HISTORY’s Moment in Media: What is "Jeopardy!"?

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Cover image for  article: HISTORY’s Moment in Media: What is "Jeopardy!"?

Answer: It debuted as a daytime half-hour series on March 30, 1964, 59 years ago this month, introducing an answer-and-question format that has survived through multiple networks and time slots, several hosts and an unexpected recent bout of controversy to remain one of America’s most beloved game shows. Perhaps most surprisingly, it’s seen as a bastion of real intelligence and erudition in a genre most often known for its sophomoric corniness.

Question: What is Jeopardy!?


Jeopardy! -- the official name includes the exclamation point -- was dreamed up by the television legend Merv Griffin, thanks to an inspired suggestion from his wife, Julann.

Game shows have been around since the days of radio, and trivia-based programming took off with the dawn of television. A 1954 Supreme Court decision, FCC v. American Broadcast Co., ruled that cash prizes didn't make the shows a form of gambling, and that set the stage for the high-stakes quiz shows that soon followed, like Twenty-One and The $64,000 Question ($64,000 in 1955 is about $700,000 today). But the quiz show scandals of the late 1950s, when grand jury investigations and congressional hearings revealed that the biggest of the shows had been fixed, led to regulatory changes and tarnished the genre.

Griffin wanted to make a new quiz show, but he commented to his wife that they’d been abandoned by the networks because the public now suspected that contestants were all provided with the answers. "Why don't you give them the answers?" Julann replied. Merv said that then the show wouldn't have enough tension. Julann suggested that the contestants could lose money if they asked the wrong questions. "That'll put them in jeopardy," she said.

And so it did.

In those days many game shows were taped in New York, and Jeopardy!went on the air as an NBC daytime show recorded there. It was hosted by an actor named Art Fleming -- his New York Times obituary would say that he "had the carriage of a gentleman soldier and the manner of a benign schoolmaster" -- and featured as its announcer Don Pardo, who would later become famous for delivering the words "Live from New York" each Saturday night. The first winner was a 26-year-old former schoolteacher named Mary Cabell Eubanks who'd recently moved to Greenwich Village with her husband and asked to audition while she was waiting in a line for the studio audience of The Price Is Right. She won $345.

The Fleming-hosted show ran on NBC for a decade, then for another two years starting in 1978. But the Jeopardy! we know and love today launched in 1983 as a syndicated series, this time with Canadian-born former deejay Alex Trebek as its host and Johnny Gilbert as the announcer. Trebek-era early episodes were looser and sillier than the stalwart institution the show later became. But over his nearly four decades at the helm of Jeopardy! Trebek evolved into a sort of national icon of respectable intellectualism, recognized for his seriousness and known for his easygoing wit. While he was regularly spoofed on Saturday Night Live, he also hosted the finals of the National Geographic Bee for 25 years. In 2011, the show won a prestigious Peabody Award, "for decades of consistently encouraging, celebrating and rewarding knowledge."

In 2014, Trebek set the record for hosting the most episodes of a single game show, surpassing Bob Barker of The Price Is Right. On Trebek's watch, the show -- produced by Sony and airing mostly on ABC stations -- won a remarkable 35 Emmy Awards. But on March 6, 2019, Trebek announced in a video that he'd been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He died in November 2020, when the show had returned to taping new episodes with pandemic precautions. He worked up until just a few weeks before his death, and his final episode aired in early 2021.

Jeopardy! execs then developed a careful plan for moving into the post-Trebek era: a rotating series of guest hosts, starting with popular mega-winner Ken Jennings -- some of them likely contenders, some of them fan favorites, some of them celebs just having fun. It all created some time and distance, and all would lead up to a big reveal: an announcement from producer Mike Richards that he’d picked … himself. But within weeks Richards stepped down, following a series of scandals.

Naturally, Jennings ended up with the job, as he always should have, sharing duties with sitcom star Mayim Bialik, who hosts some special tournaments. Jennings is a natural fit: friendly, easygoing, effortlessly knowledgeable. He's a little goofier than Trebek was, which keeps him a relatable, accessible presence. (He is, after all, a sort of genius.) And, like Trebek, he has a reverence for the game and an enthusiasm for its players. Under Jennings, and after the Richards imbroglio, the show got back into its groove.

You could almost say the answer to the hosting question was there before the question was even asked.

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