August 1, 2014

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A Show In "Jeopardy"

Or how an aggressive programmer almost killed off a TV classic.

Jeopardy! is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month.  Or, so say the producers of the syndicated game show.

But it was around more than 20 years before that.

The trivia-quiz show made its debut on NBC in the spring of 1964, hosted by gentlemanly Art Fleming, with Don Pardo (now best known for Saturday Night Live) as its announcer.

The story of how the original version...not unlike the modern-day version...met its network end is a legend: it not only was the death of a game show, but mostly of a network's daytime schedule.

In the mid-1970's a woman named Lin Bolen was hired to oversee NBC's daytime programming.  Bolen (who reportedly was the model for Faye Dunaway's network programmer-character in the movie Network) believed in glitzy, video arcade-like game shows with young, toothy, sexy hosts. (One of her hires, ironically, was a Canadian-born personality named Alex Trebek.) Jeopardy!, meantime, had been prospering in its noon time slot for nearly ten years, but it wasn't as glitzy (then) as Bolen would have liked.

As author Maxine Fabe noted in her 1978 book, TV Game Shows, Bolen eyed Jeopardy!'s time slot for a new project of hers. It was moved to an earlier time, where it lost a large chunk of its audience during 1974.  In early 1975, it was cancelled.  One of the best game shows ever appeared to be gone forever.

Meanwhile, the show's successor at high noon never caught on, and it was cancelled by the end of 1975. (Bolen was gone by 1976.) NBC, in fact, never has had a show that pulled the 30% audience shares Jeopardy! was getting before its time slot change.  Now, with the exception of the Today show, the network's only daytime show is the long-running soap opera Days of Our Lives.

But its creator, the late Merv Griffin never lost faith in his post-scandal quiz show. After a brief revival in 1978-79 (again, with Fleming as host), he revived it in syndication in 1984.  That, of course, is the version an entire generation has come to know and still follow after a quarter-century.

By the way, let it be said that Lin Bolen was a fair person.  She did appease Merv Griffin for axing his golden game show.  She gave him a time slot for another project of his, a glitzy, luxury-prize show more in line with her game show philosophy.  It was originally called Shopper's Bazaar, but that wasn't its title by the time it went on the air.

We know it today as Wheel of Fortune.

 

 

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