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'I can't think of any downside.'

graphic
  ANSWER: THE STAFF
Question: Who comes up with the clues on Alex Trebek's show?
 
  VOTING YOUR PAYCHECK
Careerists' choice: Do you think a Gore administration or a Bush administration is going to be better for you and others in your line of work? We'd like to know your opinion and share it with our readers.
 

Alex Trebek: Good careers for $100

October 27, 2000
Web posted at: 5:14 p.m. EDT (2114 GMT)


In this story:

A day in the life

Travelin' man

He's got mail

Double jeopardy?

All the answers



(CNN) -- Answer: This philosophy major and former Canadian television and radio journalist has hosted one of the most popular quiz shows in the United States for the past 16 years.

Question: Who is "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek?

If you're thinking it could be a near-perfect job to host a game show that's smart and informative -- a show on which most contestants are brainy, not buffoons -- you're not alone: Listen to Trebek: "It's a great job. I can't think of any downside. That's not a bad thing to be able to say about your employment. It's way ahead of whatever is in second place."

"Jeopardy!" tapes 46 weeks out of the year, more than most syndicated shows, Trebek says. By contrast, "Wheel of Fortune" has 39 weeks of original programming a year. This fall, ABC of course has upped the ante on the relative newcomer of the genre, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," adding a fourth weekly installment on Wednesday nights.

When "Jeopardy!" is in production, Trebek and crew members tape five shows per day, two or three days per week.

The schedule usually is three weeks on, followed by one week off, Trebek says.

A day in the life

"I leave home about 7 in the morning," Trebek says, "get to the studio around 7:45, go over mail and sign autographs. I get the games around 8:30. I go over them for about an hour.

"Then I go into a meeting with the writers and the producer in which we discuss the games and see if there's any conflict with the material because the games are selected at random. So it's possible we could have a clue about Napoleon in one game and something about Napoleon in another game, and we wouldn't want that.

Not a mingler with guests: "You don't want somebody who's been exposed to all the material to be chatting with the contestants. You might blurt out something that would be of benefit, or an indication of where the show is going. You just want to avoid anything at all that would lead people to think that there might be some sort of hanky-panky going on."

"Then we go into the studio. I get dressed. I get my makeup on and we start taping at noon until about 3 o'clock.

We tape the first three shows -- it normally takes about a half-hour per show -- take an hour or 45-minute break for lunch and then come back and tape the last two. I'm out of there by 5 or 5:30. I'm home by 6 or 6:30. So it's about an 11-hour day, door-to-door, for me."

Trebek, who turned 60 on July 22, says he doesn't talk to the show's three contestants beforehand.

graphic
Alex Trebek on CNN's "Larry King Live"  

It's not that he's unfriendly, but that the stench of the quiz-show scandals of the 1950s lingers like Limburger in television land.

"You don't want somebody who's been exposed to all the material to be chatting with the contestants," he says. "You might blurt out something that would be of benefit, or an indication of where the show is going. You just want to avoid anything at all that would lead people to think that there might be some sort of hanky-panky going on."

It sounds like a cushy job. He works no more than three days a week, with six weeks off, and the career pays handsomely enough that Trebek owns a home in the San Fernando Valley, plus a 700-acre horse-training facility with a three-quarter-mile track in Central California.

But there's more required than you see on the air.

Travelin' man

Trebek says he also spends time reviewing and responding to viewer mail, including requests for autographed photos. He tapes publicity and promotional spots. And a couple of times a year, he joins the "Jeopardy!" contestant search team as it crisscrosses the country.

"I used to go to a lot of them because we were trying to establish the show and develop an interest every time there was a contestant search in a city," he says.

Gifts from fans: "I used to joke that I mentioned how I collected caps, so I wind up getting a lot of caps. I should have mentioned that I collect Rolex watches and see what happened."

"If I'm there, it generates more press. The local TV stations will send out reporters and the station carrying 'Jeopardy!' will do a feature story on it for their local newscast.

"It helps, but now that we're so well established, so well entrenched in American culture, it's no longer necessary. But if a particular market wants me to come for a contestant search, then we try to accommodate them."

Trebek also travels for events that indirectly promote his show. He attends conventions and he moderates the annual National Geographic Bee in both Canada and the United States.

He's got mail

Most of his mail, Trebek says, is from people who enjoy the program. If he makes a comment praising a city, he might receive small souvenirs from appreciative viewers in that area.

