Handsome and personable host of a most popular television quiz show who has a sign in his office that reads: "I've got all the right answers as long as you have all the right questions."
Who is Alex Trebek?
He has added humor and changed some rules, taking an old format and molding it into the second highest-rated show on syndicated television that's still gaining on No. 1 "Wheel of Fortune."
Who is Alex Trebek?
The fellow who so masterfully guides "Jeopardy" through its rounds -- framing questions in the form of answers with contestants answering in the form of questions -- is one of the country's top celebrities. Yet while chatting with would-be contestents or fans who recognize him in a hotel lobby or a reporter at lunch, he comes across as an easy-going friend who likes what he does and does what he likes.
Trebek's easy way with people makes him a personable show host. And his TV smarts have served the show well too. Until recently, he was also a producer of this latest version of "Jeopardy," now triumphantly moving through its fourth season.
In the third quarter of last year, the number of stations carrying the show was up 10 percent over the same period a year earlier. Top-rated "Wheel of Fortune" was up only 2 percent. "Jeopardy" is now on 209 stations, up from 191 when this season began. With 99.104 percent coverage of the nation's television audience, it can be seen almost anywhere in the United States.
The current show is actually a revival of the original "Jeopardy," which ran from 1964 to 1975 on NBC and went into syndication in 1974. The show was brought back for the 1978-79 season, with minor revisions. Despite all of that previous exposure, the current rendition has hit television like a bombshell.
Reasons for its success, said Trebek, are many. "First of all, it is syndicated and can be programmed where the station manager feels it works best. The old network show was on at noon Eastern time. Secondly, it's good now because of the success of the original show.
"We changed the rules. Contestants now cannot ring in until the entire clue has been read. This allows the home viewer to become more involved in the game. There is also a lot more humor involved. I stress this. I want it to be an entertaining half-hour, populist as possible. As a syndicated show, the station doesn't have to carry it, as was the case when it was on a network. We are informative and influential but must be entertaining, too."
In addition, Trebek said, all quiz and game shows are better packaged now thanks to computer-generated graphics.
The host also makes the distinction that "Jeopardy" is a quiz show and not a game show, making it something of a throwback to the quiz shows of the 1950s, which featured very bright people. "We don't think of ourselves as being better than those other shows," he said. "We use a different approach and we're perceived as being more difficult.
"We are trying to entertain the audience. We happen to do it by enlightening and educating them. We hope that a couple of the answers will stir kids a little so that they'll want to learn more about it, and maybe go to the library and take out a book and read it. We've heard that many teachers are using the 'Jeopardy' format as a learning tool. All of a sudden kids get interested. If it helps teachers teach and kids learn, that's fantastic."
Trebek believes that the function of the host is simply to make the show run smoothly, "in such a way that the contestants do their very best within the rules. Anything else he does that interferes with the contestants playing the game should be held against him. After all, the game is the thing."
Trebek has mastered the technique. He said that taping a half-hour show usually takes about a half hour. Flubs requiring re-takes are "very rare," the host noted with a satisfied smile. He has taped as many as 7 1/2 shows in one day, although the regular schedule calls for five shows a day twice a week, for a total of 23 weeks, with a week off after every three weeks. This gives "Jeopardy" 46 weeks of new shows a year, up from 39 last year.
The other six weeks are reruns, usually tournaments -- the tournament of champions, as well as the senior and teen tourneys, both innovations made by Trebek. He hopes eventually to add a celebrities tournament. Otherwise he feels the format "is pretty solid and we plan to stick with the winning combination, striving to do it as well as we can, rather than change."
After three years as the show's producer, Trebek this season relinquished that role to George Vasburgh. Trebek said he does miss the hands-on role of producing, although Vasburgh seeks his advice on a number of things. "We have brainstorming sessions and talk over many things about the show. I'm a problem solver. It gives me satisfaction. I don't like running away from challenges."
Trebek also hosts "Concentration," which, like "Jeopardy," is taped two days a week and runs 52 weeks a year. He acknowledged that he had become "a terrible workaholic" and added that if he continued as producer, "you'd have to send me home in a Baggie. You should have seen my schedule."
A couple of seasons back, Trebek also did 13 weeks of "ValueTelevision." He said it was a good concept and he liked the talk-show aspect and the people. "I felt it would work because it mixed products with talk. When the ratings didn't measure up, more and more merchandising was intoduced. It wasn't what they hired me to do, and I said so, and we had an amicable parting of the ways. I don't have any regrets. It was a good 13 weeks. I learned a lot and met some nice people."
Trebek plunked down his dues enroute to stardom. After graduating from the University of Ottawa with a degree in philosophy, he worked for 12 years with the Canadian Broadcasting Company doing national news for radio and television and live coverage of special events in both English and French.
He also was involved in several shows not known for their longevity. Fifteen years ago he was hired by NBC for "The Wizard of Odds" when old friend Alan Thicke, who was developing the show, suggested him for the job. Trebek has been doing this line of work ever since. When "Odds" was canceled a year later, he moved on to "High Rollers," with Ruta Lee; "The $128,000 Question" in nighttime syndication; a variety figure skating show in Canada; "Double Dare," and "Battlestars," which had two runs.
When "Battlestar" was canceled for a second time and Trebek thought he had enough of game shows, Merv Griffin asked if he was interested in hosting "Jeopardy." He accepted, although he admits he didn't foresee that the show would connect with an audience as it has. Now he thinks it will remain on top for at least several more years.
