Growing The Jeopardy!-Verse

It seems like a day doesn’t go by of late when JEOPARDY! hasn’t been somehow infused into the mainstream pop culture zeitgeist.  A year into the regime of showrunner Michael Davies, and two years removed from the death of longtime emcee Alex Trebek, the show has never been more ubiquitous, available and connecting past, present and future successfully.

Davies sees the franchise as that of sport, which he loves as passionately as game shows (qualities that I emulate and admire).  He has infused the daily episodes with supplemental content akin to what a passionate follower of a baseball or basketball team would have at their avail.  Detailed “box scores”, with everything from who got each answer, who buzzed in and how long it took for them to do so.  “Condensed games”, allowing busy viewers to see the gist of the competition in just a few minutes.  Regular podcasts and YouTube downloads taking fans inside the production process.  And invigorating the franchise with new wrinkles and extensions.

This past Sunday night CELEBRITY JEOPARDY! debuted in Sunday night primetime on ABC, the first time the show has ever aired on a regular weekly basis in primetime in its nearly 60-year history.  Longtime fans of the show were quick to demean some of the elements, including the addition of a TRIPLE JEOPARDY! round into what was a single match spread out over the hour.  To accommodate that, dollar values in the earlier rounds were halved to what they had been upped to decades earlier on the daily verison.  The initial online reaction was heavily negative, as if Sony and ABC were taking money out of the viewers’ pockets.  But as the show reminded its fans with its frequent rebuttals leading up the premiere, the celebrity tournaments of the past always emphasized entertainment versus mental challenge–many stars aren’t as smart as those who play the game regularly.

The end result was actually well-received, with MCU star Simu Liu pulling out a last-minute reversal against past celebrity champion Andy Richter to surprise everyone watching–most notably himself–with a win, which was watched by just over four million people–against Sunday Night Football and Aaron Judge’s pursuit of the all-time American League home run record airing head-to-head in most of the country.  An episode of JEOPARDY! now airs seven days a week (repeats of the previous season air on Saturdays in most cities); in more markets than ever, two episodes air daily.  Other classic episodes are now readily available on streaming services and a FAST channel.  And all of this hasn’t hurt the mothership franchise one bit–the first week of the 2022-23 season was syndication’s highest-rated show, debuting at a 4.9 HH rating which, when compared to broadcast network prime time, places it ahead of every other non-sports program that has aired this season-to-date.

With this level of popularity, further expansion should not only be expected, it would be foolish for Sony not to pursue it.  In an interview with the New York Times, Davies announced his intention to create a “masters league”–not to be confused with the longtime Tournament of Champions, whose expanded version will occupy most of November this season on the daily version.  And with some elements that, again, puts it closer to his beloved Premier League in execution and production.  As reported in THE WRAP:

This masters league would bring back the best of the best — who Davies said he considers essentially professional athletes, often competing at a level that is below their talent.

Davies said his dream would be to air the masters league episodes live, though he admitted the idea “makes a lot of my staff nervous.”

Davies has plenty of other innovations ahead as well.  A “second chance” tournament, bringing back players who for some quirky reason never won more than a $1,000 or $2,000 consolation.  And even a way to impact how the game is played itself, offering the potential of a cash bonus for anyone who “runs a category”–correctly questions all five answers in any one column.  Yesterday, even CNN felt this was newsworthy enough to devote three minutes of its morning newscast to this possibility.

Actually, this is not an original idea.  The original JEOPARDY! series, late into its run in the mid-70s, added this wrinkle, with the short-lived prime access version (featuring original host Art Fleming in a plaid tuxedo and oversized chase lights more fitting for a Times Square porn arcade) rewarding its players with “a trip to London, worth more than ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS!!”.  The intent here would be to potentially affect the current trend of more aggressive players to go for the higher-valued clues first, try and build an insurmountable lead, and along the way find the daily doubles that could grow those higher numbers even faster.  That was the secret behind James Holzhauer’s million-dollar run, accomplished in half the time it took past champion (and current host) Ken Jennings years earlier.

Davies is indeed a student of history, so attempting to bring this element back is hardly surprising to me.  Franchise extensions have also been attempted in past years.  There was  ROCK N’ ROLL JEOPARDY, which featured current SURVIVOR host Jeff Probst at the helm. There was a cheap-ass kids’ version for the Game Show Network, JEP!, which channeled DOUBLE DARE by dropping balls on players who gave incorrect responses.  And there was SPORTS JEOPARDY!, produced for Sony’s ill-fated male-appeal Crackle platform, which gave sportscaster Dan Patrick the runway to audition for Trebek’s job, which most observers believe he flubbed miserably.

None of these got the opening reception of CELEBRITY JEOPARDY! this week.  Nor have any of the iterations of 90 DAY FIANCE, which new Warner Discovery chairman David Zaslav put on the same level of franchise value as the DC Universe, all too familiar with the profit and potential of those shows from his TLC stewardship.  There are 18 different versions of the 90 DAY verse, even more active shows than Greg Berlanti was able to produce on the DC side.

And Sony knows the value of franchise extension from its own world.  When it obtained the rights for the one MCU franchise which Disney does not fully control, SPIDER-MAN, it negotiated the rights for 932 characters in the “Spider-Verse”, and commissioned a huge internal development swat team to explore them all after its most recent version did as well as it did at the box office. VENOM, the first significant one to come out of this, did decently; MORBIUS was an outright embarassment, made even more infamous when Sony somehow misread its initial box office disappointment as an appetite for rerelease, and actually went into theatres a second time as pandemic conditions loosened this summer.  In that weekend, it earned less than $100,000 nationally, on hundreds of screens.   Way more people were watching JEOPARDY! somewhere at the same time.

So while the plans to grow the Spider-verse have stalled, Sony, via Davies, are running full speed ahead with enlarging the JEOPARDY!-verse.  Any longtime fan who sees this as a negative should simply wake up, smell the damn coffee, and embrace it.  It’s good business, and will likely assure the show will be around 60 years from now in ever better shape than its started nearly 60 years ago,  And yes, even though it’s technically season 39 of this version, Davies has embraced the show’s complete legacy.  It’s March 30th that he’s designated as JEOPAR-DAY which is the anniversary of the Fleming version’s NBC premiere.  He’s interrupting this year’s tournament of champions on November 8th–the actual anniversary of Trebek’s death in 2020–for a special episode, which will also solve the problem that the show will be delayed or pre-empted in many markets by midtern election night coverage.   You can even play the game on the Alexa device or app every morning; as many as ten times on the weekend as I do (although, with my accent, the process is tedious; I’m personally sick of Mayim Bialik’s chiding to ask me to repeat a response).

The way I see it, Davies should have free reign for about 900 or so more good ideas to be developed, because JEOPARDY! is arguably as valuable to Sony these days as SPIDER-MAN.  And it’s virtually assured most of them will be received better than MORBIUS.

Until next time…


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