‘Jeopardy’ team talks creating first-ever ‘All-Stars Games’

For 35 years “Jeopardy” has thrived in the syndication market as a game show that CBS Television Distribution president of sales Stephen Hackett calls “reliable but never predictable.” Although the technology of the series has evolved over time, the format is tried and true: a trio of contestants compete in a three-round quiz show featuring clues that range from history and literature to science, sports and the arts. But in order to better celebrate that special anniversary, the team behind the show crafted its first-ever “All-Stars Games.”

“What Harry Friedman and the team has had is the ability to take a very simple format and slightly change it and tweak it and enhance it over the years,” says Mike Hopkins, chairman of Sony Pictures Television. “They’re very smart about the new elements they put in, and it evolves. To be able to move forward with the franchise without stripping away the essence of it … it’s pretty remarkable for a 35-year-old show.”

Although executive producer Friedman has launched successful tournaments in the past, this one is unique in that it features team gameplay, rather than individuals.

Past contestants including mega winners such as Ken Jennings, Brad Rutter and Julia Collins, as well as fan favorites including Buzzy Cohen and Austin Rogers, were invited back, but they had to take part in a draft to determine team placement for the 10-night tournament. Six team captains picked two additional members from the pool to form teams of three. And to add more strategy into the game than usual, Friedman says, “in each three-member team they have to decide ahead of time in each game [who is] going to play each round.” Then, “because these are all two-game matches, they have to decide again, but none of those players can repeat in the round they previously played.”

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For Jennings, who went into the tournament as the player who won the most money in regular competition, the opportunity to be a part of a new kind of game after so long was something on which he didn’t want to miss out.

“It was really fun to see the formula shaken up a little bit,” he says.

The new kind of tournament didn’t just keep its contestants on their toes, but it also kept things fresh and exciting for the production team.

In order to keep the clues fair and balanced in any tournament, the “Jeopardy” staff relies on a database to flag clues that appeared in the contestants’ past shows by category and keywords. And “in particular for this tournament when we had this many people play so many games [there were] thousands and thousands of clues,” Friedman points out.

But thanks to the “information age that we’re living in,” and since the show prides itself on offering “clues that reflect what people are talking about, what they’re reading, what they’re listening to, what they’re learning inside and out of school,” Friedman says, there was plenty of surprising and accessible material to include.

“We try to stay current, first of all, with what’s going on with showbiz, with politics, with the economy, with the environment and just putting together as great a variety of material as possible,” says host Alex Trebek. “It’s the best kind of reality television … [and] it just pleases me to know that ‘Jeopardy’ has become a part of Americana and our learning environment.”

“Jeopardy” originally launched in 1964, created by Merv Griffin, and ran for 11 years. A brief (five-month) revival series followed in fall 1978 before the current version debuted in September 1984. Produced by Sony Pictures Television, the syndicated format is now in every one of CBS Television Distribution’s markets.

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HOLLYWOOD, CA - JUNE 04: TV personality Alex Trebek (L) and Jean Currivan Trebek attend the 43rd AFI Life Achievement Award Gala honoring Steve Martin at Dolby Theatre on June 4, 2015 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for AFI)
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LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 12: TV host Alex Trebek (L) and Jean Currivan Trebek attend the celebratory dinner after the special tribute to Sophia Loren during the AFI FEST 2014 presented by Audi at Dolby Theatre on November 12, 2014 in Hollywood, California. on November 12, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for AFI)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - JUNE 05: Jean Trebek (L) and TV personality Alex Trebek attend the 2014 AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Jane Fonda at the Dolby Theatre on June 5, 2014 in Hollywood, California. Tribute show airing Saturday, June 14, 2014 at 9pm ET/PT on TNT. (Photo by Michael Buckner/WireImage)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - JUNE 04: TV personality Alex Trebek (L) and Jean Trebek attend the 2014 AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Jane Fonda at the Dolby Theatre on June 5, 2014 in Hollywood, California. Tribute show airing Saturday, June 14, 2014 at 9pm ET/PT on TNT. (Photo by Kevin Winter/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - APRIL 25: TV personality Alex Trebek (R) and Jean Trebek arrive at the Jonsson Cancer Center Foundation's 19th Annual 'Taste For A Cure' at Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel on April 25, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)
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“We’re always in the process of renewing the show; we never have to re-sell it,” Hackett says. The “beauty” of the show is that “it’s built to play well in and around local newscasts just because of what the show is about: it’s so much about pop culture and history and that ties in with news viewers.”

Noting that “Jeopardy” will always have the “35+ viewer,” Hackett believes tournaments such as this all-star one will not only help stations drive live tune-in, but also grab attention from some of those younger audience members. “When we have championship weeks, they’re the best-rated weeks of the year,” he says. “All-Stars [is] going to be like on steroids for a championship week. … They don’t rest on their laurels; they just keep building this television show, and it’s iconic and at the same time it’s timeless.”

“Jeopardy” has made its host a household name, and it has also made celebrities of some of its contestants. But most importantly, for those involved in the production, it has created co-viewing content that has crossed generations.

“There are ‘Jeopardy’ families; there are ‘Jeopardy’ dorms — there are people who watch it every night,” says Jennings. “It’s no longer just a show or a TV property, it’s really a way of life. It’s reassuring for people to know, ‘This is the show I used to watch, or my mom used to watch, or my grandmother used to watch.’ It’s a legacy.”

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