Why Are Americans So Protective of Jeopardy!?

To understand why contestant Arthur Chu's controversial but effective strategy upset so many viewers, it's worth looking back at why the show first became a TV staple in the Cold War era.

Arthur Chu stood on the set of Jeopardy! last November, and with $400 at stake in the category “After the White House,” he knew the question to the answer. The show’s host, Alex Trebek, teased that the name in question had, since 1982, been a distinguished professor at Emory University.

“Who is Carter?” Chu replied. The response was correct; Chu would select the next clue.

Here, a normal contestant would build on success and take “After the White House” for $600. But Chu did not. He darted to “Shakespearean Spelling Bee” for $1,000, the highest monetary value in the show’s first round. “Queen of the fairies, wife of Oberon,” Trebek read. “What is T-i-t-a-n-i-a?” asked Chu, well on the way to his fourth straight win. Chu, a 30-year-old insurance compliance analyst and voice-over artist from Ohio, went undefeated through nine matches televised in January and February, and his $261,000 earnings rank third all-time for Jeopardy!.

As tiny a factor as it may seem, the jump from “After the White House” to “Shakespearean Spelling Bee” is what’s helped Chu claim his position in the scattered lineage of incendiary Jeopardy! contestants who approach Jeopardy! not as a knowledge contest to master so much as a rule set to overcome. His frenetic hop between categories is known by the niche community of Jeopardy! game theorists as the Forrest Bounce. It’s named for Chuck Forrest, the 1985 contestant who dashed from one topic to the next and left opponents little time to gather their thoughts. Chu’s move was also a nod to Roger Craig, the guy he calls his greatest Jeopardy! influence. Craig, a 2011 contestant, based his strategy on chasing Daily Doubles, which often sit toward the bottom of the game board. 

Chu has worked this sort of Jeopardy! heresy to perfection, but not everyone has cheered him along. Chu has endured some backlash—some in jest, some offensive—because the tactics that have stymied his onstage opponents have also disrupted his armchair competition. Those who vilify Chu might not consciously connect the dots, but their vexation with him reflects a tacit understanding of Jeopardy! and its historical role in American life.

Jeopardy! will probably meet the TV reaper soon. Yes, 50 years after it first aired, and 30 years after the Trebek era launched, the show remains one of America’s most watched syndicated TV programs. But its viewership is among the oldest of any in the industry. As Jeopardy! fans near their demise, the show will die out for the same reason it lived so long: It was built to suppress, not support, disruption.

The early 1960s should have been a good time to launch a game show. Color TVs had become common in middle-class homes, and TV consumption was still guiltless. Yet to be a quiz show in the mid-’60s was to linger under suspicion of a scandal. In 1956, the producers and contestants of Twenty-One were found to have fixed episodes to boost ratings through likable winners and compelling story lines, such as when two contestants finished tied in three straight episodes. The $64,000 Question and Dotto, other quiz shows of the era, were revealed to have deceived viewers with similar techniques. The scandals bred so much distrust that networks cancelled most quiz shows and Congress intervened in 1960 to make rigging quizzes illegal.

By 1964, when Jeopardy! debuted, the controversy surrounding quiz shows had waned but not fully passed. Merv Griffin, the creator and producer of Jeopardy!, needed his daytime show to be watchable, but more importantly, above reproach. Griffin’s show, then hosted by Art Fleming, survived through early 1975 and re-emerged for a season in 1978, but it never sustained the success of pre-scandal quiz shows.

The TV climate in 1984, when Jeopardy! relaunched, was different from what it had been two decades prior, in the program’s first iteration. Whereas ’60s TV stories were mostly episode-contained, ’80s TV placed greater reliance on macro-narratives and characters that drew viewers’ emotional devotion. Sitcoms such as Cosby, Cheers, and Family Ties fared well in 1984 Nielsen ratings, but TV that year was distinguished by dramatic stories of people who amassed wealth and maintained justice. Dynasty, Dallas, and Falcon Crest chronicled the lives of prosperous, powerful people. Magnum, P.I.; Murder, She Wrote; Night Court; and Miami Vice developed characters who enforced the law.

In this setting, a game show could differentiate itself from the rest of the evening TV slate, and Jeopardy! in particular was a fitting interlude to stories about people who got rich and laid down the law. Its unvarnished meritocracy embodied the capitalism narrative Americans seem to have wanted to believe at the time.

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Paul Glavic is a writer based in Cleveland. His work has appeared in Grantland

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