Celebrities Are Just the Start of the Expanding ‘Jeopardy!’-verse

Michael Davies, who has been an executive producer of “Jeopardy!” for over a year, has proposed numerous ways to expand the game show’s brand at a delicate moment of transition, but “Celebrity Jeopardy!” wasn’t one of them.

The order for that spinoff, which premieres on Sunday with Mayim Bialik as host, came from on high.

This past spring, an executive at ABC noticed fans on Twitter were musing about how well a revival of a celebrity version of the show would do, Davies said in a recent interview. When Sony, which produces the show, told Davies they had signed on, he was in shock: The production team would have only the summer to put together the new show, on top of mounting a new season of “Jeopardy!”

“It wasn’t anywhere in my plans,” Davies said. “I’m not often at a loss for words, but I was at a loss for words.”

It wasn’t a new idea. “Jeopardy!” first brought on celebrities as contestants in 1992 for a week at a time. (Early competitors included Carol Burnett, Rosie O’Donnell and Cheech Marin.) “Saturday Night Live” had a recurring sketch making fun of it, featuring a beleaguered Alex Trebek (played by Will Ferrell) trying to coax responses out of clueless stars. (Categories included “first-grade math” and “the letter that comes after ‘B.’”)

The real game show asked celebrities on intermittently up until 2016, donating winnings to the charity of the victor’s choice. But the new version would be more ambitious: an hourlong show to air in a prime-time Sunday slot.

Despite the tumult of the past couple of years — which has included the death of the show’s longtime host, Trebek, and a chaotic succession in which the official replacement host left under a cloud of scandal — the show’s ratings have held mostly steady. In 2020, the last year of Trebek’s tenure as host, episodes of “Jeopardy!” averaged 9.4 million viewers in the United States, according to data provided by Nielsen. In the year after, that number dipped slightly, to 9.3 million viewers, and viewership has remained the same so far this year.

Through the leadership transition, the show mostly kept its fans — assisted, no doubt, by a series of contestant streaks, including those of Amy Schneider and Matt Amodio, that rallied viewers’ excitement.

The numbers have emboldened Davies, a veteran game-show producer, and his team to press ahead with plans to expand what they have referred to as the “Jeopardy!”-verse.

“It does feel like with Michael Davies, we have someone who’s looking to probe the extent to which the brand can be expanded,” Chris Stratton, a fan and a moderator of a Reddit page devoted to discussing the show, said in an interview.

“Jeopardy!” has already made other changes. It started filming a Second Chance Tournament, a series that invites back promising contestants, as well as a retooled Tournament of Champions. The show has also begun publishing in-depth statistics, started a podcast to parse “Jeopardy!” news, created a hall of fame to honor notable figures associated with the show and introduced edited highlights for each episode (an addition meant to serve the cord-cutting population).

And then there are the ideas that are still being batted around: spinoffs for sports and pop culture trivia, a tournament for librarians, and a masters league featuring the show’s most successful players. Davies, a soccer commentator who often compares “Jeopardy!” to a sport, dreams of airing the new league’s episodes live. (“That makes a lot of my staff nervous,” Davies acknowledged.)

The producer and his team have kept a close eye on the reaction online from devoted “Jeopardy!” fans, who are known to chafe at changes to the game show’s structure and who regularly discuss, sometimes critically, the minutiae of every announcement.

“The heart and soul of ‘Jeopardy!’ is that a clever person in their normal walk of life can take a couple days off work, fly to Culver City and come back a couple thousand dollars richer for it,” said Tyler Rhode, a “Jeopardy!” fan and contestant who is competing in this season’s Tournament of Champions.

But so far, Davies seems to have much of the fandom’s support, due in no small part to his commitment to listening to their feedback on Twitter, Reddit and other online channels.

Mayim Bialik, who is hosting the new prime-time show.Credit…Tyler Golden/Sony Pictures Television

Fans have long rallied behind the idea of a Second Chance Tournament, for example. And in July, when Davies announced that Bialik and Ken Jennings would be splitting hosting duties, he assured viewers that the show would not constantly alternate hosts, writing, “We know you value consistency.”

“I don’t think there’s ever really been a game show that has really listened to its fans the way that ‘Jeopardy!’ is currently doing,” said Cory Anotado, a game-show journalist who has been a contestant on the show.

Davies, who developed the original American version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” that premiered in 1999, was brought in last year during a crisis. Mike Richards, the show’s executive producer, had been named Trebek’s successor, but that plan imploded after revelations that Richards had made offensive comments on a podcast. Davies’s leadership, as well as Bialik and Jennings as a hosting duo, were temporary measures that eventually turned permanent.

Just as fan outcry contributed to Richards’s departure from the show, fan enthusiasm fueled the network’s interest in a new generation of “Celebrity Jeopardy!”

For this iteration, producers choose contestants who are known to be fans of the show or to have some trivia prowess. This season, those contestants include: Michael Cera, B.J. Novak, Patton Oswalt, Ray Romano, Iliza Shlesinger, Aisha Tyler and Constance Wu. (The first episode features the actors Simu Liu, Andy Richter and Ego Nwodim, who happens to be an “S.N.L.” comedian.)

The appeal should lie in seeing comedians bring a chaotic informality to a formal game-show structure, Davies said, as well as in putting celebrities in the anxiety-inducing position of having their knowledge tested in a public setting.

“I browned out entirely; it was so stressful that I can’t remember one thing about it,” recalled Bellamy Young, an actress who won a celebrity episode of the show in 2015.

To stretch the game into an hourlong episode, the production has added Triple Jeopardy — a first for the American version of the show — in which clues start at $300 and go up to $1,500. The material will start off easier than in a typical game, which contestants take a test to qualify for. (It isn’t likely to sink to the level of “S.N.L.” sketches, though, in which one clue read: “This is the thing that becomes toast.”)

One thing on Davies’s wishlist? A new spinoff that would bring back former champions.

Within the most recent season, four new champions were added to the show’s all-time leaderboard, including Schneider, who won 40 games in a row, making her the contestant with the second-highest number of consecutive wins, and Amodio, who trails close behind with 38 wins.

To Davies, players like Schneider and Amodio are like professional athletes playing among amateurs, and so it makes sense to him to feature their talents in a separate tournament or league.

“What we really need to develop is the pro-level version of the game,” Davies said. “It seemed ridiculous to me that we have this sport where every single year we take all of our best players — we take our LeBrons and our Dwyanes — and we switch them all out.”

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