Playing to win, win ...

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Unlikely TV star Ken Jennings puts game show back on the map

By David Bauder ~ The Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Beverly Herter is in a club that's grown less exclusive by the day: She lost to Ken Jennings on "Jeopardy!"

"It's kind of a bonding experience going against Ken," said Herter, a freelance editor from Portsmouth, R.I., beaten in an episode televised last week.

Jennings has dispatched 76 contestants on the brain-teasing trivia game, making the Utah software engineer the unlikeliest of TV stars and juicing a show that's aired quietly for 30 years.

Ratings have soared, Jennings visited both David Letterman and Jay Leno, and newspapers run a daily update on his winnings. The Web site Slate even invented a Ken Jennings drinking game -- two sips if he misses a Daily Double. Not bad for a Mormon teetotaler who's oddly proficient in alcohol-related questions.

After Friday's show, Jennings had won 38 straight games and $1,321,660.

His winning is so methodical, so sweat-free, that his appearances are actually kind of dull.

Call it heresy -- but could Ken Jennings ultimately be bad for "Jeopardy!"?

"I could see it getting a little boring if he keeps winning like that," Herter said.

It won't end anytime soon. Jennings set a one-day record by winning $75,000 on Friday's episode, the last original episode of the show's season. "Jeopardy!" will air reruns until Sept. 6, when Jennings will return.

"I think it's great," said Michael Davies, executive producer of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and a loyal "Jeopardy!" fan. "There are shows on television that are watched by millions of people every day that are not on the radar. It's good that people are talking about the show."

Viewer attraction

Jennings made his first appearance on June 2. In his first full week of winning, "Jeopardy!" averaged 8.4 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. During the week of July 5 -- traditionally one of the slowest TV weeks of the year -- the show averaged 12.6 million viewers.

A little-noticed rule change a year ago made Jennings' run possible. Throughout its history, "Jeopardy!" champions were retired after five wins. Last fall, just to spice things up, producers decreed that a champion could keep playing until being beaten. They also recently doubled the monetary value of their prizes.

During a dull TV summer, Jennings is the counterintuitive star. He's made it with his brain, not by double-crossing someone on a tropical island, dating profusely or eating pig rectum.

"It's a timely reminder to television executives and producers that you can get buzz on television in a lot of different ways," he said. "It's not only about being shocking and extreme and over the top."

"Jeopardy!" producers are probably annoyed this happened during the summer, when higher ratings don't mean as much financially, Davies said. When the syndicated "Millionaire" had two big winners on shows taped to air in the summer, he delayed them to the fall.

At the same time, Jennings may not have attracted as much attention in a busier time of year, he said.

Host Alex Trebek and "Jeopardy" executive producer Harry Friedman have retreated during their show's finest hour, declining interview requests.

Not so for another Jennings victim, Las Vegas casino employee Tim Crockett. He applauded the run.

"Having dynasties in sports never diminishes the sport," he said. "Nobody will say that basketball in the 1990s wasn't any good because of Michael Jordan. People I know who weren't interested in watching the show are now watching."

Crockett tried trash-talking the amiable Jennings backstage to intimidate him. When Jennings complained about having to trek back and forth from his Utah home to Los Angeles for tapings -- gee, we feel bad for you, Ken -- Crockett said he wouldn't have to worry about that anymore.

Jennings just walked away.

Final score: Jennings $35,000, Crockett $7,900.

As they waited for their "Jeopardy!" appearances, Herter and Crockett had the unfortunate experience of watching four show tapings where Jennings annihilated opponents. One thoroughly demoralized yet still witty contestant stumped by a final Jeopardy question wrote, "whatever Ken writes" as his reply.

Opponents say Jennings' secret, besides being uncommonly smart, is having mastered the subtle art of hitting his buzzer before anyone else. There's a trick to it that takes time to pick up.

During one game aired last week, Jennings had earned $9,200 before either opponent even had the chance to answer one question.

On his Web site, Crockett writes that Jennings "is one of the nicest, funniest, smartest, most modest human beings I have ever met. An all-around great guy. He did his best to make everyone feel welcome and at ease.

"I immediately hated" Jennings, he wrote.

Crockett even posted a fanciful theory of how he might have beaten Jennings with a couple of breaks. It involved getting both Daily Double questions in the second round -- he says he knew both answers -- and betting everything he had. But Jennings got them instead.

Herter said going against Jennings was actually kind of liberating. Nobody expected her to win, so why not have fun?

"It was a little disappointing knowing I could never play 'Jeopardy!' again," she said. "It was my only shot and I had to go against him."

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