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‘Jeopardy!’ Contestants’ Most Hated Word: Preemption

Pity the players who summit trivia’s Everest and compete on ‘Jeopardy!,’ only to have their episode canceled by election coverage. Or a tornado.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When Devin Rossiter was a kid, he had a favorite game. He would drag his parents to the end of their driveway in Staten Island. “And I would force them to be contestants,” he says, and reel off their formal introductions—a homemaker from Staaaaten Island, New York!—as he played host.

Rossiter, now an academic coach in Bakersfield, California, was always a game show aficionado—but one show loomed larger than all the rest. “Jeopardy! was always that pillar,” he says.

So when he finally got the call inviting him to come play this August after years of taking the online contestant test, he was thrilled. Sure, it would be in the midst of the pandemic with all the attendant taping oddities, but who cares? It was Jeopardy!

It wasn’t until he was signing the show’s official paperwork at the end of his tape day that he noticed something was amiss. There on the slip was the date his episode would air: November 3, 2020.

“I saw ‘11/3’ and I thought, I feel like there’s something else going on that day,” says Rossiter.

There is indeed something else going on this Tuesday. In Bakersfield, Jeopardy! airs on the local CBS affiliate each night at 7:00—which is, incidentally, the precise time polls close in Iowa, Montana, Nevada, and Utah. In 2016, it was the 7:00 p.m. Pacific hour that saw the first major battleground states, Ohio and Florida, called for Donald Trump; this year, with a presidential race that is possibly even more contentious, the evening is unlikely to see much quiet on the news front as results trickle in.

For Rossiter, what was meant to be a festive occasion with friends and family from across the country tuning in for his debut, win or lose (he did not discuss the details of his game), will be very different than the one he had imagined.

Instead of watching his 22 minutes in the trivia spotlight, Rossiter is set to join one of Jeopardy!’s unluckiest clubs: the contestants who’ve had their episodes preempted.

Because Jeopardy! is syndicated, it airs at different times according to the scheduling whims of affiliate stations across the country, be that the standard 7:00 p.m. or sometime much earlier in the day. (Pour one out for the Montgomery, Alabama, CBS station that previously aired the quiz show each day at 9:30 a.m. Central—the earliest airing in the nation. After some September schedule shuffling, residents of the Alabama capital can now tune in at 4:30 in the afternoon. Per Jeopardy! schedule sleuth Matt Carberry, the day’s first episode is now a three-way tie for 11 a.m. CT in Meridian, Mississippi; Jackson, Tennessee; and Tyler, Texas.)

Syndication also means that it’s up to those stations to decide whether a given episode airs at all—or if, because of some breaking news or sporting event, that episode will be delayed till late in the night or another day, or even canceled outright. Because regular Jeopardy! episodes aren’t posted in their entirety to any streaming services—Netflix, for one, features rotating collections of episodes, all of them months or years old—that makes tracking down old, and especially unaired, episodes a tricky proposition.

2020—with its springtime full of press conferences with government and health officials, and its summer and fall packed with rescheduled sporting events—has been a year of Jeopardy! preemptions. The show has done its best to flag when episodes are going to be preempted, but as a rule, Jeopardy!’s fans are not overwhelmingly sympathetic when news gets in the way of the nightly broadcast of answers and questions:

Justin Braddock played in one game in 2017 and made it all the way to Final Jeopardy! before the Chattanooga, Tennessee, affiliate switched to coverage of the bombing of an Ariana Grande concert in England. “Everyone in Chattanooga saw Alex say, ‘The Final Jeopardy! answer is,’ and then cut to ABC News,” Braddock says. “My phone just about melted from all of the messages and emails.”

For many Jeopardy! contestants, making it onto the venerable quiz show is a lifelong dream—one often preceded by years of attempts to get there. It’s exceedingly hard to do: This year, with the arrival of the Anytime Test and new pandemic procedures favoring players within driving distance of Jeopardy!’s Culver City, California, studio, the show has already gotten north of 100,000 applicants—the most in its history. In any given season, there are just 400 or so openings for new players, with the number of hopefuls trying for one of those slots growing with each passing year. When the invitation to play finally comes, it can feel downright miraculous.

