Iconic shows for 500, Alex? Trebek's 'Jeopardy!' at 30

1:53 PM, Feb 1, 2014   |    comments
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Jeopardy!, the game show of questions as answers that celebrates intellectualism, is marking its 30th season with Alex Trebek as host.

In the past three decades, Jeopardy! has won 30 Emmy Awards, a record for a game show. The show has become a pop culture institution and even inspired a recurring skit on Saturday Night LiveLast year, TV Guide namedJeopardy! the greatest game show of all time.

What is it about Jeopardy! that has made it such an enduring success?

Quite simply, it feeds Americans' inherently competitive nature, Trebek said in an interview with USA TODAY Network.

Americans "like to be competitive in all aspects of life," he said, "in games or sports or TV game shows."

"If you're sitting at home, you want to play with a ballpoint pen as a little clicker and see if you're faster than the contestants," Trebek said. "If you are, you feel good because you know the contestants are very bright."

EARLY DAYS

The show's origins date back to 1964. Art Fleming hosted the original show until 1975, then again in 1978 and 1979. Jeopardy! returned in 1984 as we know it today to daily syndication with Trebek behind the podium.

Eddie Timanus, a five-game winner in 1999 who works for the USA TODAY Sports Media Group, said he grew up watching the original Jeopardy! with Fleming as the host.


"If you watch it, you want to be on it," said Timanus, who was the first blind contestant.

When the show relaunched with Trebek as host, there was nothing quite like it on television. Other game shows, such as The Price is Right or Let's Make a Deal, had more of a daytime look and "carnival atmosphere," said Olaf Hoerschelmann, author of the book Rules of the Game: Quiz Shows and American Culture, in an interview with USA TODAY Network.

In contrast, Jeopardy! presented itself as a serious show that put knowledge above other skills, Hoerschelmann said.

Trebek was a perfect fit as the show's host with his "vague intellectualism and understated, serene character," Hoerschelmann said.

STAYING RELEVANT

Jeopardy! clues aim to strike a balance between scholarly subjects and those that have wider appeal, said Harry Friedman, Jeopardy!'s executive producer who has been with the show since 1997, in an interview with USA TODAY Network.

Though you'll certainly get your share of history and literature categories, Jeopardy!'s eight researchers and eight writers include pop culture topics, Friedman said. This month, the Internet was abuzz when Trebek rapped an entire category.

"Middlebrow is a good thing," Trebek said of the show's approach. "We don't want to get so esoteric that the viewers can't relate to the material."

Jeopardy! has produced spinoffs, including Rock and Roll Jeopardy! running for four seasons on VH1 and Jep!, a children's version of the show. The show holds tournaments for college students, teens and teachers, as well as celebrities. For its 30th anniversary, Jeopardy! is bringing back contestants from previous decades, starting Feb. 3.

AN ELITE CLUB

Among those returning to Jeopardy's Decades Tournament is Ken Jennings. Jennings first appeared on the show in 2004, a year after Jeopardy! lifted its cap on the maximum number of games a contestant could win, which had been five.

To say Jennings took advantage of the opportunity would be an understatement.

Jennings dominated the show for months, winning 74 games in a row and more than $2.5 million. By the end of his run, Jennings' dominance had become so well-known that he could arguably qualify for Celebrity Jeopardy! In fact, he would later read the Top Ten List on The Late Show With David Letterman and appear with Grover onSesame Street.

"It'll be on my tombstone, whatever I do," Jennings told USA TODAY Network. Since his Jeopardy! appearances, he's written four books, including one about his experience on the show.

Each year, as many as 130,000 people try out to become contestants, but only 500 end up appearing on the show, Friedman said.

Winning Jeopardy! carries a prestige Jennings compares to "an elite crime-fighting secret society."

WHAT'S NEXT?

Why the show has become - and stayed - a hit is something "we try not to overanalyze," Friedman said.

It's unlikely Jeopardy! will make any major changes moving forward. The original format has worked, and Trebek as the host is an "insurance policy" for success, Friedman said.

Though viewing habits have changed, Jeopardy!seems to have found a formula that resonates across eras.

"There's always going to be a market for smart shows," Timanus said.

Trebek is signed on to be the host through 2016. If he decides to step down, it's unclear who could fill the role. Trebek and Friedman were tight-lipped about even the possibility of Trebek retiring after 2016.

The show continues to tape 230 episodes a year, bringing to people's homes every evening facts about geography, composers and potent potables.

"The viewers may eventually tire of us. It's happened to thousands and thousands of television programs," Trebek said. "Our life, fortunately, has been a long one."

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