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Even the Ritual of ‘Jeopardy!’ Has Been Interrupted by the Coronavirus

Since 1984, ‘Jeopardy!’ has aired new episodes five nights a week for 11 months out of the year. But in June, the show will run out of pre-taped episodes a month ahead of schedule. How has the program’s fan base reacted to the disruption of a television cornerstone?

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You might assume that Jeopardy! fans are a sedate group. Jeopardy! is a show, after all, that takes pains never to refer to the two nonwinning contestants as the episode’s losers, whose acolytes pride themselves on knowledge of the Civil War and Central Asian capitals and spend their evenings, yes, watching a game show. The show’s fans are thus surely kind and placid souls, probably with a bowl of strawberry hard candies at the ready.

If that’s what you believe, you have clearly never tried to take away a Jeopardy! fan’s access to Jeopardy!

These are strange times, in which the coronavirus pandemic has rerouted or canceled most sources of entertainment. Jeopardy! is no exception: After a brief attempt to tape without a studio audience, the show was forced to shutter its studio. Because the show tapes five episodes on each filming day and records them well in advance, it banked enough new episodes to get through the middle of June—a cutoff extended by the show’s announcement last week that it would air a couple of weeks of reruns in May. But then, barring a return to the studio before that point, Jeopardy! will be unable to provide its biggest fans with new material a full month and a half ahead of the planned season finale.

And that’s to say nothing of the preemptions.

This is a period of breaking news—of daily or weekly press briefings from the president, governors, mayors, and assorted discomfited scientists. Given these events’ significance, networks have taken to pushing the bulletins of doom and gloom ahead of regularly scheduled programming, including, frequently, Jeopardy! Last week, the multiday NFL draft resulted in still further realignments, with some affiliates rescheduling the day’s Jeopardy! episode for later in the evening and others nixing it altogether.

With Jeopardy! diehards, this has not gone over what is generally thought of as “well.”

One tweeter wrote to an NBC affiliate in Iowa: “can y’all not show the Blackhawk county press conference every day instead of jeopardy??? Please Alex Trebek is the only good thing in my life rn.” To a Fox station in Nashville: “Are y’all serious? … Jeopardy is always preempted lately. I don’t remember when the last day was that I got to see Jeopardy! Yes, I know I can watch it elsewhere.” During the College Championship, somebody tweeted at Illinois Governor JB Pritzker to ask him to move his press conference because Jeopardy! was “the only thing bringing me joy right now. thank you in advance.”

“My kid is going to be so upset,” a viewer wrote. “We lost power yesterday and now this. The struggle is so real.”

On the Jeopardy! subreddit, when a user posted a warning for the New York and Philadelphia television markets that their episodes would be preempted by a “Jersey 4 Jersey” benefit concert, a commenter replied, “I live in NJ, I consider myself to be very Jersey, but you fucking give me Bruce and Bon Jovi over Jeopardy and I’m currently here cursing gabagool and giving my television the finger.”

With Jeopardy!, a rearranged schedule is a more serious problem for would-be viewers than it would be for most shows. There’s no streaming service that receives daily episodes for at-your-leisure viewing, and if an episode never airs, it won’t even be on your DVR, meaning that unaired episodes effectively never happened. The episodes that were meant to air the week of the September 11 attacks, for example, were preempted in nearly all markets, and went effectively unseen until they were aired by the Game Show Network four years later.

For many Jeopardy! fans, the show has long been a source of stability. In an ordinary year, new episodes appear in every month but August, with each new season beginning in September and concluding at the end of the following July. During the 36 seasons and more than 8,000 episodes of its current edition, it has changed exceedingly little, even compared to its game-show peers: Alex Trebek has hosted every episode but one, when he traded places with Pat Sajak of Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy!’s sister show.

If Jeopardy! feels like an anchor in normal times, it has grown only more precious to regular viewers now. The world might be unrecognizable outside, but five times a week, there’s a fresh chance that Trebek might say the word “genre.”

Every morning at 7:30, Dave Ross watches Jeopardy!

While many Jeopardy! viewers think of the game show as an evening affair, that’s not the case everywhere. Because the show is syndicated, television stations are free to schedule it whenever they like, and its time slot varies across the country. On some stations, it airs before Wheel of Fortune; in others, it airs after. According to Matt Carberry, a Jeopardy! fan who maintains a database of the show’s statistics, just under half of the 210 stations that carry Jeopardy! air it at either 7 or 7:30 p.m. local. The rest run the gamut: In Chicago, for example, Jeopardy! airs every day at 3:30 p.m.

Montgomery, Alabama, carries the nation’s very earliest airing at 9:30 a.m. CT, a full hour and a half before any other station in the country. So for Ross, who lives in Las Vegas and uses a CBS streaming tool set to Montgomery’s affiliate station two hours ahead, that is when he watches, tuning in before he’s even had breakfast and becoming among the very first viewers in the nation to learn the day’s Jeopardy! outcome.

As you’ve probably guessed, Ross, 60, is no normal fan. He is known in Jeopardy! circles simply as “Jay”—“Boy, I probably just picked it almost completely at random,” he says of the nickname—and provides a singular utility to the show’s most diehard followers. Nearly every weekday morning since 2013, as the Montgomery episode is wrapping up, Ross has published a recap online, breaking the news to the world of the day’s new champion.

Spoilers on a show like Jeopardy!, where a staid middle manager winning a few games would count as big news in many months, are admittedly something of a niche concern. And Ross, for his part, isn’t actually trying to ruin the result for those hoping to learn it on their own later in the day: His recaps, which he posts to a handful of Jeopardy! haunts, including the show’s fan-run subreddit, sit safely behind a warning about their contents, where only those seeking a spoiler might see them. His ambitions are, well, grander. “I’m essentially looking for some of the aspects of the show that the show itself never discusses,” he says.

Those aspects principally include wagering—how much a player risked on a Daily Double or in Final Jeopardy, where they stood among their opponents at the time, and how it worked out for them. Ross views his analyses as potential educational tools for future contestants.

“This recap—one of the goals of it is to get people to think while they’re watching the show, what would I and what should I do in that situation,” says Ross, “so that when they actually are on the show, it won’t seem like such a mystery. They’ll be ready.”

The recaps first began in the comment section of The A.V. Club, which at the time was known for its active commenter community. “Somebody at one point suggested at the beginning of a Jeopardy! season that somebody should recap Jeopardy!,” remembers Ross. “I said, ‘Well, that’s a good idea. I’m qualified to do that.’ So I just started doing it.” There is, says Ross, precisely no money in it.

Ross was scheduled to audition for Jeopardy! in Las Vegas this spring, only to have the event canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. He says that the show made some sort of accommodation this month, but on this—and on whether he is now in the contestant pool, and thus a candidate to appear on the show once taping resumes—he is mum.

Ross has been watching Jeopardy! nearly all his life. Now retired after a career as a financial planner, he remembers coming home for lunch during elementary school and watching the original Art Fleming–hosted version of the show, which aired on NBC at noon. “It’s been something I’ve dealt with practically forever,” he says.

He keeps an eye on the replies to his recaps, so while his early-morning Montgomery episodes have been safe from preemptions so far, he’s well aware that that is not the case for much of the country. “Boy, people really don’t like that,” he says.

“They can hear about what’s going on in the world like from a lot of places,” he says, “but there’s only one place they’re getting their Jeopardy!, and they don’t want anybody messing around with it.”