UPDATE: SBS VICELAND will present a weekend marathon of Jeopardy! in honour of the show's legendary host, Alex Trebek. Catch 16 episodes back-to-back from midday, Saturday 14 November. Watch on TV or via the SBS Viceland 24x7 Live Stream at SBS On Demand.
The answer: This beloved game show has screened more than 8000 episodes since it first started airing over half a century ago, becoming not only a constant source of trivia and a worldwide audience favourite, but a huge pop culture phenomenon.
The question: What is Jeopardy!?
No, we didn’t mix up those two sentences. As hosted by Art Fleming in various versions until 1979, then presented by Alex Trebek from 1984 until now, Jeopardy! is famous for its unconventional format — first giving contestants the answers, then asking them to provide the corresponding questions, and, occasionally, also tasking them with wagering their amassed cash to increase their chance of winning. The veteran show is famous for much more, too, and it’s screening five nights a week at 7PM on SBS VICELAND.
How it works
As played across three rounds per episode, Jeopardy! actually sounds more complex than it is, format-wise. In the first two rounds — the Jeopardy! and Double Jeopardy! rounds — three contestants work their way through a board filled with six columns of five clues apiece. Starting with the carry-over champion from the previous episode, the contestants pick whichever clue they like from whichever column they like, with cash values per clue increasing from the top to the bottom of the board.
Whoever controls the board — the player who last responded correctly — selects their chosen clue. All three contestants can buzz in once Trebek finishes reading the clue, with the person who hits their signalling device first earning the right to answer. They must respond in the form of a question and, if they’re correct, they then get to choose the next clue. If they’re incorrect — even just by a syllable or letter, in their pronunciation, or, from the second round on wards, if they forget to phrase their response in the form of the question — their competitors can buzz in.
Cash values don’t just increase per clue working down the board; they also double in the second round, hence the name Double Jeopardy!.
And, when a player comes across a Daily Double square, they earn the right to answer the clue themselves, without competition from their fellow contestants and without needing to buzz in. For Daily Double questions, players also choose how much of their cash total they’d like to wager and, ideally, win. Doubling their total — again, it’s all there in the name — is both the best and riskiest possible option.
When the first two rounds are complete, all players with a positive cash tally progress to Final Jeopardy!. It replicates the Daily Double format, but with everyone permitted to compete — by writing down an answer, rather than buzzing in. That’s when the show’s iconic thinking music plays, too. And, it’s where contestants in the lead can bet big and lose, while those starting the round in third place can still find themselves emerging victorious. The object, of course, is to win by earning the most money.
Where it all began
Created in the 1960s by television host Merv Griffin — an experienced game show veteran thanks to Play Your Hunch, The Price Is Right and To Tell the Truth, before segueing into late-night hosting with The Merv Griffin Show — the concept came from a conversation with his wife. On a plane, while chatting about question-and-answer quiz shows, they came up with the idea of flipping the usual format.
The rest is TV history, although Jeopardy! has cycled through several different iterations over the years. First airing during the day, it initially ran from 1964–75, with a nightly version screening in 1974–75. Then, it was revived from 1978–79.
The show quiz fans all currently know and love hit screens five years later, and has remained on the air five times a week ever since — with not only Trebek as its host, but with Johnny Gilbert as its announcer as well.
The man asking the questions
Yes, that means that Trebek has been quizzing trivia fiends for almost four decades. Sometimes, he has famously sported a moustache. Lately, to the dismay of his devoted fans, he hasn’t. Either way, the Canadian-born star isn’t just the face of Jeopardy!, but its lifeblood. And, unsurprisingly, he’s built up a cult following.
Trebek was already a game-show veteran before Jeopardy! came calling, courtesy of hosting stints on Reach for the Top, The Wizard of Odds, High Rollers, Double Dare, The $128,000 Question, Battlestars and Pitfall. But there’s no doubting that he’s in his element in his long-running gig. His banter with contestants — including his sometimes withering corrections of their inaccurate answers or rule violations — is as captivating to watch as Jeopardy!’s general gameplay. So are his reactions when he chats with each show’s contestants halfway through the Jeopardy round.
It’s little wonder, then, that Trebek has popped up far beyond Jeopardy!’s podium, playing himself in a long list of other TV shows and movies that spans everything from Seinfeld and Baywatch to Groundhog Day and the 2000 version of Charlie’s Angels. And, it’s just as unsurprising that he was the target of one of Saturday Night Live’s best and funniest long-running segments: Celebrity Jeopardy!, starring Will Ferrell as an equally pompous and bumbling version of Trebek, and usually featuring Darrell Hammond as his nemesis Sean Connery.
In early 2019, Trebek announced the toughest news in Jeopardy!’s history: his stage-IV pancreatic cancer diagnosis. He didn’t phrase it as an answer requiring a question, but it would’ve been fitting. Answer: This TV icon will keep quizzing trivia-lovers while undergoing cancer treatment, including hosting one of the show’s most exciting runs of episodes in years — and its first ‘Greatest of All Time’ tournament.
36 years of highlights
Since Trebek’s reign began in 1984, Jeopardy! hasn’t been short on highlights — beyond the daily joy of asking quiz questions, playing that catchy theme and basking in Trebek’s gloriousness, that is. Indeed, it takes more than just a great host to lodge a game show into popular consciousness as firmly as Jeopardy! has managed.
The obvious standout: Ken Jennings. Across 75 shows in 2004, he notched up the show’s longest-ever winning streak, a record that remains today. He’s also returned to Jeopardy! many times in the 16 years since, often doing battle with fellow high-flyer Brad Rutter — who only won five shows during his original 2000 run, because champions were forced to retire after five wins at the time, but has notched up more than $5 million in prize money over subsequent on-screen tournaments.
In 2011, Jennings and Rutter faced a different kind of opponent. Across a three-day exhibition match, they squared off against IBM’s Watson computer in a man-versus-machine battle. Sadly for humanity, Watson won.
Then, in 2019, Jeopardy! welcomed another heavy hitter of the flesh-and-blood kind, with James Holzhauer attaining Ken Jennings-level fame. A professional gambler, his big-betting strategy helped him win big — and set many a record over his 33 consecutive appearances. His original run only comes second in length to Jennings, and he holds the all-time record for single-day winnings, as well as the following 15 spots in the same category. He’s also the only player to win $100,000 or more in a single regular episode, which he did six times.
When Jeopardy!’s ‘Greatest of All Time’ tournament aired in the US early in 2020, it naturally pitted Jennings, Rutter and Holzhauer against each other.
Wasn't there an Australian version?
The US version of Jeopardy! is a bona fide phenomenon. The franchise doesn’t end there, however. Still in America, a children’s version called Jep! aired between 1998–2004, while Rock ’n’ Roll Jeopardy! and Sports Jeopardy! have also hit screens.
Internationally, plenty of other countries have jumped on the Jeopardy! bandwagon, too. The show’s answer-and-question format translates easily, although some countries have swapped back to just asking questions and expecting answers. Over the years, everywhere from Azerbaijan, Estonia, Israel and Romania to China, Germany, Japan and the UK have created their own versions — and Australia as well. In fact, Jeopardy! made the leap down under twice, first from 1970–78, and then again in 1993.
Jeopardy! airs at 7PM weeknights on SBS VICELAND.