It’s the opening day of the Jeopardy! Masters tournament, and the quiz show’s Culver City soundstage is buzzing. There is a new starry backdrop and an enormous Masters-branded floor panel that on one occasion nearly takes out Ken Jennings as he attempts to make his way to the host’s lectern. There is a new audience, whose members were required to sign NDAs to safeguard what they are about to witness. And there is a new format, the brainchild of new—OK, new-ish—executive producer Michael Davies.
Davies, who joined Jeopardy! in August 2021, is a frenetic presence on set. In his usual wardrobe of Stan Smith sneakers and—true to form for the longtime cohost of the popular soccer podcast Men in Blazers—a black blazer, he typically spends tapings observing from a seat in the control room. But with Masters beginning to unfold, he wants to be closer to the action, and settles in at the judges’ table inches from the stage’s glossy edge.
The tournament, which is currently airing in prime time on ABC, features six storied Jeopardy! champions facing off in varying permutations to rack up points. The format is modeled loosely after the English Premier League: three points for a win, one point for second place, and zilch for last. It features a grand prize of $500,000, the third-biggest purse ever offered on Jeopardy!
The point system isn’t the tournament’s only nod to sports. As the games get underway in the studio, Davies can hardly contain his excitement about the wealth of player stats—what he calls Jeopardata, a term that the show trademarked last year—pouring in. During a break in the action, he shows off a photo of the panels he has arranged before him. Most fascinating is the live view of players’ buzzer attempts. He crows at a game’s leader for not actually having that many right answers, and bemoans another for having by far the most buzzes but the least success in breaking through.
“It’s incredible to work with players of this caliber,” Davies gushes, and feigns sadness about the prospect of returning to taping regular Jeopardy! the following week. “That’s where I’ll find the next bunch of these players.”
Over the last few years, Jeopardy! has found itself in unusually turbulent seas. Alex Trebek, the beloved longtime host of the program, died in 2020; the search for his replacement ended in fiasco in 2021. Now, a year and a half into his tenure, Davies has a plan for the show’s future, and that vision has more in common with soccer or baseball than the glitz of Family Feud or even Jeopardy!’s sister show, Wheel of Fortune. It involves growth, modernization, and leaning way, way into elements of gameplay long held sacred by the show’s most devoted fans—including a metric called a Coryat score that has been deployed for years on message boards and subreddits to grade the performance of contestants. “I think I was the first producer to out loud say the word ‘Coryat’ from these offices,” Davies says. “And when I said it, it was almost like I said ‘Voldemort.’”
Davies, who grew up in southeast London, got his big television break working as a programming executive at ABC in New York. After watching the British version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire for the first time—on a VHS cassette that was FedExed to him from England by friends and family, who grasped that Davies would be interested and recorded the premiere—he pitched an American Millionaire spinoff to the network in 1998 and then signed on as the show’s executive producer. Millionaire pandemonium swiftly arrived: The blockbuster prime-time ratings, Regis Philbin asking “Is that your final answer?,” the historic wins, and a new kind of game show crossed with the nascent form of reality TV. “I imagine this is what it’s like when people have those deep evangelical moments,” Davies told Charlie Rose of his introduction to Millionaire. “It was the best television program that I had ever seen made, I think in my lifetime.”
In the years since, Davies has continued to produce a number of other shows, from the Oscars to Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen to Talking Dead. But his fascination with game shows has endured. He worked on 2 Minute Drill (itself a riff on another British quiz show, Mastermind), Grand Slam, Win Ben Stein’s Money, the World Series of Pop Culture, and the recent Millionaire reboot featuring Jimmy Kimmel as host. After Jennings’s 74-game Jeopardy! win streak concluded in 2004, he and Davies partnered on a pitch called Ken Jennings vs. The Rest of the World for Comedy Central. “They were looking for another half-hour to pair with The Daily Show, and they loved this idea,” Jennings says of the woulda-coulda project. “And then Stephen Colbert pitched a show at the same time, and the rest is history.”