"I used to joke that I mentioned how I collected caps, so I wind up getting a lot of caps. I should have mentioned that I collect Rolex watches and see what happened," he says.

graphic
Alex Trebek posed questions to finalists George Thampy and Alex Pang in May's National Geography Bee in Washington  

He says negative letters usually critique a perceived mispronunciation of a word or phrase. As in, "You're lousy on Greek," or "Your French is good but you screwed up on this one."

"People will send me tapes and say, 'Listen to this tape. This is how it's done.'"

Trebek says he's fluent in French but he admits to some difficulties with Welsh and Hawaiian. And quite often, he says, his critics are wrong. "They're operating under a misconception and have been for many years. As long as they're polite in their critique, we are polite in our response. But if they're mean and rude, I tell them that."

So while it's not a grueling schedule, Trebek's work keeps him busy enough that, like many of us, he frets about how to find time to do everything he'd like.

"I'm at a loss," he says, "to find two open weeks where I can go up and visit my farm and do some construction." Although urbane and dapper, he's handy enough with a hammer that he helped build his own home.

Missing his son's baseball games: "I'm going crazy here thinking I want to take him to his games. I don't like missing his games. Yet if I stick around for his games, I don't have time to get up to the farm. It's not easy."

Then there are his son's baseball games. "I'm going crazy here thinking I want to take him to his games. I don't like missing his games. Yet if I stick around for his games, I don't have time to get up to the farm. It's not easy.

"But my problems are minor in comparison to what a lot of people have to deal with out there on a regular basis."

Double jeopardy?

After all these years, "Jeopardy!" remains popular. And the phenomenal success of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and several other new quiz shows is doing more good than harm, Trebek says. The genre is making a comeback.

  QUICK VOTE
graphic Would like to host a quiz show for a living?

Of course -- I'd get well-paid to stump everybody.
Only for a time -- how many years of trivia can you take?
Not me -- I'd rather be a contestant and win the big bucks.
View Results

"I think what you've seen on television in recent months is a resurgence in quiz shows, as opposed to a game show. Quiz shows, I think, are more fun."

Trebek distinguishes quiz shows from game shows as programs in which contestants must answer at least some difficult questions. He has hosted both, but his academic and early professional career didn't suggest such a future.

Trebek graduated with degrees in philosophy from the University of Ottawa, then joined the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). There, he worked in both television and radio news.

He went to work in the United States on the "Wizard of Odds," the first of several game shows he'd host. Merv Griffin, then a talk show host and crooner, changed his life -- although not immediately.

It was Griffin who in 1964 created the concept of "Jeopardy!" In fact, he composed the show's "think" music. Since its 1984 syndication debut, Trebek has been the host and the show has prospered.

Tinkering with the set, not the format: "We try to keep it fresh without changing the game. It seems to have worked."

Today, "Jeopardy!" is available to some 32 million viewers per week in the United States and is seen in 42 other countries.

Trebek says he thinks "Jeopardy!" has endured because its format remains the same. "Answer. Question. One daily double in the first round. Two daily doubles in the second. Final Jeopardy! coming up at the end of the show. People are comfortable with that."

Still, at least two of the contestants are new on each show, and the categories and answers are always changing. And every few years, there's some tinkering with the look of the set, he says.

"We try to keep it fresh without changing the game. It seems to have worked."

All the answers

Trebek's appeal for viewers seems as enduring as the show's. Why is that?

graphic
Alex Trebek was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in May  

"Viewers know that I have a weird sense of humor, but that I'm serious about the game," Trebek says.

"I'm solid. I think I'm perceived as a friendly individual who's there to help the contestants do their best. I don't feel that I have to be the center of attraction. The center of attraction is the game and the players.

"As long as a host understands that, he's going to do better than he would otherwise. If you have too many sharp edges, viewers will tire of you. If you're just kind of nice and easy, they feel like you're one of the family. You're in their homes every day. Most of the viewers seem to feel comfortable with me."

So how does one become a quiz show host? Through talent and luck, same as Trebek.

"Get a good education," he advises those who'd like his job. "You're going to need a background in broadcasting. You're going to have to be in a situation where you ad-lib a lot, where you can think on your feet and manage a program on the air.

  QUESTION: ARE THEY COACHED?
It's what most people ask about the contestants on "Jeopardy!" Find out what the show's staff says.
 

"You also have to be lucky. You can be the best game show host in the world. If there are no game shows going out on the air, or if game shows are out of fashion and aren't being produced, you're going to be the best game show host in the world unemployed. So luck does play a great role in what you do."

And when you do land a show?

"You say, 'I'm going to ride this for as long as it takes, and I'm going to do my best to make it a good show. When it ends, it ends, as all things must.

"But meanwhile, I'm having fun."

graphic

 

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