Jeopardy! has been around so long and is so well known that it seems odd that when it was first created, it completely flipped the typical game show format on its head. The trivia game show came about after a wave of cheating scandals exposed the ugly underbelly of numerous popular quiz shows that dominated the 1950s, so the fledgling upstart had quite a point to prove. Here’s the unbelievable, yet totally true, story of how Jeopardy! became a beloved American institution on the back of inconceivable scandal.
There was a strong tradition of American television game shows dating far earlier than Jeopardy!’s debut in 1964. Before it, game shows were a radio institution. Programs like Information Please and Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life entertained listeners throughout the thirties and forties.
Everything changed in 1954 when the Supreme Court handed down a ruling on the case FCC v. American Broadcasting Co.. This was the case that decided giveaways were not a form of gambling, enabling game shows to lean into much larger prizes. There was no larger prize than CBS’s The $64,000 Question, debuting in 1955. That’s about $652,000 in 2021 money if you’re curious.
The show was a hit in a way no show could ever be today. It was the only show to beat I Love Lucy in the ratings. It soon had its own spin-off, The 64,000 Challenge, and spawned imitators like NBC’s Twenty-One. Fans loved how these programs turned ordinary Americans into larger-than-life figures. Producers quickly learned that the public enjoyed rooting for some contestants more than others. This is how a scandal gets started.
1950s Game Show Scandals
Contestants were instructed to lose, and the ends of episodes were essentially fixed. Twenty-One was fixed from the very beginning in an effort to keep audiences interested. Jilted losers on these shows soon made a fuss, and soon a grand jury was formed. These scandals are portrayed in the 1994 film Quiz Show, the Best Picture nominee in the loaded 1994 class (it lost to Forrest Gump alongside Pulp Fiction, Shawshank Redemption, and Four Weddings and a Funeral. What a year.)
This was the beginning of the end, as Congress soon ruled that fixing game shows was illegal. The game show boom came to a swift end, but one important man mourned their loss” Merv Griffin.
Birth Of An Institution
In 1963, Griffin thought game shows could still make a comeback despite the scandals sullying the reputation of the concept. Since everyone thought contestants were fed answers anyway, his wife joked, “Why don’t you do a show where you give the contestants the answers?” They soon created the concept of requiring questions instead of answers. Thus, Jeopardy! was born.
The program was immediately popular, especially after Alex Trebek hosted its reboot in 1984. A completely different scandal has overwhelmed the show this year: who will take over as permanent host? That question, it seems, has no clear answer.