"Jeopardy" show is produced by Merv Griffin Enterprises and distributed by KingWorld. Griffin is still chairman of the board, although he sold his shows to Coca-Cola. Unlike "Wheel of Fortune," where Griffin keeps a constant hand, he exerts no control or influence over "Jeopardy," Trebek points out. "He gives us a total free hand."
After "Jeopardy," Trebek said, he would like to get into production. "It's where my future lies. I've got 27 years in the business. I enjoy it and I feel I do it well. It can be very satisfying."
Trebek is thoughtful and open when he talks about the machinations of his quiz show, but on the personal side, his comments are shorter and more reserved. Before joining "Jeopardy," he built a home in the Hollywood hills, where he lives with his mother. His daughter, Nicky, 21, a production assistant on "Jeopardy," recently accompanied him to a charity event for WorldVision, a relief organization he has worked with for some time. He has been to more than a few social functions with actress Susan Sullivan ("Falcon Crest"), but says simply, "Susan and I are good friends."
Trebek said that his production schedule and contestant searches take up most of his time. About half of the show's 400 contestants a year come from searches conducted around the country. The remaining half are selected and tested in Los Angeles.
A recent search in Washington drew 25,000 postcard applications, from which 150 adults were chosen to try out. (Last year, 200 were picked from 30,000 applicants.) The search here included a two-day session for 250 teen-agers selected from "a ton of mail applications" at the show's West Coast office.
"Jeopardy" has a staff of 20 including eight full-time writers, but Trebek said, "I never make a trip without coming back with a handful of notes on new categories and material. Sometimes while watching TV at night, something will catch my fancy and I'll sit up in bed and make a note."
On a flight recently, an Eastern Airlines attendant told him that the color of her brownish/green uniform was listed in the airline's manual as "breen." "That'll turn up as a question, I'm sure," Trebek said. "There's another word popping up as our society gets more and more affluent: affluenza. Watch for that. On a recent trip to the Smithsonian museum I picked up a half-dozen good questions. We all do that."
Trebek feels the toughest part for aspiring contestants is passing a 50-question written test. They must answer at least 70 percent -- 35 -- of the questions correctly. This eliminates a high percentage. The final hurdle is a 15-minute mock "Jeopardy" game.
"Unfortunately," said Trebek, "some folks who are very, very bright and score well on the written test are shy individuals, who don't fare well when pitted against two other individuals. They tend to shrink away from the competition, while others are more aggressive. Some people don't have reflexes that are as good as their peers and as a result won't do well in mock-game competition. So we are looking for people who are able to perform under pressure, seem to enjoy competition and who have a bit of a personality. The final selections do become subjective.
"When I go out on searches, I tell the contestants that this is not the time to be laid-back. Now is the time you want to be just a little bit larger than life. I mean, don't go crazy. Don't jump up and down, or scream, or feel you have to make faces. Just be aware you are on camera and want to be the best you can be. If there ever was a time when you wanted to display all of your qualities, the second part of the testing procedure is one of those times.
"We are not looking for types and we are not looking for one sex more than the other, or any age more than another, or any color more than another. We want a good cross-section of America, bright people wherever we can find them. We must be doing better. The average champion started out winning about $7,300. That was up to $7,900 last year and is now about $9,000."
The most outstanding contestant ever, in Trebek's view, was a 24-year-old law student from the University of Michigan who a year ago netted $72,800 without betting anything at all on the final day. He missed only five questions all week. And then there was the mailman from North Hollywood who graduated 240th out of 260 in his high school class. He qualified for the show and walked off with $39,000 two years ago.
Trebek feels the important common denominator is age, or more specifically, reflexes. "It's not fair to put a 55-year-old man against a 24-year-old law student..." said Trebek. "The two chief skills are knowledge and ability to react quickly."
Trebek himself showed quick reflexes when the stock market tumbled in October. In short order he -- not his broker -- decided the way to come back from a "sizable" setback was to buy when the market was down. He picked the stocks himself, called his broker that night, bought "a large bundle" and recouped most of his losses in less than two weeks.
Trebek is also a sports fan who enjoys golf, tennis and waterskiing and follows the Los Angeles Lakers. (Two Lakers, James Worthy and Curt Rambis, also list "Jeopardy" as their favorite TV show.) But his own sports career was marked by two injuries, both damaged knees. The first he suffered while playing quarterback for the University of Ottawa Prep team. The second was sustained more recently when he ran the bases in a charity softball game in Colorado Springs.
Trebek said he enjoys travel -- a necessity in his role as "Jeopardy" host -- but admits that "other than talent searches, I haven't been doing much lately. I'm just picking up points on all the airlines' frequent flyer programs. When this is all over, maybe I'll be able to take a couple of exotic trips." For a week in December, he taped the show at U.S. military bases in West Germany, then planned to spend 10 days or so on his own in Israel, a country he'd never visited.
Despite the show's amazing growth and popularity, "Jeopardy" has never won an Emmy, although it has been nominated three times, and Trebek twice. But to Trebek, the best part of being recognized and identified with the show "is having people tell me they learned something."
He is also happy that many celebrities are regular "Jeopardy" viewers. "Frank Sinatra sent me a lovely letter saying he watches the show. Perry Como and his wife Roselle, Madonna, Billy Crystal, and the McGuire Sisters are names that come to mind." Como was once a category on "Jeopardy." Later, the singer's wife and daughter told Trebek that they couldn't answer some of the questions about him.
Trebek works hard at not taking his role and the show too seriously. He tries to pass that along to contestants, telling them, "If you lose, remember that on a different day, with different categories, you might have been the champion. If you look at it from that point of view and say, 'Hey, it was a great experience and that was enough for me,' you'll be a lot better off and have some wonderful memories."