Davies has also maintained a foothold in the sports world. In 2002 and 2006, he covered the men’s FIFA World Cup for ESPN’s now-defunct subsection Page 2; he also found himself gloomily looking on at a wedding that happened to be scheduled opposite the latter year’s World Cup final. There, he met an equally despairing fellow Brit named Roger Bennett, who likewise lived in New York. The pair went on to launch Men in Blazers with an eye toward the growing soccer-curious contingent in their adopted foreign home. (Davies, naturally, refers to the sport as “football,” though he is fond of dropping a harshly Americanized sawkerrr from time to time.) In 2011, the podcast was licensed by Grantland, The Ringer founder Bill Simmons’s website under the aegis of ESPN; a televised version on NBC Sports, picked up after Davies and Bennett broke out with their sardonic coverage of the 2014 World Cup from a Rio de Janeiro closet, is now in its ninth season. Davies is the president of Embassy Row, the parent company of what The Hollywood Reporter recently described as Blazers’s “global empire,” as well as being a talk and game development company in its own right; it was acquired by Sony Pictures Television in 2009.
For all of his experiences, though, Davies never set his sights on getting involved with Jeopardy! And his pathway to becoming the show’s EP was unplanned, to put it mildly. In August 2021, he was on the Sony lot, where Embassy Row has an office, when he was asked in passing if he would be able to sit in on fellow Sony production Jeopardy!’s initial taping of the season for what would be then–executive producer Mike Richards’s first day as the show’s new permanent host. A few days later, with Richards’s blessing, Davies says he walked onto the set, ostensibly to give Richards notes from one producer to another.
“I left the studio thinking, ‘Wow, that was interesting. I wonder if I’ll ever be back,’” Davies says.
What Davies says he didn’t know was that show staff and Sony executives were in the midst of damage control after The Ringer published a report a day earlier on Richards’s controversial hiring and past behavior. The day after Davies’s ride along, Sony announced that Richards would step down as host; by the end of the month, the studio said he was out as executive producer as well. With tapings already scheduled—and contestant Matt Amodio then in the midst of a lengthy win streak—Davies says he got a call from Ravi Ahuja, Sony’s chairman of Global Television Studios, asking, as Davies remembers it, for him to step in as a stopgap measure until another producer could be found. Davies flew to Los Angeles from New York that night, and was awoken early the next morning by his doorbell. Outside was a congratulatory gift from his agency, he says, “because the press release had gone out announcing that I was coming in as the interim producer on Jeopardy! and Wheel, which I just had no idea about.”
“I came in thinking it was honestly going to be a matter of weeks,” Davies says. “I did actually start talking to some other producers who I thought might be decent choices. And that was being done genuinely.”
Instead, he fell in love: “I really didn’t think I was going to stay and then I started realizing, ‘Wow, this is too good. I can’t possibly give it up.’” Scarcely seven months later, Davies signed on to do the job for good.
The Richards saga marked a nadir for morale at Jeopardy!, where much of the staff has worked for years, even decades—a rarity even among other long-running game shows. Trebek’s death had left staff feeling both grief and uncertainty about the future of the show that the host had anchored since the 1980s.
The latter feeling was compounded by the departure earlier that year of Harry Friedman, who had served as the show’s executive producer for nearly 25 years. Throughout his tenure, Friedman had run Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune as silos within Sony. After he left, Jeopardy! found itself in a power vacuum. “I think one of the reasons that Jeopardy! is as good as it is is the extent to which, supported by multiple administrations at Sony, Harry ran Jeopardy! closed off from the rest of the studio,” Davies says. “He was truly their leader.”
Richards’s tenure, which had been bumpy even before his brief promotion to host, had sowed confusion and mistrust, with some on staff feeling that it had resulted from studio interference. Even the 2021 guest-host rotation, which saw 16 broadcasters, actors, athletes, and celebrities take a turn behind the lectern in the months following Trebek’s death, had proved unexpectedly difficult: Trebek’s idiosyncratic system for hosting—which, as developed over his more than 36 years with the show, spurned a teleprompter and involved the host manually crossing off clues on a sheet in front of him as he barreled through the rat-a-tat inherent in a 61-clue half hour—was a tall order to impart on a cast of newbies, some of whom stayed for as few as five games and all of whom drew intense, and sometimes sharp-tongued, media interest and speculation.
