Don’t listen to what Alex Trebek is telling you: Despite celebrating on air its 30th anniversary this season, Jeopardy! actually premiered 50 years ago, on March 30, 1964. That was pre-Trebek, of course, but it's still Merv Griffin's game show. So why does Jeopardy! today want to forget its humble beginnings?
It’s hard to think that the show’s history-denial isn't deliberate. While Jeopardy! makes much ado this season about its 30th anniversary, citing the September 10, 1984 premiere date, it ignores its original daytime run. It's bringing back former champions from the past three decades – the '00s, '90s, and '80s – for a "Battle of the Decades" but no one from the '70s or '60s. (Not to be morbid, but perhaps this is simply logistical: how many of those first champions are still alive?) If you look on the Jeopardy! website, the "Show History" section starts off with 1984, and doesn't mention anything earlier. Jeopardy! seems to go out of its way to avoid mentioning the Art Fleming era. Why?
In an interview with The Wire, Jeopardy! Executive Producer Harry Friedman confirmed that the show indeed sees pre- and post-1984 as two entirely separate entities, and that the 1984 premiere is the true start of today's Jeopardy!. "Really, that’s what most people who are viewers now know," Friedman said, referring to the 1984 reboot. He cited the gap in the late '70s and early '80s when Jeopardy! was off the air as a sort of memory reset: "The lack of continuity makes it feel weird to say 50th anniversary." According to him, there was never any thought given to celebrating the 1964 birthday this season, only the 1984 mark.
But the shows pre- and post-revival aren't all that different. There's the same basic answer-question format, the same hodgepodge of categories, the same dweeby contestants, and of course, the same Final Jeopardy music. As Jeopardy! legend Ken Jennings writes in the March issue of Smithsonian Magazine:
“Miraculously, [Jeopardy! has] survived America’s tumultuous half-century almost entirely unchanged. Tonight’s game will be of the exact same format, practically down to the second, as an episode from 1970 or 1990.”
At least Jennings acknowledges the '70s. But the point is, the show is the same. The biggest differences, upon viewing, are the inflated dollar amounts (smallest clue value was $10 back in 1975, compared to $200 now) and the fact that contestants played sitting down during the '60s (what is this, Quiz Bowl?). Other than that, the differences are primarily cosmetic. Friedman noted certain rule changes – buzzing-in policies, consolation prizes, and the aforementioned clue values – but they don't have much effect on those watching at home. Even Art Fleming seems like an affable Trebek prototype.
For example, watch the 1975 "series" finale:
... and the 1984 revival premiere:
See what we mean? There's no denying that the 1984 was a reboot, but a willful separation of the show pre-and post-1984 is silly. It's one thing to emphasize the 1984 premiere, but to ignore the 1960s show altogether does a disservice to the show's history. There may be production issues (Friedman said that the contestant files from the Fleming era "simply don't exist" anymore) but it's the same show, it just grew up. Jeopardy! even had its awkward teen phase in the late '70s, and aside from the color scheme, it looked even more like the current incarnation. Yet the current show is set on repressing those memories.
Plenty of articles coming out this month echo sentiments about the show's consistency and immutability since its premiere in 1964. But nothing from the show itself. You'd think with a milestone like a 50th anniversary coming up, Jeopardy! would jump at the chance to celebrate – instead it focuses on 30, like it's worried about wrinkles.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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