Game Show Hosting Ethics: Advancing Gameplay While Maintaining Fairness

In a 1990 episode of Cheers, Cliff Clavin appears on Jeopardy and loses $22,000 on a spectacularly bad Final Jeopardy wager.

He led the game $22,000-$3,800 and yet risked everything in the last round and lost. It’s a very funny scene.

But it turns out that a similar wager once took place during an actual game, a summary of which can be found here.

You will notice that Greg led Lynn $9,500-$5,000 going into the last round and yet risked everything. This ended up resulting a 3-way tie at $0, where nobody wins. Why did Greg bet everything instead of a more reasonable $501 or $600?

Greg led the prior game (here), the first with Alex Trebek hosting, as well, but was not at all reckless with his wager. Why was he not as cautious in the second game? The ending of that first game might provide some clues:

Around the 2:22 mark, you might start thinking, “Trebek, keep your mouth shut!” Greg laughs off the “chicken” comment and around 2:33, Trebek does begin to explain the logic behind Greg’s wager while reminding everyone it’s the conservative play.

Game shows need to strike a balance: the game needs to be exciting or interesting to entice viewers, but also needs to be fair to the players as they compete for (presumably) actual cash and/or prizes.

In the first game above, without input from Alex Trebek, Greg made the smart wager; in the second game, after input from Alex Trebek, Greg made the dumb wager. Either Alex guilted Greg into making the bad wager in the second game, or Greg decided to play along and make the big wager in the second game to keep things exciting. Whichever is the case, Alex’s comment (and perhaps a producer’s follow-up?) had an effect on Greg’s wagering in the second game.

Should Alex have stayed quiet?

If part of the role of the host is to create the excitement that a game show relies on, then Alex’s comment was fine. And there certainly are some games where the players are not on their own. For instance, a huge part of “The Price is Right” is the audience’s interaction with the contestants.

In the case of Jeopardy, however, the game is a battle between players and each’s knowledge of the trivia. There does not seem to be much room for the host affecting the actions of players. Given this situation, Alex’s comments sure seem out of line.

However, Jeopardy was trying to regain its footing after being mostly off the air for nine years. On account of this, too many games with obvious winners (and where runners up no longer kept the cash) would perhaps have been detrimental to the show. While it is nearly impossible to imagine Trebek telling a contestant they wagered too little in a game today, we can perhaps understand why it happened in his first show.

Note: I actually wrote the bulk of this post in 2013. I’ve decided there’s no real reason not to publish it.

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