“Jeopardy!”: A case of a successful game show


A: This show has been a successful story for 35 years – even before Ken Jennings and James Holzhauer came on the scene.

Q: What is Jeopardy?

In 1983, King World was looking to pair something with its already red-hot Wheel of Fortune, an NBC daytime game show debuted in evening syndication and became a smash hit.

So they asked Merv Griffin Productions to come up with something and it was another NBC daytime staple he produced: Jeopardy! – a game show hosted by Art Fleming where contestants have to answer “in the form of a question”, airing from 1964 to 1975.

But the last syndicated run – a weekly show in 1974 at a time when most stations ran checkerboarded programming in prime access (6:30 p.m. or 7:30 p.m.) i.e. a different show every night – wasn’t successful (the show lacked a few major-market clearances, including Chicago.) But a brand new five day-a-week strip hosted by game show veteran Alex Trebek – permed hair, mustache, and all – was successfully sold to stations at the 1984 NATPE convention, including ABC-owned WLS-TV in Chicago (ABC 7) where it was slotted at 3:30 p.m., replacing a low-rated afternoon movie.

And the rest was history.

James Holzhauer’s streak has brought the show back into prominence – although it never really left.

Jeopardy has been a ratings winner for ABC 7 for the last 35 years, leading into its successful early evening news block – then and now as the hubbub over James Holzhauer’s 22-game winning streak has boosted an already dominant news station in the ratings. According to the Chicago Tribune in a piece to “question” what many local fans have been asking (or complaining about) for decades (What is why Jeopardy airs in the afternoon) the program earned a 8.5 household rating on May 1, far and away the most-watched program at 3:30 p.m., coming close to the 9 and 10 household ratings numbers Jeopardy regularly put up in the 1980s and 1990s. And the show is even pulling even better numbers where it airs in prime access: for Buffalo CBS affiliate WIVB, Jeopardy has been scoring household ratings in the double digits, beating every prime-time show in the market.

Also helping ABC 7 is Holzhauer lived in the area in the 2000s – he’s an alum of Naperville North High School – an opportunity for WLS to showcase his local ties during its 4 p.m. newscast.

Nationally, a Holzhauer-fueled Jeopardy put the show at the top of the syndicated ratings chart for the week ending April 28 with a 7.5 household rating, up 12 percent from last week and its highest number since 2015.

For most of its run, Jeopardy was the second-highest rated game show strip behind Wheel and for local stations like ABC 7, became part of a powerhouse lineup feeding viewers into local news – a dominance WLS has to this day. When Jeopardy debuted, CBS-owned WBBM-TV was the market leader, with top-ranked newsteam Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson. But after ABC 7 hired Oprah Winfrey to host A.M. Chicago and wound up beating Donahue, it changed the local ratings game forever. With a murderers row of Oprah, Jeopardy, and Wheel, ABC 7 had its own version of NBC’s Must-See TV, who dominated primetime at the time. WLS’ lineup was so strong, it even beat NBC-owned WMAQ in the local primetime ratings at a time ABC lagged in third place.

Jeopardy even survived being downgraded to 2:30 p.m. for two years to accommodate Katie Couric’s ill-fated syndicated talk show, via corporate mandate from Disney and ABC. Ratings in the 3 p.m. time slot plummeted, reaching lows not seen in 35 years and was often beaten by Ellen. Jeopardy moved back to 3:30 p.m., but only after Katie’s contract expired.

Jeopardy, host Alex Trebek from the series’ first season. Courtesy: ABC/Everett Collection

Jeopardy boosted the bottom lines of local stations – so much so Capital Cities/ABC – after seeing how much the show did for its WABC in New York City when it moved the show from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. in early 1987, nabbed the show and Wheel for its KABC in Los Angeles and KGO in San Francisco in 1992 – the latter coming after the previous station (then-NBC affiliate KRON-TV) dropped the shows in order to shift NBC’s prime-time lineup earlier – something King World objected to since Jeopardy and Wheel were airing from 7 to 8 p.m. Now syndicated by CBS Television Distribution (as a result of CBS acquiring King World in 1999) and produced by Sony Pictures TV (who acquired Merv Griffin Enterprises parent Columbia in 1989), Jeopardy now airs on all of ABC’s eight owned-and-operated stations.

In recent years, media consolidation has led for stations to become more cost-conscious. A few years ago, Scripps’ local stations such as WEWS in Cleveland and WCPO in Cincinnati dropped Wheel and Jeopardy from their schedules in a cost-cutting move in order to air more in-house efforts, such as The List. And as you’ve guessed, ratings plummeted in the time slot.

Despite this, Jeopardy continues to perform terrifically for stations¬† – even before Holzhauer’s streak as the game show has always been in the top five. Ratings are expected to cool off a bit due to Jeopardy’s two-week Teacher’s Tournament, but Holzhauer will be back on May 20, trying to extend his streak and building on his $1 million-plus and counting warchest and has Ken Jennings’ 74-game winning streak in sights, a ratings sensation in its own right.

And adding to its accolades, Jeopardy has won 33 Daytime Emmy Awards for Best Game Show and a Peabody Award, with Trebek winning six awards (including one Sunday night) for Outstanding Game Show Host.

Jeopardy has been renewed through 2023, but Trebek’s deal only runs through 2022 as the 78-year old host was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. However, Trebek vows to continue hosting the show and he told fans in a recent video it is so far, so good.

While the ratings surge can be attributed to Holzhauer’s streak, once it ends (whenever that is), Jeopardy will remain at the top of its game as its own streak of being one of syndication’s top shows – 35 years and counting – is still going strong.

(Editor’s Note: An earlier draft misspelled Alex Trebek’s name.)


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