As a result, contestants are usually eager to celebrate their Jeopardy! debut. Watch parties are the norm, and the show encourages contestants to spread the word far and wide in the roughly two months between taping and airdate. Upcoming contestants sit for interviews with their local newspaper and have their “hometown howdies”—the quippy promos they film in the studio to tease their appearances—blasted across regional TV stations to trumpet the news of the local kid made good. They change their social media profile pictures to their commemorative photos with Alex Trebek. They hear from old friends, teachers, bosses, cousins, exes: Hey, whoa, are you really going to be on Jeopardy!?

So imagine, then, having the big day finally arrive and … nada.

In the spring of 2019, Megan Browndorf made it to Jeopardy! She was, as she puts it, “crushed to a pulp” by a mid-winning-streak James Holzhauer, but no matter—she was thrilled all the same, and by the time her May airdate arrived, she had made her peace with the loss. She reserved space at her local bar in Washington, D.C., The Pub & the People, for a couple dozen friends and coworkers. The bar staff got into it, Browndorf says, cranking up the volume for Wheel of Fortune as the minutes ticked by until her 7:30 airing would begin.

And then—well. “The weather came on and didn’t turn off,” Browndorf says.

A tornado warning was in effect for Virginia’s Spotsylvania County. Spotsylvania, it’s worth noting, is a good 65 miles southwest of D.C.—far enough that one of Browndorf’s friends turned and asked, “Where the fuck is Spotsylvania?”

“I am grateful for the weather people of the D.C.-area, Jeopardy!-affiliated station, whose name I forget, for keeping the people of Spotsylvania County safe from tornadoes. I am not cold-hearted,” Browndorf says. “But we sat in the bar for the entire half hour hoping that they would stop talking about these tornadoes at some point. Maybe at least they would move to a bottom-of-the-screen scroll, make a loud noise over my embarrassing moments while still running my beautiful face, and occasionally flash a map of the DMV area with the tornado warning region in red?

“But no. Just a full half hour of the weatherman saying the same things about the tornadoes the entire time,” she says.

Sporting events are much more common than tornadoes, and have a particular way of wreaking havoc on game show scheduling. Pity the poor souls who find themselves playing opposite March Madness, like Stephanie Garrone-Shufran, whose two 2017 games—a victory and a third-place finish the next day—aired between 2 and 3 a.m. In the Boston area, Friday episodes are skipped for the duration of the NFL season, with a show called Patriots All Access taking Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune’s hour-long slot instead. Ben Raphel found his lone 2017 victory overtaken by Pats coverage, although he got some comeuppance in the end.

“The irony is a couple months later, the Patriots lost the Super Bowl to my favorite team, the Philadelphia Eagles,” he says.

The interruptions can be both local—Patrick Antle says all but the couple minutes at the very beginning and end of his 2012 victory were overtaken by coverage of a fire in the South End of Boston—and decidedly not. 2003 contestant Sara Glidden had both her victories (but not her game three loss) pushed off air by coverage of the U.S. invasion of Iraq—making those games two of the few to evade the diligent chroniclers at J! Archive. Jason Sterlacci, who won the 2016 Teachers Tournament, had the beginning of his first game (and the watch party where he was hosting friends eager to see how he did) interrupted by coverage of the Indiana Republican presidential primary.

“Given that the Indiana primary’s result was not in doubt and it was right at the start of the show, I lost my mind—I actually stepped outside to collect myself,” he says.

Those whose episodes are nixed by a local affiliate have a few options. All contestants have the option to purchase a DVD of their game after the fact from Sony, Jeopardy!’s parent company. The show declined to name a price or specific policy, but multiple former contestants said it was a hefty $175 per episode, unless you could prove your game was preempted in your local market, in which case the show would send you a copy for free. Other contestants—especially those attempting a makeup party on the night their episode was meant to air—turn to less official means, like network streaming services that might allow for location duping to get to an un-preempted broadcast playing as planned by a different affiliate. Strangers, who might be considered either kindly or nefarious depending on your point of view, have also been known to post full episodes online.

