ALL IN THE GAME
This Is Jeopardy---15 Years Later
They didn't really like it at first 15 years ago. Neither did I.
In April 1984, I was hired as news director at WWAY-TV in Wilmington, N.C. Our company president, George Diab, had made a shrewd decision the previous year to pick up Wheel of Fortune when King World was almost giving it away to get it on the air. The week after I arrived at the station, King World had announced a new version of Jeopardy for fall.
George, who learned I was a programming buff during the interview process, asked my opinion about picking up Jeopardy. I enthusiastically encouraged it. Remembering how noondays during my college years were often scheduled to fit Jeopardy! around my classes and all the classic elements of the game, I couldn't wait to see it return.
Surely, surely Art Fleming would be back for yet another run with the game. Forget the short-lived 1978-79 update on NBC. The game was killed by The Young and the Restless. Had it been used by CBS, which financed the original remake pilot, and scheduled as a lead-in to The Price Is Right, it wouldn't have missed.
Art was still in his late 50s and had plenty of energy, even if he had put on a few pounds. Jeopardy without Art was like having Match Game without Gene Rayburn.
Two weeks later, after a receiving a fax from King World, George called me in with some bad news. "They're going to use Alex Trebek as the host, instead of Art Fleming," George told me. "Now, how do you feel about it?" I told George I still thought the game would sell and if it was scheduled after Wheel, it would do just fine. However, I felt a bigger letdown than if my news team had been blown away in the local ratings.
Alex Trebek? On Jeopardy? I'd enjoyed Alex's work in the two versions of High Rollers. I didn't particularly care for The Wizard of Odds and Double Dare was too cold, too stark and reminded me heavily of the old 100 Grand that lasted three weeks in the '60s.
I actually enjoyed Art's remake of the show, even though it only lasted six months. Hearing Art shout, "RRRRIGHT YOU ARE!" when a contestant won the Super Jeopardy bonus round was a high spot in my day. However, I missed the classic think music.
Like many stations, we weren't confident enough to go with Jeopardy at night, so we premiered it at 10:30 a.m. on a mid-September day in Wilmington with a major hurricane on its way. Against my grain, I gave Alex a chance. They'd brought back the think music, the guts of the classic format, brought it into the high-tech era and raised the jackpots. I didn't like not letting the other contestants keep their winnings. And I still wasn't sure about Alex. Neither was much of the country.
KCBS in Los Angeles had picked up the show for 3:30 p.m. as a news lead-in. The first week ratings were a disaster. After seven weeks, KCBS let it go and warning signs went out Jeopardy was in serious trouble. Jim Lange's $100,000 Name That Tune was actually drawing better numbers nationally. KCOP in Los Angeles claimed Jeopardy and paired it immediately with Wheel in prime time. Slowly, Alex began to grow on viewers and the story of the last 15 years has become a syndication legend.
I still haven't changed my mind about whether Art or Alex is the best host of the show. You'll never convinced me this wasn't a tailor-made game for Art Fleming. However, an experience the next spring warmed me up even more to Alex Trebek.
One of the biggest tourist attractions in North Carolina is Wilmington's annual Azalea Festival in April. More than 350,000 people visit the community over a weekend when the blossoms are in full bloom. Big-name entertainment visits the Carolina coastal city to participate in four days of activities. Typically, the crowning of the festival's queen is performed in a lavish ceremony at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington coliseum. More years than not, a game show host is imported as the emcee.
Six weeks before the festival, George Diab was able to nail down Alex Trebek to host the main event. I was like a stupid kid. Even if he had replaced one of my idols, just to meet a game show host was a major priority for me. Then, two weeks before the Azalea event, I was stricken with a serious back injury which required a choice of surgery or six weeks of total bedrest. Keeping me flat of my back for six weeks is like ordering me into a straightjacket. However, the alternative of the knife was far less appearling. Yet, I was sure this would kill my chances of meeting Alex.
Alex had agreed to appear live with us on Eyewitness News 3 the Friday night of the festival. He would team with our talented weathercaster, the late Shirley Gilbert, to do the evening's forecast and we learned Alex had originally done weather when he was a young broadcaster with the CBC. He was brilliant. Shirley had skilled him in some of the unusual names of the rural cities around Wilmington and he covered them all like a master elocutionist.
Alex's big event was not to be until Saturday night but he was to be introduced to the crowd before Donny and Marie Osmond performed at Friday night's entertainment extravaganza. Yet, he made time for a quick stop he didn't have to make.
At 6:45, my wife heard a knock at our front door, which was about five minutes from our downtown station. To her surprise, three men were at the door, two she knew and one she'd only seen on television. She was told to be silent.
As she came into the bedroom, I thought she was planning to discuss our dinner menu. Instead, she told me I had a visitor (and I'd had many the previous two weeks). However, none of them were the host of Jeopardy, or the host of anything else, for that matter. Approaching with a warm handshake, Alex---who had been prompted---asked, "Where were you tonight? Why weren't you there helping me get ready for the weather?" If I hadn't been in such pain, I'd have leapt from the bed.
His five-minute visit was like five hours to me. He had been told I was a game show devotee. Alex asked what I thought of the new version of Jeopardy, which I had---by then---come to pledge allegiance to at 7:30 every night (we had, after much public demand, moved the show to a time period where it cleaned up in the ratings and made our station a bundle of money). I told him my only complaint was in not having all of the players keep their money at the end. He gave me the expected "for budgetary reasons" explanation as to why the runners-up went home without cash.
Alex signed my fourth edition of the Jeopardy! home game (remember, Art's version had the ! after title) and told me he wished I could be at the queen's festival the next night. I asked him if he could come back every Friday night to do the weather because Shirley would enjoy having the evening off to spend with her new husband. Alex quipped, "Give me a call." To this day, I have never thanked George enough for engineering that visit. Yes, I still have my autographed copy of the home version and it will never be offered for auction on e-Bay.
The generation of students I teach have grown up with Alex in the same fashion I did with Art. To them, a Jeopardy without Alex Trebek would likely be unthinkable and, to be honest, few younger emcees today have the credibility to pull off that show successfully if Alex ever sought to hang it up.
This week marks 15 years since the version of Jeopardy premiered I was sure I wasn't going to like but did. I still have a preference for Art Fleming but Alex has done the job and done it well. While I can't call him to do the Friday night weather any more, I'd love to have Alex give a lecture to my college students.
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