Somewhere out there in America are a few hundred people who know whether James Holzhauer has yet lost a game of “Jeopardy!”
Holzhauer’s incredible run — which he extended to 21 consecutive wins and a $1.6 million total Thursday night, the second-longest winning streak in the show’s history — started taping in front of a studio audience in mid-February. Production of this season wrapped in April, which includes episodes that won’t be broadcast until this summer. So how is it that no one has plastered spoilers all over social media?!
You may have assumed that producers make audience members sign a thick stack of nondisclosure agreements or threaten them with dire consequences if they leak. Well, it turns out “Jeopardy!” is a lot more chill than that.
Sure, the contestants have to sign nondisclosures about the results. But the studio audience? Producers merely ask politely that they don’t reveal anything. And the wild part is that, mostly, they comply.
“It’s pretty fascinating,” said Harry Friedman, who has been the executive producer of “Jeopardy!” since 1999. “It shows remarkable respect for the show and remarkable restraint. Our studio audience isn’t that big . . . but it only takes one person to be a spoiler.”
“Jeopardy!” tapes three consecutive shows in the morning and two in the afternoon; for each block of episodes, about 160 people sit in the studio audience. Many are family and friends of the contestants, while others include tour groups and Los Angeles locals. Each session opens with a staffer warming up the crowd.
“We simply say, ‘We want you to have a good time, and go home and tell everyone you had a good time, but we ask you not to disclose the outcome of the matches,’ ” Friedman said. “That’s about it.”
On one hand, it’s a logistical issue: How would producers enforce nondisclosures from audience members? But Friedman thinks the reason the system is so successful is that the crowd is filled with genuine fans of the game. “Jeopardy!” wonks agree that these fans are inclined to adhere to the etiquette.
“I think the show is taking a bit of a chance that the audience will remain respectful,” said Andy Saunders, who runs The Jeopardy! Fan website. “But ‘Jeopardy!’ fans are usually pretty respectful about it anyway.”
Contestants, on the other hand, have a pretty big incentive to stay quiet: They don’t receive their winnings until their episode airs, and language in their contracts holds that if they blab, the show has the right to withhold their prize money. So, of course, family and friends in the audience don’t want to ruin anything, either.
“My wife says that they didn’t make her sign anything, ‘but the threat of you not getting your money was enough to shut me up,’ ” joked Lewis Black, who lost to Holzhauer in an episode that aired last month.
Occasionally, though, someone just can’t help themselves. In early September 2004, someone at a taping tipped off a blogger that Ken Jennings’s 74-game winning streak (with $2.5 million in prize money) had come to an end. The blogger, Jason Kottke, published the results; soon, a couple of other websites picked up the news. Jennings’s streak officially came to a televised end nearly three months later, at the end of November.
Friedman doesn’t recall all the details of that incident, though he knows the show “went to great lengths to keep it a secret.”
“But that was a long run,” he said. “And it was all new for us.”
Now, with social media, leaked results would fly around the Internet at lightning speed. When (if?) Holzhauer loses, some of the country will see the episode early anyway — because it’s syndicated, stations can place the show in any time period. While “Jeopardy!” airs at dinnertime for many markets, it plays in the morning in Arkansas, and at 3:30 p.m. in Chicago.
At the very least, those in the audience will probably try to respect the process — after all, we live in a very spoiler-centric culture. In fall 2013, Claire Tuley competed against headline-making champ Arthur Chu, who won nearly $300,000 over 11 games. Her episode aired a few months later, and though friends were curious, they wanted to wait and see what happened themselves.
“There was that initial rush of questions, and they just kind of stopped asking once they realized, ‘Oh you’re going up against someone who has that long winning streak,’ ” Tuley said. “It’s a TV show — so people want to be surprised.”