“It was a staff who’d gone through trauma, who I think were just looking for someone to come in and wrap their arms around the show,” Davies says of the aftermath of what he has dubbed “the awkward months” of Richards’s ascent and fall. For many on staff, Davies says, 2021 felt like “the first time there had been negative stories about Jeopardy!”—a sudden impression that its place in pop culture less as a TV show than a revered institution might be in danger.
Davies’s efforts at restoring Jeopardy!’s reputation have run the gamut, from working to rebuild trust among the staff to seeking out creative ways to win back public approval. That has meant modernizing the tech and protocols at a show that has largely been sealed off from other productions, as well as beginning to tweak the Jeopardy! canon with the hope of bringing in a more diverse crop of brilliant minds. “I don’t know who invented trivia,” Davies deadpans, “but I’m pretty sure it was an old white guy in the late 19th century.”
Davies notes that some 110,000 people apply each year for one of the roughly 400 spots in a Jeopardy! season via the show’s 50-question online Anytime Test—what he, a dad of four gearing up for a round of college tours, calls an “acceptance rate” of 0.36 percent. “Harvard is 4 [percent],” he says. “We are 10 times harder to get into than Harvard—we should have our pick of the very best. But just as it is for a college, every class at Harvard could fill itself with people with perfect scores. I want to tell a very broad story of the educated American public and that is not all determined by the Anytime Test.”
Indeed, Davies is leaning into what he believes is at the center of Jeopardy!’s mystique: contestant excellence. Having arrived at the show just as a historic streak of streaks commenced—first Amodio (who lost in his 39th game on Davies’s first day as EP, something he jokes that he feels somehow responsible for), then Jonathan Fisher (11 wins), Amy Schneider (40), Mattea Roach (23), and Ryan Long (16), with numerous shorter sprees in between—it’s no surprise that Davies took a particular shine to the contestant with the longest streak of all.
“He was brought on to bring stability to the show, and I think he has done so,” says Jennings, who joined Jeopardy! as a consulting producer in 2020 and served as the first guest host the following year before being passed over for the full-time job in favor of Richards; in a U-turn, Jennings and actress Mayim Bialik were named permanent cohosts last summer. “I think he was a believer in my work, which was not just flattering, but I’m very grateful for that because I’m not sure I would have a hosting job right now if not for Michael going to bat for me.”
If anything has frustrated Davies about Jeopardy! over the last year and a half, it’s that the most successful contestants are hardly ever there. Masters, for example, marks James Holzhauer’s return to the stage for the first time since 2020. (Amodio, Schneider, and Roach join him, along with Andrew He and Sam Buttrey, the runners-up to Schneider in the 2022 Tournament of Champions.) Other players—like all-time winnings leader Brad Rutter and 20-time champ Julia Collins, to name two notables—haven’t appeared in years. Every season, new players manage legendary feats, and generally, the most that viewers at home might see them is once every few years—a particularly grim reality for a competition where recall and buzzer speed make it at least partly a younger person’s game.
“Jeopardy! is kind of like the NBA, but they wipe off every roster every season and they start with whole new players,” Davies says. “You know, LeBron James is still out there and we’ve stopped all these great players from playing.”
Davies would like to change that. He sees a dominion of Jeopardy! stretching into a mostly uncharted future. He imagines bars playing episodes, then rolling right into Jeopardy!-sponsored pub trivia. High school and college students pulled from quiz bowl into the junior leagues of Jeopardy! A virtual player prep suite, condensing all the favored study tools of would-be contestants—the buzzer practice, the digital flash cards, the play-throughs of old games—into an official hub. An experiential version of the show that would someday make it possible to play Jeopardy! without actually being on Jeopardy! Pop culture and sports spinoffs, and international expansions (British and Australian editions are both on their way) to cue up a Ryder Cup–style global battle royale. A book club and a fully fledged fan convention. Celebrity tournaments with their own pipeline of trivially inclined VIPs; Ike Barinholtz, who won this year’s competition and, in a first for the show, will make the jump to mainstream Jeopardy! with a berth in this fall’s Tournament of Champions, is already helping with scouting. And as ever, the syndicated show steadfastly awaiting a visit to your living room each Monday through Friday.