Jeff Schwartz was leading his game as he entered Final Jeopardy!—only to guess incorrectly and fall to third. His episode was scheduled for January 1, 2007, meaning that it would be preempted by the Rose Bowl in New York City, where he lived. Schwartz found a bar—“a (gay) bar,” as he put it in an email—where the bartender was able to flip to the Long Island affiliate on satellite instead, where his episode aired normally. He summoned a group of friends to join him on short notice.

“The bartender popped in a porn VHS tape he happened to have had handy and taped over it with my episode, so I still have it,” Schwartz says.

And sometimes affiliates themselves are open to negotiation. Sally Ronald lives in Bloomington, Indiana, where coverage of the Indy 500 is a sacred television rite each May—as is coverage of the traditional Indy 500 Victory Banquet for the drivers the day before. As Ronald neared the airing of her episode in 2010, she discovered that it would overlap with the banquet. Wheel of Fortune would air that night in its normal slot, but Jeopardy!, which usually follows, was nowhere to be found.

So she struck up an old-fashioned letter-writing campaign, asking her circle to fill out a form on the station’s website requesting that her episode be aired. “A friend of mine was in a nursing program at the time and asked her entire class to fill it out with her,” Ronald says. “In retrospect, it was absolutely overkill.”

But it worked: An email arrived from the station’s director of sales, who said they hadn’t realized anyone local was going to be on the show. Wheel of Fortune was bumped and Ronald’s episode of Jeopardy! took its place.

In the case of Browndorf, she audibled—directing the entire group to her home, and too-small living room, down the street, where her partner was able to pull up the DVR-ed version of the Philadelphia broadcast that his parents had recorded in real time, sans any intruding tornado coverage.

“It felt poetic to watch the 6 ABC broadcast in its own way,” Browndorf says, “since that is where I would watch Jeopardy! with my grandparents and I strongly associate them with the show.”

Still, affiliates are not all-powerful. When the second game of her four-game winning streak coincided with the 2018 midterm election, Mary Ann Borer, a marketing coordinator in Pomona, California, didn’t bother asking her local station what it could do. “Honestly, it’s L.A. I don’t think they really care,” she says, laughing.

Sometimes, though, the stations do care, like when Sam Spencer came in second during a 2017 game. He arranged a 50-person watch party at a restaurant in Champaign, Illinois, to mark the occasion; the affiliate sent a camera crew to cover it.

Then coverage of a nearby storm cut in. “The episode got interrupted about seven minutes in, literally while I was telling Alex about throwing myself a surprise birthday party,” says Spencer.

“The camera crew was very apologetic,” he remembers. “‘It’s not our decision,’ they emphasized.”

The problem of preemptions is especially stark for the trio of contestants every four years who learn that their episode will be broadcast on the day of a presidential election—all but ensuring that the game won’t air as planned, or possibly at all, in the vast majority of TV markets. Contestants have no control over when their episodes might air: Jeopardy! films a full week’s worth of episodes on each of its tape days, with new challengers chosen at random from the group summoned by producers. The difference between being preempted by Christmas Day basketball or being slotted into the sleepy day after, for example, is simply a matter of chance. “Oh well!” says Heather Seal-Breslin, whose game on Christmas 2014 was bumped for basketball. “Such is life.”

In 2000—in what may or may not be a prelude to this year—not even the games planned for after the election were spared. Pam Mueller first competed on Jeopardy! in that year’s College Championship, which she, then a junior at Loyola University, won—taking home $50,000 and a 2001 Volvo S60. In all, she was in four episodes beginning the Friday after the election, including one with the category “Bore & Gush.” “No political commentaries, please!” Trebek instructed.

The idea, surely, was that one or the other of the candidates would be carrying around a title ending in “-elect” by the point that the episode aired. Not so: Mueller found herself sitting in her dorm’s TV lounge during her first game, watching as a local news broadcast interrupted to share … not much. “Oh, breaking news, the election’s not over,” she deadpans, remembering.

This being the pre-streaming era, Mueller had to get creative to get copies of her full episodes after the tournament. She joined the since-shuttered Sony Pictures message board—a precursor to the popular fan site JBoard—and discovered that some members were particularly diligent in maintaining their personal Jeopardy! viewing libraries. And some had apparently had their own stations air the games as scheduled, hanging chads be damned.

