Ratings Streak in Jeopardy?

Sep 12, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Since reigning “Jeopardy!” champ Ken Jennings first appeared on the syndicated game show in June, his successive and decisive wins have made the software engineer from Utah a household name. It also propelled “Jeopardy!’s” already strong numbers into the stratosphere.

The imminent end, however, to his

70-plus-game winning streak has raised questions in the industry about unintended consequences of the show’s rule change last season, which lifted the five-day limit on consecutive wins and allowed Mr. Jennings his streak. Mr. Jennings was defeated during an episode that taped last week, sources said (TVWeek.com, Sept. 8). Episodes featuring Mr. Jennings are expected to run through the fall.

What the end of Mr. Jennings’ reign will mean for “Jeopardy!” which is produced by Sony Pictures Television and distributed domestically by King World Productions, and its stellar ratings is unclear. When Mr. Jennings continued his streak Sept. 6 on “Jeopardy!’s” 2004-05 season debut, the show garnered a 8.7 rating and 16 share in its primary runs, up 19 percent from its previous season premiere average of 7.3/14 and up 45 percent from its average lead-in of 6.0/11, according to Nielsen Media Research.

But if history informs the future, more changes could be ahead for the show.

Randy Rigby, general manager of KJZZ-TV, the Larry H. Miller Communication Corp.-owned independent station in Salt Lake City that runs “Jeopardy!” in Mr. Jennings’ home market, said the changes made last season at “Jeopardy!” were inevitable. That’s because the stakes on television have been raised so high. Someone winning a few thousand dollars on a syndicated game show isn’t all that exciting, considering people duking it out on an island can walk away with a cool million.

“In today’s broadcast world with reality television and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” we all expect the $10,000 now,” he said. “So there’s not really a wow effect. All the sudden a man [is] building up to a million and a half dollars and growing. You have people interested in watching and saying, `How long is this going to keep lasting?”‘

For the 2004-05 season, veteran syndicated shows, from “Jeopardy!’s” corporate cousin “Wheel of Fortune” and Buena Vista Television’s game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” to entertainment magazine “Access Hollywood,” are tinkering with hosts, formats and production locations (TelevisionWeek, Aug. 23). Generally, every season a tweak or two is made to most veteran series to keep up with the evolving tastes of viewers. Sometimes they catch fire, as was the case with “Jeopardy!” and sometimes the impact is more subtle.

Still, with any alterations come new challenges for show producers. Before the Jennings phenomenon, “Jeopardy!” had little reason to guard against a contestant’s loss becoming front-page news. Mr. Jenning’s streak became a ratings commodity for the show, and future long-term winners could do the same. As a result, traditional elements of “Jeopardy!” such as the fact that it is taped in front of a studio audience more than a month in advance of airing, suddenly take on a new light. The dozens of people in the studio audience and the lag time between when the show is taped and aired arguably become a liability. The show that has never had to deal much with secrecy now has a cat in a bag, and it must think about keeping it from the media and viewers.

This is not the first time television executives and producers have grappled with the growing pains of a lightning rod series. CBS’s “Survivor,” for example, in its first season ended the game and crowned a winner before any episodes had been aired. Spoiler Web sites and media speculation dogged CBS until Richard Hatch was finally announced as the winner. To mitigate any leaks, CBS changed the format of the show so the winner is announced live in front of a studio audience.

More recently, networks and producers in the prime-time reality game have begun holding details of upcoming projects increasingly close to the vest, as the threat of pre-emptive strikes by competitors eager to emulate their formats becomes more real.

Bright Outlook

Members of the station community contacted for this story said they are not necessarily bracing for a ratings loss in the wake of the news that Mr. Jennings’ streak is due to end.

For Mr. Rigby, the show’s performance has been nothing short of phenomenal and he thinks it will continue to perform well.

“We’ve had a 200 percent increase with the Ken Jennings effect,” he said. “The fun thing is we’ve seen a lot of interest in individuals who have not been traditional followers of `Jeopardy!’ [who] have taken interest in Ken. It’s had a positive effect on the station.”

Mr. Rigby runs “Jeopardy!” at 7:30 p.m. (MT) against the network prime-time schedules. Before Mr. Jennings, he said, the ratings were “respectable” but didn’t beat network fare. Over the summer Mr. Jennings’ run on KJZZ not only helped the station consistently top the networks but also helped the ratings for “Wheel of Fortune” at 7 p.m. and the station’s 8 p.m. movie.

“We’re hoping that people are still interested in watching the local boy make good and stay with it,” Mr. Rigby said. Overall, Mr. Rigby is bullish on the prospect of “Jeopardy!” keeping at least some of its new audience after Mr. Jennings finally ends his run, since an entirely new demographic has been introduced to a show that is well executed and compelling.

“If it’s a solid program, it will create solid followers,” he said.

A spokesperson for “Jeopardy!” last Wednesday refused to comment on Mr. Jennings’ run. The spokesperson said “`Jeopardy!’ is now in its 21st season, and since its inception we have never disclosed whether a contestant has won or lost before a show has aired. We have no intention of changing this policy.” A spokesperson also declined to comment for this story.

Garnett Losak, VP and director of programming, Petry TV, suggested the real question is not so much whether people will still watch knowing Mr. Jennings will lose, but rather what happens longer term with the show, considering the potential for the streaks.

“Are people going to say, `Oh, I’m not going to watch again until he loses,’ or will people continue to watch because they really like him?” Ms. Losak said. “My question is how long can people watch until it gets boring? Could he have gone for six months down the road, or would people not care anymore?”

For now, Mr. Rigby is focused on promoting “Jeopardy!” and his fall season movie replacement-Utah Jazz basketball games, which he called a “pretty powerful combination in this marketplace.”

Even with Mr. Jennings off the air, the rule change allows for other marathon winners to dominate the show for an extended period of time.

“Then you’ll get stuff like, `Will this person be better than Ken Jennings?’ and promos like that,” Ms. Losak said.