It's unusual when a legacy media brand cracks the half century mark and is stronger than ever. Yesterday, our blog post explored the growing number of rock stations celebrating their golden anniversaries. But something amazing is happening with one of TV's biggest game show successes – Jeopardy – now in its 55th year on television.
The venerable A&Q show (“Be sure to phrase your responses in the form of a question”) was created by TV icon Merv Griffin (who also launched Wheel of Fortune). The show was originally named What's The Question? but in a brainstorm meeting, a network executive mentioned the game needed “more jeopardies.” As Merv wrote in his autobiography, “I didn’t hear another word. All I could think of was the name: Goodbye What's The Question, hello Jeopardy.”
Alex Trebek took over hosting duties in 1984 when the show was revamped. More than just a liner-card jock, Trebek brought his charm and aplomb to Jeopardy. Think of him as the show's “morning guy,” the steady force behind the game for well more than three decades.
So, on a true classic like Jeopardy, how could anything truly new and novel happen? Aside from little tweaks along the way, the show has remained remarkably consistent.
But in the last three weeks, the game has turned upside down, thanks to a young, daring, innovative contestant, James Holzhauer. A professional sports gambler, Holzhauer may be breaking Jeopardy, having won more than $1.3 million over the last 18 shows. (Ironically, Holzhauer had a close call last night, but managed to stave off his best competitor yet.)
Consider this: it took the all-time winner, Ken Jennings, 74 consecutive wins back in 2004 to rake in more than $2.5 million. Suffice it to say, the 34 year-old Holzhauer is “in the zone,” as it is said about basketball players who seemingly can't miss a shot. He now owns all the top single day records for most money won, and continues to shatter his own records.
It's no accident, however. In fact, Holzhauer has used his gambling acumen and emotional training to “game the game.” In much the same way the Oakland A's redefined baseball metrics (a topic we discussed here last week), Holzhauer analyzed Jeopardy and has systematically changed the way the game is played.
A story in Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight about this phenomenon broke down some of the available Jeopardy data, much of which has been no doubt studied by the analytical Holzhauer. This chart shows the incidence of “Daily Doubles” on the board over a long period of time:
Not surprisingly, Holzhauer always goes for the biggest $1,000 answers in the opening round, quickly racking up big totals, and intimidating his competitors. As a result, he routinely finds those “Daily Doubles” because he's playing on the lower part of board. And then, Holzhauer maximizes his production by often going all in when wagering on those rare betting opportunities, despite the possibility of losing his entire stash. More often than not, he has won the game before “halftime.”
As in poker, having a lot of chips (cash) early in the game can be an advantage. But Holzhauer has an emotional edge as well. As a gambler, he routines has good days – and bad ones. As he told The New York Times, “The fact that I win and lose money all the time helps desensitize me, so I can write down $60,000 as the ‘Final Jeopardy' wager and not be trembling at the thought of losing that money.”
Of course, Holzhauer is highly intelligent – but so are all the contestants on Jeopardy. The way he studies trivia also differs from the norm. To retain his interest and alleviate boredom, he gravitated to children's books:
“What is the place in the library I can go to get books tailored to make things interesting for uninterested readers? Boom. The children's section.”
Now, imagine that radio's programming rules could be challenged by an out-of-the-box thinker like Holzhauer. Like on Jeopardy, consider the rules or “best practices” have been in place for decades on most stations across the format and market spectrums.
For so many years, commercial loads have run conventionally high, most often broken up into two stopsets typically falling in the either the bow tie or hourglass formats. There are still scads of mind-numbing caller #9 contests on the air, along with all those text-to-win keyword giveaways.
Add to that the same benchmarks showing up on multiple morning shows in the same markets. Dayparts still tend to be standardized, time and weather checks continue despite their digital presence everywhere. Nights and weekends are almost devoid of imaginative programming or amazing DJs because of the conventional wisdom those dayparts don't matter or don't produce much in the way of revenue.
Because that's the way we've always done it.
When you think of truly innovative radio strategies, like KNDD's “Two Minute Promise,” they are often too few and far between. Like those thousands of contestants on Jeopardy over the years, most radio stations are doing variations on the same theme. Alan Almond's Pillow Talk show was like no other AC show back in the 70s. And it broke all the rules when KEZ (Phoenix) first took their shot on all Christmas music three decades ago.
The list of all these radio “isms” go on and on – just like they did on Jeopardy until a young gambler showed up earlier this month, perhaps changing the way the game is played forever. Until someone else comes along and tries something different.
If you've been a fan of Jeopardy over the years, the game still has compelling moments, but very little drama. You pretty much know the way it's going to go, how the players are going to bet, and how “Final Jeopardy” will likely play out. That's not the case now.
Whether you're rooting for Holzhauer to continue his amazing streak of consecutive wins and massive piles of cash, or you're had enough of this “getting-more-arrogant-with-each-win” guy, there's a reason to watch Jeopardy again.
An unintended consequence of Holzhauer's amazing streak and even bigger dollar amounts is the belief among many he's breaking Jeopardy‘s budget. A story in The Atlantic by Joe Pinsker – “‘Jeopardy' Wasn't Designed for a Contestant Like James Holzhauer” – reports the average single day winnings at around $20,000. That's now out the window because Holzhauer has won well more than six figures on several individual shows.
But don't feel sorry for the producers of Jeopardy. Thanks to James Holzhauer's rule-bending strategies, there's now a huge amount of attention and buzz on the show, not to mention higher ratings, as millions tune in to see if this thirtysomething gambler can break even more records.
Hey, maybe it's time for those Jeopardy sales reps to raise the rates.
Jacobs Media has consistently walked the walk in the digital space, providing insights and guidance through its well-read national Techsurveys.
In 2008, jacapps was launched - a mobile apps company that has designed and built more than 1,200 apps for both the Apple and Android platforms. In 2013, the DASH Conference was created - a mashup of radio and automotive, designed to foster better understanding of the "connected car" and its impact.
Along with providing the creative and intellectual direction for the company, Fred consults many of Jacobs Media's commercial and public radio clients, in addition to media brands looking to thrive in the rapidly changing tech environment.
Fred was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2018.