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.
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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.

A few months before Jeopardy! resurrected, controversy threatened to undermine the game-show industry again. Michael Larson, an unemployed former ice-cream truck driver from Ohio, sat at home and studied game shows in search of exploitable tendencies. He found his target in Press Your Luck. Contestants on Press Your Luck hit a button to pause the selector light as it ricocheted among the game board’s 18 squares, each of which had a monetary value, prize, or a Whammy—an unwelcome square that drained a player of all prior earnings. Larson appeared on the show in June 1984, and his understanding of the selector light’s patterns allowed him to win $110,237—at its time, the greatest one-day total in game show history. Producers of Press Your Luck suspected Larson of cheating, but his tactics were legal: No law prevented anyone from sitting in a family room with a stack of TVs and all the time in the world.

Larson was not, however, another disgrace for game shows. He was arguably a disheveled version of the catapult-to-affluence narrative so popular in TV dramas of the era.

Americans in the mid-’80s had also more time to watch evening TV, as their siege mentality amid global unrest sent them to the comfort of the family room (both cable programming and TV news experienced spikes in viewership during this period). The Cold War preoccupied the nation, and the Reagan Doctrine set out to maintain U.S. preeminence over competing global superpowers. It seems likely, then, that as tensions with the Soviets continued to percolate, a phlegmatic quiz show could offer Americans an opportunity to bunker down in their homes and build intellectual assets for an ideological war. If there was a brains-race component to the Cold War, perhaps Jeopardy! would help Americans prevail.

In choosing Trebek, a Canadian with an extensive résumé as a failed game-show emcee, as the host, Griffin made a prescient, if unlikely, choice. By the time he joined Jeopardy!, Trebek had moderated seven game shows in 15 years, including the likes of Music Hop and Battlestars. It’s possible that instability preceding the Jeopardy! job influenced Trebek to be more risk-averse, and if so, it only enhanced the show’s aura. With an inscrutable, polite persona and packaged asides, Trebek fit perfectly in a program without characters, storylines, or action, a show that starred the audience at home.

Stability became the signature of Jeopardy! and Trebek. It only fueled the “robot” lore that Trebek missed just one show in three decades, and that was for an April Fool’s prank when he swapped duties with Wheel of Fortune’s Pat Sajak. While the program’s set changed looks a few times, each transition was modest, and the austere rigidity of its box-heavy aesthetic survived. It should mean something that the most memorable, dynamic moments in Jeopardy! history occurred on another show and mocked its planar entertainment. The brilliance of Saturday Night Live’s longstanding Celebrity Jeopardy! sketch surfaced when parodies of Sean Connery, Burt Reynolds, and others prodded the impassive persona of Will Ferrell’s Trebek.

While the actual Trebek and his show didn’t change much over the years, the surrounding world, of course, did. The search engine supplanted TV as the medium through which Americans acquired trivial knowledge. The Internet enabled people to consume even lowbrow forms of entertainment in a cerebral fashion. They no longer needed entertainment that wasn’t meant to entertain. In politics, the Reagan Doctrine ran its course, and the sense of national and ideological supremacy later dissolved among younger Americans. There were new, better ways to sharpen American minds for a Cold War, and nobody was training for one, anyway.

So maybe the renegade minds who disrupted Jeopardy! over the years disregarded its role as a cognitive training tool in the race for global control. Perhaps they failed to see that—putting it in the bleakest terms—they were just warm bodies tossed on the set to make viewers feel competitive.

It doesn’t matter now. Chu can’t break a show that is already broken; in fact, his exploitation of the show’s rules might be the climactic reflection of the capitalistic milieu that gave Jeopardy! life. But Chu can shape the future of Jeopardy!, even as its heyday rapidly fades into America’s past. Though he compares himself to Craig and others parallel him with Forrest, maybe Chu is another Larson, able to restore interest in the game-show form. Other programs could someday benefit from his subversion—shows in which contestants are true characters, shows meant to entertain.

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

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