Jeopardy!’s Biggest Tournament is in … Well, Jeopardy

Studios' refusal to grant writers a fair deal is now bleeding into the world of unscripted game shows, jeopardizing a big TV event.

Jeopardy! - Season 38 - Week 25
Photo: Sony Pictures Television

When the actors in the SAG-AFTRA guild joined their writing counterparts in the WGA in going on strike, nearly all production in Hollywood came to a grinding halt. That result certainly made sense as most of the entertainment we consume employs the services of actors and writers.

But what about game shows? Surely, those won’t be affected by AMPTP’s refusal to negotiate with writers and actors in good faith! Well, as Jeopardy!‘s producers already know and as fans will soon find out, the trivia show’s clue writers are in the WGA too … and they would also like to be properly compensated for their work, believe it or not.

Ever since it first premiered in the 1960s, venerable quiz show Jeopardy! has featured questions (or “answers” as they’re know in the show’s goofy parlance) written by a staff of dedicated researchers and writers. While the show has made household names out of longtime beloved host Alex Trebek and superchamp-turned-host Ken Jennings, both would be among the first to point to the writers as the engines of the show’s success.

When the show’s 40th season premieres on Sept. 11, however, it will be doing so without the services of its writers. Since filming will begin soon with the strike still in place, producers plan to reuse questions from the show’s 39 seasons. This raises ethical questions about the recycling of writers’ work without compensation (not to mention the cheating potentialities) it does at least mean that Jeopardy! will be able to maintain its release schedule for now.

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Continuing to produce weekly episodes of Jeopardy! with old, and in some cases likely outdated, questions is a controversial enough decision to begin with and its exacerbated by the existence of the Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions that usually airs in the fall.

A staple of the program since it premiered, the Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions is the Super Bowl (or World Cup for our non-American friends) of all televised quiz competitions. It brings together the most successful champions from the previous season to find out who is truly the best of the best. Last year’s tournament aired throughout most of November, with superchamp Amy Schneider eventually beating out Andrew He and Sam Buttrey for the TOC crown.

The Tournament of Champions is as hallowed an event that a trivial trivia can produce and the idea of participating in it with recycled questions was a non-starter for several season 39 champs. In a Reddit post, 13-game winner and TOC candidate Ray Lalonde reported that he would decline an invitation to the tournament while writers and actors are striking.

Lalonde was quickly joined in boycotting the TOC by fellow contestants Chris Pannullo, Hannah Wilson, Ben Chan, Troy Meyer, Ben Goldstein, Luigi de Guzman, and Suresh Krishnan. Celebrity Jeopardy! champion and SAG member Ike Barinholtz would be unable to participate as well, wiping out more than half of the TOC‘s usual 15 contestants.

How can Jeopardy! stage a tournament of champions without questions or even most champions? Turns out that they can’t. In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, a Jeopardy! spokesperson reported that the Tournament of Champions would be delayed, saying:

Jeopardy! never had any intention of producing a Tournament of Champions for season 39 until the strike is resolved. Further, no contestants from season 39 have been contacted regarding their availability for any postseason tournaments, including the TOC. The Jeopardy! postseason represents the pinnacle of our competition, and it should feature our strongest players playing our toughest original material.”

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Setting aside the implications for moment that recycled questions are fine for the “average” Jeopardy! contestant but not the champs, the show’s statement suggests some big ramifications for how it will operate during the rest of the strike. “Any postseason” tournaments refers to the Tournament of Champions, of course, but it could also apply to any of the show’s regular specials.

Season 39 featured several one-off tournaments including Celebrity Jeopardy!, High School Reunion, The Second Chance Tournament, and the much-hyped Masters Tournament in which super-duper champ James Holzhauer conquered all. If the official policy at Jeopardy! is “no recycled questions for tournaments” then season 40 could be a fairly dry affair.

Even if Jeopardy! planned to give some specialty tournaments a shot, it might have a hard time securing talent for them. Not only is Jeopardy! co-host Mayim Bialik a SAG member and off the board (and to her credit, she exited production of the show when the WGA went on strike in solidarity), but some other heavy hitters have will suspend their involvement until the strikes are resolved, including Schneider.

The fate of this year’s Tournament of Champions is yet another example of the far-reaching effects of this double-strike. Hopefully, once AMPTP comes back to resolve all of this, “What is the 2023 strike?” will make for a good TOC response one day.