Davies knows that it’s a lot. He counters his expansion plans with hard-won experience in going too big: “Believe me of all people: I was the producer of Millionaire when it expanded from a special event that happened two, three times a year for 11 episodes and then became—you know, in three years we made 363 prime-time editions of Millionaire and it was just overexposed.”
His dream is less for wall-to-wall saturation, as became the case with Millionaire, than it is for a professional league of Jeopardy! players. If all goes according to plan, Masters will become an annual autumn competition, the peak of a full postseason beginning with the just-announced Jeopardy! Invitational Tournament for gifted champs who haven’t been on the show recently, to the Tournament of Champions for the best new players, and on into a possibly even bigger field for Masters, where the previous Masters tournament’s top player or players will await. (Those who underperform would be relegated to the JIT; if they had managers, one imagines they might be sacked.)
“Jeopardy! I think is only a force for good in terms of the popularizing of people who know things and the importance of knowing things and the importance of the written word,” Davies says. To him, it’s simple: Why not keep the spotlight on the ones who do it best?
Davies points to Schneider, whose 40-game win streak prompted her to quit her tech job and pen a memoir, and Roach, whose own streak kick-started a media career and allowed them to defer enrollment in law school while they ponder other paths. See what Jeopardy! can do? If $500,000 is on the line every year in Masters, and assorted other prizes await in other tournaments, why shouldn’t there be pro Jeopardy! players, for whom the finances make enough sense to focus full-time on training, just like any top athlete?
This type of thinking has another clear selling point, too. Jeopardy! faces the same existential threat as every other network show in the age of cord-cutters: Even if a program grows its share of the market, the number of households using television is steadily dropping. For a show that’s a favorite of grandparents coast to coast, the problem is especially stark. Part of the magic of Jeopardy! is the way it harkens back to a bygone era of monoculture. You might not watch Succession or Andor, but you probably know the rhythm of answering in the form of a question.
Enter: sports. For Davies, the youth games, the bar contests, the training suite, even the daily show—that’s all just player development, a pipeline to find, and appeal to, a bright new generation of stars.
Back on the set at Masters, the Alan Parsons Project’s “Sirius” begins to thrum—the signal that a new game is about to begin. Davies pops up, jogging to convey a fresh idea to the social media team clustered around laptops in the audience. Lo and behold: The show has been live tweeting rolling Jeopardata, including buzzer attempts, during each of the tournament games.
Later, Davies settles into his office, which is lined with stylized posters from the 1972 Olympics and a supersized Jeopardy! board, and takes a moment to ponder the question: Is Jeopardy! a sport? The notion has bubbled up around the show over the years. Even Davies didn’t quite buy it when he first got involved. “Initially it wasn’t a joke, but it was said to get a reaction,” he says. What convinced him the answer could be yes was less the labor of buzzer wielders than the way viewers responded to the games: the emergence of genuine fandoms dedicated to new champions, just as they might to breakout athletes; how episodes that taped months ago were treated more than anything like live sports.
Davies looks into the distance, suddenly serious. “I was just walking across the set yesterday and I was thinking, ‘I wonder what Alex would make of all this,’” he says.
Two and a half years after his death, Trebek’s presence still looms large. In 2021, Sony rechristened Jeopardy!’s soundstage the Alex Trebek Stage, and the winner of the Masters tournament will take home the newly forged Trebek Trophy. New audiences wait near a poster of Trebek with the caption “It’s more than a game—it’s Jeopardy!”
One of the late host’s favorite rejoinders was that he wasn’t Jeopardy!’s star: The contestants were, he insisted. If Davies has his way, the show will embrace that as a mantra, turning occasional guests into regular costars, honoring the past while ushering in an expansive era of new.