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Last summer, the beloved game show “Jeopardy!” was getting pummeled with bad publicity over a botched search for a new host.
But Sony Pictures Television's stumbles trying to find a successor to the late Alex Trebek did not seem to matter much to “Jeopardy!” fans. In the current 2021-22 television season, the program is averaging 9.1 million viewers, up 6% compared to last year, according to Nielsen data.
So far this season, the audience for "Jeopardy!" has surpassed that for every prime-time broadcast entertainment show, including NBC's "The Voice." It's been a bigger draw than the Grammy Awards; and its crowd nearly equals the turnout for this year's Oscars telecast. Only NFL football telecasts and other major live sporting events consistently perform better.
The program’s resilience at a time when traditional TV audiences are shrinking has not gone unnoticed. While Disney/ABC has aired “Jeopardy!” on its owned TV stations since 1984, competitors ViacomCBS and NBCUniversal have discussed making a play to get the legendary game show and "Wheel of Fortune" for their major-market TV stations, according to several network and studio executives who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The intense interest is setting up a dynamic next year for an old-fashioned network bidding war among buyers looking for an edge for their stations as they compete for a diminishing pool of viewers.
"Jeopardy!" and "Wheel" are syndicated on TV stations across the country. ABC has long had the rights to the show in the country's five largest TV markets, including on its Los Angeles outlet KABC, WABC in New York and KGO in San Francisco.
"Everybody wants it," said one high-level entertainment executive.
Disney/ABC would like to hold on to the programs for its stations even while the Burbank entertainment giant's priority is growing its streaming platforms, Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+, people familiar with the matter said.
ABC-owned TV stations have the rights to “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune” in their markets through the 2022-23 season — paying around $1 million per week. Negotiations and a decision on where the two shows go are months away, but potential contenders have informally expressed interest and held internal discussions on what it will take to claim the prize.
The shows are produced by Sony Pictures Television and distributed to TV stations by CBS Media Ventures. Representatives for both companies declined comment for this story.
“Jeopardy!” has always been an attractive programming property, as it’s the highest-rated syndicated game show on TV. But its stature in recent years has been enhanced by the state of the rest of the television landscape, where traditional viewing outside of live sports has eroded rapidly.
The rise of streaming video has siphoned viewers away from traditional TV, diminishing the number of options outside of live sports that can change the fortunes of a network. The ability of “Jeopardy!” to feed a massive audience into a network’s primetime lineup enhances its value.
"Because of its timelessness, it's a safe bet," said Bill Hague, executive vice president of the media consulting firm Magid. "It's as much of a sure thing as you can get."
For ViacomCBS, the game shows also could be a draw for its streaming service Paramount+, which offers a feed of local CBS stations to subscribers.
“Jeopardy!” took a pounding in the press in August after Sony turned to Mike Richards, the show’s executive producer, as host. Some viewers were upset, questioning whether the search was rigged because Richards appeared to have the inside track. Richards ended up hosting only a handful of shows before stepping down after it was revealed he had made inappropriate comments on a podcast and was a defendant in two sexual harassment lawsuits.
The drama, following a parade of celebrity fill-ins who were supposedly auditioning for the job, was not well received.
To mop up the mess, Sony handed the reins to Ken Jennings and Mayim Bialik, who are committed to the program for the rest of the current season. Sony executives, according to insiders, have been studying the ratings, mulling whether to pick Jennings or Bialik or continue the tag-team approach. A less attractive option is to begin the search anew.
Despite the clumsy hand-off, the game show where contestants provide quiz answers in the form of a question has remained a TV fixture since it was created in 1964 by big band singer turned talk show host Merv Griffin. While Trebek became a pop culture icon during his 37 years as host, he was never the main attraction.
“Alex Trebek used to say that 'Jeopardy!' was popular because of the game and the contestants, not because of him,” said Claire McNear, author of "Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider's Guide to Jeopardy!" “Even as this has been a tumultuous year for 'Jeopardy!,' the basic format is still there: 61 clues, three contestants, and a game that’s always been designed to be played along with from home.”
McNear believes the attention on guest hosts and the controversy that followed may have rekindled the interest of people who had fallen out of the habit of watching the show. (The incumbent, Disney/ABC, would like to avoid any more controversy and is said to want approval over the permanent host in its next deal.)
The current season of "Jeopardy!" also has been buoyed by the winning streaks of champion contestant Matt Amodio, whose string of 38 victories is second to Jennings', the all-time champ. The show also made history with Amy Schneider, the first transgender contestant to make the Tournament of Champions, where top winners from each season compete.
"Players like that create a ton of buzz and inevitably draw attention toward the show," said McNear.
While “Jeopardy!” is bound to have some aggressive suitors when negotiations heat up next year, there are risks in moving it to new outlets.
ABC's TV stations have the highest ratings among broadcasters in the nation’s top markets thanks to strong local news operations. Those stations also have “ABC World News Tonight With David Muir” — the most-watched network evening newscast — leading into “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune” on several of ABC's outlets.
Even if Sony and CBS Media Ventures can get a higher license fee for “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel,” moving them to lower-rated NBC, CBS or Fox stations could cut into the ad revenue generated by the shows.
Sony and CBS retain two minutes of ad time along with paid promotional announcements on each program that are sold to national advertisers.
Some executives who have gone through past renewal negotiations for "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune" said they would bet against the programs moving due to the potential risk in disrupting the tune-in habit of a largely older audience.
Fox Television Stations made a serious run for the shows the last time they became available. But one executive familiar with the last round of discussions who was not authorized to comment publicly said company officials never truly believed ABC would let the pair go.
"It’s too valuable as lead-in to their prime time,” the executive said. “There are certain things station groups don’t do, and one them is that you let one of the top shows go to a direct competitor. It does not happen in the big markets.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.