Is the “Jeopardy!” Brand in Jeopardy?

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Ever since Alex Trebek’s passing last fall, everyone seems to have mused about the future of “Jeopardy!” But no one is talking about the future of the “Jeopardy!” brand. From where we sit, it isn’t clear that either can survive without the other.

“Jeopardy!” made its debut in 1964 at a time when America had little appetite for TV quiz shows. It was just a few short years since the quiz show scandals, when ratings toppers like “The $64,000 Question” and “Twenty-One” were found to have sneaked some contestants—the ones with the most drawing power—the answers beforehand. Once the fakery was exposed, that was it for TV quiz shows. No one trusted them anymore.

Network TV remained understandably quizless for the next few years. No producer or advertiser would touch a quiz show—they were Nielsen-box poison. Then media mogul Merv Griffin came up with an odd concept: a quiz where all the contestants were given the answers. The trick was to come up with the questions. The idea was simple, elegant and counterintuitive enough to break through America’s resistance. “Jeopardy!” was born.

Art Fleming was the show’s first host; Trebek took over in its second incarnation in 1984. Think about that. Over the course of 36 turbulent years—through six presidents, two impeachments, at least four wars, and three remakes of Freaky Friday—the tenure of Alex Trebek was as constant as the North Star, his brand intertwined with the show’s: consistent, reliable and intellectual, with a perfect mix of comfort, integrity and excitement. “Jeopardy!” was the grown-up in the quiz show room, evincing a quiet reserve you’d never see on, say, “Family Feud” or “The Price Is Right.” The host never went for laughs at a contestant’s expense. The audience never lost its cool. And the show’s brand never wavered. You could take it to the bank.

With Trebek gone, “Jeopardy!” has been guest-hosted by a varied procession of celebrities, including Anderson Cooper, Katy Couric, Mayim Bialik, Savannah Guthrie and LaVar Burton, any one of whom could arguably have been right for the permanent slot. Instead it went to the show’s long-time executive producer, Mike Richards, who made his debut in August only to step down a week later amid allegations that he’d made untoward remarks about women and minorities in a podcast series. He subsequently left the show altogether. Now the celebrity parade has started up again, and will continue, presumably, until a new permanent host is chosen.

Alex Trebek was known to play down his own role on “Jeopardy!,” attributing its success to the contestants. But great brands are rarely if ever built on a single attribute. As Minling Chiuang notes in Forbes, a successful brand is built on a deep connection: “As in any relationship, that connection must include trust and an emotional bond,” she writes. “Without those things, the relationship won’t last.” In the case of “Jeopardy!,” Alex Trebek was integral to that connection.

Make no mistake: “Jeopardy!” isn’t going anywhere soon. Over the decades, the show has built a loyal audience and the ratings it needs to attract advertisers; it can still command market share, at least in the near term. But the show’s success was due in large part due to its venerable conductor. The search for a new host has exposed a few cracks in the patina.

Category: QUIZ QUIZ
Question: WHAT IS “JEOPARDY!”?