“Some of them were very clear in their conversations that they had massive archives,” she says. She shared her dorm address, and lo and behold, a full set of VHS tapes from her tournament arrived.

Mueller has had some airtime to make up for the interruption in the years since: She’s appeared in four subsequent tournaments, most recently last year’s All-Star Games, from which she’s raked in an additional $165,000 of winnings.

Preemptions are a particularly bitter pill for “one-and-done” contestants—those who lose their very first game, as a majority of all players do. While one-and-doners might not have kicked off the historic winning streak they had perhaps hoped for, getting on Jeopardy! is a singular feat—the kind of thing many players find themselves continuing to reflect on years later, no matter how their game or games went. For the trivially inclined, making it on Jeopardy! at all is the equivalent of summiting Everest, plain and simple. Anything beyond that is simply a bonus.

Colin Bodels takes trivia seriously. It was in a trivia-themed AOL chat room, in fact, that he first met his husband. They played a game where competitors were booted one by one for slow answers. “Matt and I were very often the last two playing together,” he says.

Eventually, they met in person, and when they became a couple, watching Jeopardy! “became our nightly ritual,” Bodels says. Both religiously took the show’s contestant test until finally, in the late summer of 2012, Bodels got the call to fly to L.A. for a taping; in his episode, he came in third.

It was Matt who first realized there might be a problem. “It was only when we were making our way back to the hotel—he was like, ‘You know, I’m doing the math, and I think you’re probably going to be election week.’”

He was, with his episode falling on the night that Barack Obama toppled Mitt Romney; he and Matt watched the game via the DVD the show sent. On a different night, maybe they’d have planned something, but after his loss was history, not so much. “You can’t really do anything after the fact,” Bodels says.

Allon Scheyer says he took the contestant test every year for a decade. In 2016, he was finally invited to his first audition; within weeks, he got the call asking him to come to Los Angeles to play. “I believe Alex did make mention that it was Election Day,” Scheyer says of one of the stranger Jeopardy! customs: the host’s cheerful present-tense announcement of holidays and other dates months in the future during tapings.

Scheyer came in second, and as the contest between Trump and Hillary Clinton intensified that fall, he felt a kind of acceptance. “As the week started, I honestly did think I was going to get preempted,” he says. “And I was like, ‘OK. If my show doesn’t air, then nobody has to know that I lost.’”

But then the local affiliate worked a minor miracle on its own. That Monday afternoon—the day before both the election and Scheyer’s scheduled, sure-to-be-preempted episode—his aunt called his mother to say she’d just seen a promo, surely Scheyer’s hometown howdy, proclaiming that he would be on that night’s broadcast a couple of hours hence, not the one on Election Day.

Scheyer figures that someone at the affiliate must have noticed that he lived in the area and pulled the trigger, moving his episode up a day. “I actually don’t know what happened to the Monday game,” he says.

“I went online to see if that was happening around the country—like, why would they do this? Clearly they were doing this because I was local to New York. Around the country the normal Monday game had played, but there were a lot of angry people in the New York metro area who said, ‘What? What happened? All of a sudden there was a new champion—did I miss something?’”

On Tuesday, Rossiter has a plan. Maybe he’ll be able to trick a streaming service into showing him a broadcast meant for elsewhere; maybe a colleague in Chicago, where the affiliate shows the episode in the afternoon and which thus might avoid news cut-ins, will be able to patch him in to a livestream.

But he figures that even if he finds a way to watch his episode, that’s not likely to be the case for the family, friends, coworkers, and everyone else he’s told about making it to Jeopardy! And anyway, it’s not like he could have hosted a watch party in this time of social distancing. Plus, he jokes, “I feel like people are going to be preoccupied that night.”

For those people, he has just one message. “A lot of people who live locally are asking, ‘I know you can’t say how you did, but is there a way I can see you on the show?’” says Rossiter. “The only thing I’ve been able to tell people is, well, you can watch on November 4. And if I’m still there, you’ll know.”


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