohen’s turn at the hosting lectern will result in his retirement from competition). While he lacks the public platform from experience stemming from a television show or acting role of the other guest hosts, Cohen’s distinctive personality — to say nothing of his lobbying for the role — placed him on potential lists of Trebek replacements even before the latter revealed the cancer diagnosis that would ultimately claim his life.
Competent and Upbeat
Cohen, whose natty wardrobe looks and witty banter won him the title “Mr. Personality” from none other than Trebek himself, did an admirable job in his first week behind the lectern. He glided from category to category well, while explaining the tournament’s rules and practices to contestants and viewers alike.
For good or for ill, Cohen showed a higher degree of enthusiasm while hosting than Trebek. While distinct from Katie Couric’s bubbly, perky personality, Cohen demonstrated more intensity than Trebek’s unflappable calm, without intruding too heavily into the game, a la prior guest host Dr. Mehmet Oz.
‘Musical Hosts’ Hurts Contestant Play
Regardless of its host, this Tournament of Champions presented unique obstacles for contestants, as the ongoing rotation of “Jeopardy!” guest hosts has complicated contestants’ lives in at least three ways. First, as an article in The Ringer confirmed, contestants didn’t know who would be guest-hosting their episodes until they arrived in the studio the morning of their taping.
It appears that, until the episodes taped, “Jeopardy!” viewed its lineup of guest hosts as something approaching a state secret. Astute viewers will note that, while each guest host has announced the end of his or her stint, he or she has not said who would replace that person as host the following week, likely because they did not know. While the show’s producers have since released its full lineup of guest hosts for the 37th season, they generally did not announce those hosts until after those episodes had taped.
Not knowing the guest host makes it much tougher for contestants to prepare for one of the toughest elements of “Jeopardy!” — mastering the dreaded buzzer. In the past, contestants knew Trebek’s cadence and could practice ringing in after he had finished reading a clue.
Now, however, not knowing the identity of the guest host until the morning of the taping makes it quite difficult to adapt to the host’s cadence. Contestants instead have to rely more heavily on the lights on each side of the game board, which give the signal to ring in once the host has finished reading the clue.
Taping Delays Interrupt Rhythm
The game of “musical hosts” has also added delays to “Jeopardy!” tapings, which come in two forms. First, when a host mispronounces or misreads a clue, producers generally ask to do an audio “pick-up,” in which the host re-reads the clue, and the (revised) audio gets edited back into the show during the post-production process. Trebek normally had to do no more than one or two “pick-ups” during the taping of an episode; those re-reads would generally occur during the commercial breaks between each segment.
But in addition to more “pick-ups” from hosts unfamiliar with pronunciations, the guest hosts are also resulting in more tape stoppages. Tape stoppages can happen for reasons completely unrelated to the host.
During a “Jeopardy!” taping I attended some years ago, a technical problem occurred when the text of a clue appeared, but the video accompanying the clue did not appear on monitors in the studio. To ensure competitive fairness, the show’s producers had to stop the tape, substitute a replacement for the original clue, and edit the tape accordingly.
But “Jeopardy!” episodes over the last few months seem to have more breaks and interruptions in them — a sign to this observer that producers are having to stop tape more frequently during the guest hosts’ stints. One potential such incident occurred during Ken Jennings’s hosting stint. A James Bond-themed clue had a correct response of “Dr. No,” but Jennings’s ruling of “No — that’s correct” led to quizzical looks by the contestants, and an awkward bit of laughter before the show proceeded. That kind of confusion — and the somewhat understandable reluctance of guest hosts to make real-time rulings on the accuracy of contestant responses — appears to have led to an increase in tape stoppages.
Much more than other game shows, success as a “Jeopardy!” contestant involves momentum and rhythm. Contestants need intense focus, not least because a few correct responses can allow one to “get on a run” and develop confidence and timing with the signaling device. Every tape stoppage distracts contestants, destroys that rhythm in the studio, and upsets the flow of the game — to the point that “Jeopardy!” could do worse than to select the guest host with the fewest host-prompted tape stoppages during his hosting stint.
The jumbled-up nature of “Jeopardy’s!” guest host rotation shone through in one key fact: The Ringer reported tape days have stretched until as late as 8 p.m. By comparison, the last “Jeopardy!” taping I attended with Trebek, in November 2019, ended around 4 p.m. — four hours sooner.
Delays up to four hours per taping day make an already nerve-wracking experience — some “Jeopardy!” contestants can’t eat, or sleep, in the hours before their appearance — that much longer and more grueling. Little wonder then that only one contestant has won more than four games in the four months since the guest host rotation began (Brian Chang, during Jennings’s run).
Cohen did a workmanlike job guest-hosting “Jeopardy’s!” most intense two weeks of competition. But given both COVID restrictions and the cavalcade of guest hosts, the show would have done better to postpone the Tournament of Champions entirely until next season, once “Jeopardy!” has a permanent host. Particularly for a high-stakes tournament, the show’s contestants would benefit greatly from stability and certainty behind the lectern.