Do Champions With Long Winning Streaks Hurt Jeopardy?
I disagree With the Premise — But I Understand Its Reasoning
Over the past several months I have writing a series of raves cheering on the success of Jeopardy in the post Alex Trebek era. After enduring a summer of controversies involving the guests hosts, the selection of Matt Richards as permanent host, followed not long thereafter by his being fired as first host, then as executive producer, the 38th season has more than demonstrated that Jeopardy would seem to have come out the other side with flying colors. Helped by the 38 game winning streak of Matt Amodio to start the season and almost a month later by the equally remarkable 40 game winning streak of Amy Schneider, Jeopardy has once again become known for what happens in front of the camera rather than what is going on behind it. Fans would seem to agree — overall ratings for the series have jumped more than six percent compared with this time last year — a period where Alex Trebek was still hosting. Everything would seem to be sunshine and roses.
Then when I looked at this week’s TV Guide, I found a letter to the editor that would appear to contradict all this. This writer said that during that while Amy Schneider was making her remarkable run, she would watch the show for a few minutes and then change the channel. “What’s the point of watching a game show if you already know who’s going to win?” was one of the key lines. The editors took the position that they personally loved watching Amy’s streak and I have written that it was a good thing for Jeopardy as a whole. But the thing is
, I can sort of get where the writer — and many like them — are coming from.
Some personal notes from a long time fan. Jeopardy was a daily ritual in my life pretty much since I was thirteen. No matter what I was doing, I made sure that in one way or another I was home at seven o’clock to watch the show or have it recorded (no mean feat in those pre-DVR, streaming days). So I was watching the series in the spring of 2004 when Ken Jennings began his remarkable run.
Then something strange happened. I don’t remember when exactly it happened — I think it was some time between the tenth and fifteenth game — but what I know for certain is for pretty much the remainder of the 20th season and much of the start of Season 21, I basically stopped watching Jeopardy. Part of it was because, like so many fans, I play along at home and as anyone who saw Jennings play then or in subsequent tournaments throughout the next fifteen years, it is almost impossible to beat him. (Well one man did and so did IBM, but that’s another article). So yes, part of it was ego. But in retrospect I had a similar reaction to the same people who watched Amy Schneider play the last few months: is this guy ever going to lose? The game stopped being fun for me in a way and became something of a chore. It had nothing to do with Jennings as a personality — I’ve since grown to appreciate the man as a player and have always looked forward to his appearance in anniversary tournaments. But maybe it had something to do with just the fact that I was tired of seeing his face for what amounted to nearly four months (it seemed liked longer because there were several tournament and a hiatus in between them) I think I was relieved when he finally was defeated — I could back to watching the show again.
A lot of players in the next fourteen years would have very long streaks and win relatively large sums of money — I’m thinking of David Madden who started a nineteen game winning streak not long after Jennings left, and Julia Collins whose twenty straight games were the benchmark for a female contestant until Schneider came along. But I never felt the same level of hostility to any of them; if anything I marveled at their accomplishments and rooting for them over the years. The next player who truly made me feel a similar feeling of repulsion was James Holzhauer. This shouldn’t come as a shock to most fans of the show or TV viewers in general; I remember reading multiple articles online during his run along the lines of ‘Has the Gambler broken Jeopardy?”
I sympathize completely with those kinds of people — I was tuning out Holzhauer after only five days. During Jennings’ games there was at least the possibility going into Double Jeopardy that somebody could beat him. During Holzhauer’s wins, it could be over by the first commercial break. When you have a player who not only shatters the one day record of $77,000 with $100,000, but then goes on to win at least that much five times in thirty two games, its easy to get the impression that Jeopardy just isn’t working any more; you start to wonder if this guy could have forced Watson into breaking down. The fact that he came across so much of the time as arrogant and brash probably didn’t help matters. I marvel at his accomplishments — $2.2 million is a lot of money and 32 games is a lot of wins. Doesn’t mean I wasn’t glad when he wasn’t in Jeopardy’s rear view mirror.
I have had a different approach with the streaks of Matt Amodio and Amy Schneider in that I ended up watching every single one of their games. That didn’t mean I didn’t feel at times the same level of frustration that I had during the original run of Jennings and Holzhauer. It wasn’t quite the same thing in either case because neither player was nearly as brilliant as either of them — there were at least three or four games that each of them could have ended up losing before they were finally defeated and despite their enormous totals in so many of their wins, I would actually able to come out ahead of them in quite a few matches. But I’ll confess that at a certain point in each of their runs, I started openly rooting for both of them to lose. It had nothing to do with their play or their personalities — both of them were charming and fascinating to watch, as well as radically different in their approaches to the game, from how they handled the board to their wagers on Daily Doubles to how they did Final Jeopardy. As a man who considers himself practically a scholar of Jeopardy, it was fascinating to watch. As a long time viewer of television, it was a bit exhausting.
So in that sense I can see why having Jeopardy champions play until they have been defeated has been something of a double-edged sword for the series. It has been good for the show in that it has probably helped draw in more viewers, including those wouldn’t normally watch Jeopardy. But there may also be a certain element of what might be called ‘champion fatigue’. I certainly suffered from it during the runs of Ken Jennings and James Holzhauer, and I can get why even the long-time viewer might feel it about certain players. And it is the kind of thing that can start to cause head games. The man who defeated Amodio, Jonathan Fisher went on to win eleven games and over a quarter of a million dollars. I think my reaction around his eighth win was ‘not again!”
All that said, I think the winning streaks of Matt Amodio and Amy Schneider are good for Jeopardy both now and for the series’ future. It has helped the series get past what could well have a period that could have ended this long time game show’s run and helped guarantee that it will have a significant history past the era of the late Alex Trebek. I agree with the editor of TV Guide in that I look forward to seeing Matt and Amy face off in the Tournament of Champions later this year and in the inevitable anniversary tournaments that will follow for years to come. Who knows? Maybe one of them will end up cleaning James Holzhauer’s clock someday.