This past weekend, “Jeopardy!” executive producer Harry Friedman was looking forward to Monday, when millions of viewers would eagerly tune in to see whether phenom James Holzhauer would break champion Ken Jennings’s record winnings. Holzhauer needed only about $59,000, so it seemed like a distinct possibility.
Then, Sunday afternoon, Friedman and his fellow producers received disturbing news. Somehow, someone had “pirated” the feed of the episode. A clip leaked on the Internet that showed Holzhauer losing in dramatic fashion, falling just short of the $2.5 million that Jennings won over 74 games in 2004.
“Somebody alerted us that they had seen it on YouTube. By the time we saw it, it already had 2,000 views,” Friedman said in an interview. The footage quickly spread to other social media sites.
“I feel bad for the viewers. It’s not fair,” he continued. “I’m not sure what’s gained by doing something like that, other than some malicious intent. It doesn’t really benefit anybody.”
As the clip circulated, headlines about possible “Jeopardy!” spoilers started popping up on various websites and blogs Sunday — although producers wouldn’t verify whether the footage was accurate. Late Monday morning, after the show’s first broadcast aired in Montgomery, Ala., outlets including The Washington Post and the New York Times published stories, with carefully crafted headlines and “spoiler” warnings, confirming that the clip was from that day’s episode and that Holzhauer had lost.
While Friedman said he “can’t say at this point” who posted the footage, producers have a good idea of what happened. “We think we know where and who and how,” he said, adding that the show will take “very, very, very appropriate” action against those responsible.
Nonetheless, Friedman was happy to see the excited response Monday from fans who were captivated by Holzhauer’s astonishing run. The professional sports gambler’s hardball tactics of vacuuming up the highest-value clues and wagering huge amounts on Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy became must-see TV.
“I think it reinforces that excellence really has no limit and that there are different ways to play the game,” Friedman said. “But your strategy is only as good as your ability to come up with the correct response once you hit that signaling button.”
Holzhauer typically had no problem with the buzzer or knowing the answers, but he was bested on the episode broadcast Monday by Emma Boettcher, a University of Chicago librarian who won by nearly $22,000. Friedman, who has been executive producer since 1999, described Holzhauer as a bit “shell shocked” that his “Jeopardy!” run was finally over.
Seeing him leave was an emotional experience, Friedman said, after the crew got to know him over his weeks on the show. Even host Alex Trebek got choked up at the end of the episode.
Meanwhile, given that Holzhauer’s streak happened when spoilers of all kinds run rampant on social media, Friedman was grateful the results weren’t leaked much earlier. After all, although contestants have to sign nondisclosure agreements, the hundreds in the studio audience are simply asked not to tell the results.
“We were pleased and surprised that nothing leaked out before this past weekend. I think that speaks for the respect that people in the studio audience have for the show,” Friedman said. “That part of it was very much appreciated.”