I like to point out how often I have been wrong in my career. It humbles me. Lord knows, we reporters have been humbled often recently. When we make mistakes, our readers point it out on social media within seconds. I am OK with that. We get a little high and mighty, so it never hurts to get taken down a notch or two.
So, here’s a true confession. I was wrong about “Jeopardy.” Yes, that huge, 36-year TV mainstay.
When I was a kid, I watched the original daytime version, but it was never a national phenomenon. It was just a black-and-white low tech quiz show. It employed a unique gimmick: the show supplied the answer, and the contestant had to respond with the correct question. It ran for a few years, and then quietly went away.
In the mid-1980s, I was working for a television station as a morning host. My boss would occasionally call me in her office, asking for my opinion. She was tasked with reviewing tapes of new shows that were being pitched to the station. Network shows made up most of the daily schedule, but local stations had to fill in the rest.
My boss popped in a tape of a new game show, called “The Gong Show.” I shook my head no. “People would tire of it quickly,” I said. She agreed. I was right about that one.
She then showed me a new talk show, featuring a little-known Chicago TV personality named Oprah Winfrey. I was impressed. “She’s like Phil Donahue, but she seems real, more down-to-earth,” I said. “Women will relate to her.” The boss passed on Oprah. She didn’t always listen to me.
Then came the all-new “Jeopardy,” with lots of bells and whistles. Computerized graphics had replaced the sliding “answer board.” An obscure Canadian named Alex Trebek was the new host. The handsome, mustachioed Trebek had hosted a few game shows, but he was certainly no Bob Barker.
My boss played the Jeopardy tape. I still loved the game, but I thought it was a little too flashy. The whiz-bang graphics and sound effects didn’t seem to match the gravity of the answer/question format. She looked at me and said, “I really like it. What do you think?” I gave her the thumbs down.
“There’s a reason this show was never a big daytime hit,” I said. “The game is too hard for the average person. People like games with easy answers, like “Match Game,” and “Family Feud.”
She looked a little disappointed and said, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” She put the Jeopardy tape in the reject file, based on my negative review. Oh well, you win some, you lose some. We ended up settling on reruns of the old cop show comedy, “Barney Miller.” A competing station picked up “Jeopardy,” which beat Barney in the ratings, night after night.
As luck would have it, I later started working for the TV station that selected “Jeopardy.” They sent me to Hollywood to do a story on it when a local man was a contestant. I got a close-up, behind-the-scenes look at how contestants are trained to hit the button, and how they’re basically sequestered to prevent cheating.
As a bonus, I lined up an interview with Alex Trebek himself. It was to take place during a break, between the second and third shows they were taping that day. (Like most game shows, “Jeopardy” tapes up to five shows per day, two days a week, and then the crew takes a couple of weeks off. Not a bad schedule!)
I recently posted my Trebek interview to my YouTube channel, and it was the first time I had seen it since it aired in 1992. It reminded me that the host was not feeling well that day, not at all. Off camera he looked tired, and he was coughing and sniffling, obviously battling a cold. I’m sure he would have preferred to “blow off” an interview with some small-town TV guy, but he probably realized that this was my one shot, and he held up his end of the deal quite admirably.
I have just finished his new book, “The Answer Is,” in which he looks back on his life before and during “Jeopardy.” Much of it includes his current battle with pancreatic cancer, which he revealed last year.
As he nears 80, he writes, “I’ve lived a long life. It’s not like I’ve missed out on many things. When it’s time to pack it in, I’m ready. I’ll be perfectly content if my story ends sitting with the woman I love, and our two wonderful children nearby.”
In a life filled with questions, Alex Trebek may have found the perfect final answer.