By Stone, Daniel
Newsweek , Vol. 157, No. 08
Byline: Daniel Stone
A computer invades the venerable quiz show.
Alex Trebek bounds across the blue-toned stage, past the giant board of clues, eager to take questions from the studio audience. It's somewhere around the 6,000th episode of Jeopardy! he has hosted, and interacting with the crowd, he says, is his favorite part of the job. As he approaches the bleachers, he stops short. "Oh my!" he bellows when he sees about 30 fourth graders in the top three rows. "We usually have mostly senior citizens, but today we have young people!"
Trebek, of all people, would know. For 27 years, the dapper emcee has hosted the dinnertime quiz show, whose nightly audience of 10 million is larger than the population of Arizona. At 70, Trebek is well inside Jeopardy!'s traditional demographic (the median age of Jeopardy!'s viewership: what is 65, Alex?). But he has more stamina than any host who has ever hawked Turtle Wax. Gene Rayburn. Chuck Woolery. Bob Barker. He has outlasted them all.
Some 300 other game shows have come and gone since producer Merv Griffin revived Jeopardy! in 1984, but Trebek's program has endured as the second most popular in all of syndication (Wheel of Fortune, another Griffin brainchild, is first; Oprah hovers around fifth). Harry Friedman, Jeopardy!'s longtime producer, thinks it's because of the program's unflappably simple formula: a rigid format, paired with ever-changing content. Trebek says it's "the best reality show on TV."
If there's such a thing as TV comfort food, Trebek is it. The host's demeanor is so consistently predictable--save for that radical moment in 2001 when he shaved his bushy mustache--that he has been repeatedly called "the world's greatest robot." He has heard the critique so many times, he doesn't even flinch anymore. "Well, I guess I'm the Energizer Bunny, folks. I just keep going."
But as any devoted Jeopardy! fan can tell you, Trebek's robot title is about to be challenged by a personable computer named Watson. This week, just in time for February sweeps, Jeopardy! will air a three-night match between Watson and the show's two most successful players ever: Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.
Make no mistake: Watson is a formidable opponent. In the time it would take a human to respond to one trivia question, Watson--made up of more than 400 mainframes that fill an entire room at IBM's labs in upstate New York--can scan the content of a million books. It's also trained to understand the puns and twists of phrases unique to Jeopardy! clues. "If you beat the gajillion-whatever supercomputer, you're a hero," says Jennings, who in 2004 had the show's longest winning streak, 74 games. "But if you lose, it is a computer, so I guess you did the best for your species."
The unspoken irony here is that the match is something of a proxy war between Trebek--the analog host--and the digital future. Trebek freely admits that he's "a pretty old computer, and slower because of it." He tuned out the Internet age somewhere in the late '90s and holds an element of contempt for today's quickened pace of communication. His cell phone, he says proudly, is the kind that still has an antenna, and he uses it, naturally, only to make phone calls. "I don't text, I don't access the Internet, I don't blog, I don't tweet," he says, holding the last "t" for added disdain.
Despite the butleresque character he plays on TV, Trebek--whose parents actually named him George--can be a pretty goofy guy. One year, for the show's holiday party, he took the entire 40 person crew indoor sky diving. Another time, he hired dance coaches to teach the staff to moonwalk on the set (he tried, then opted to sit aside and judge).
Born in Ontario, Trebek grew up wanting to be a doctor, or an actor, or prime minister of Canada. "I suppose I failed at all three," he says. …