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Why Are the Loyal Fans of "Jeopardy!" So Mad?

Understanding fan loyalty shows how "Jeopardy!" failed in its search for a host.

Key points

  • "Jeopardy!" has a loyal fan base that is deeply committed to the show but also to the values it represents, such as knowledge and integrity.
  • Producers made a set of disastrous decisions in their search to replace Alex Trebek, leading to widespread dismay and a sense of betrayal.
  • Research shows that when companies uphold values and social causes that are important to fans, it leads to greater commitment and loyalty.

Amidst a summer of natural disasters, the resurgence of COVID, and the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, social media continues to put the search for a new Jeopardy! host under the hashtag #Jeopardy at the top of trending tweets.

It was never going to be easy to replace a cultural icon such as Alex Trebek, who died in November 2020. His name became synonymous with the show itself over the course of his reign of nearly 37 seasons. Every weekday night, viewers could settle in for 30 minutes dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge as three contestants tried to outdo each other’s mastery of trivia. For many fans, these 30 minutes were sacred, not only for the game itself but for what it represented as a tribute to facts. It was also fun to watch Trebek perform as he engaged in snappy repartee, the occasional “boo-hiss,” and more often than not, showed that he actually knew many of the facts represented in the answers in the form of questions.

The History of Bad Choices by Jeopardy! Producers

Beginning in January 2021, the show’s producers began what would ultimately prove to be a flawed process to find a host who could carry on Trebek’s tradition. Rather than settle on a permanent replacement, the producers decided to “audition” a series of guest hosts, a decision that already began to ruffle the feathers of loyal fans. The highly engaged Jeopardy! Twitter audience was quick to vote up or down on each successive applicant. At one point along the way, the highly regarded Reading Rainbow host LeVar Burton entered his name into the competition via Twitter which would ultimately create its own hashtag rage along with online petitions. In response, Sony gave Burton the nod to host for five days coinciding with the 2021 Summer Olympics, a move that angered fans who felt he wasn’t getting a fair shake.

Despite Burton’s tapping into a fan base as loyal as Trebek’s, the show’s executive producer hired well, himself, Mike Richards. Within days, Richards was forced to step down due to revelations about a range of statements and behaviors that made him an unacceptable choice, on top of his having awarded himself the job. However, Richards wasn’t the only bad choice made by the show’s producers. Also chosen to host various spinoffs and specials was actor Mayim Bialik, whose two-week stint as guest host was hardly hailed as worthy of a permanent spot due to low ratings. After Richards was forced to step down, Bialik will be taking over for three weeks starting in September 2021.

Bialik herself also came with her own significant baggage, leading to even more Twitter outrage. On the very first night of her guest host appearance, a commercial appeared during the break featuring her in her role as “neuroscientist” promoting an unproven memory “aid” known as Neuriva. It is true that Bialik received a Ph.D. from UCLA for a study she conducted of people with a disorder known as Prader-Willi Syndrome, but she has not published any research since completing her dissertation. She is also associated with a set of other questionable claims and positions. For a quiz show based in facts, including those involving science, Bialik's choice became yet another huge problem from the standpoint of fans.

The Psychology of Fandom and Jeopardy!’s Failure to Listen

If all of this is news to you, then you may wonder why anyone would care so much about a game show. However, Jeopardy!’s loyal fan base is deeply committed not only to the show itself, but as noted earlier, to the values it represents. Many current fans grew up watching the show with family members, adding layers of emotional meaning to the experience. Additionally, the snubbing of LeVar Burton was perceived by the fan base as reflecting a missed opportunity to expand its image as a promoter not only of love of knowledge but its commitment to diversity.

Ultimately, Jeopardy!’s failure to listen to its highly vocal fan base is at the core of the widespread dismay and sense of betrayal shown by the many commentators on Twitter and elsewhere in social media. The outrage and frustration of its loyal fans have, furthermore, begun to tarnish the stellar image the show earned through Trebek’s own personal integrity.

Research on fandom can help explain the problematic situation that the show’s producers created by turning a deaf ear to its followers. In a theory proposed by Daniel Funk and Jeff James (2001) known as the Psychological Continuum Model (PCM), people go through a series of stages in their development of loyalty to an activity, brand, or organization. This loyalty can range from participation in sports and other leisure activities to identification with a spokesperson for a brand, as in the case of Steve Jobs and Apple products (Wu, Wang & Hao, 2020). These stages are as follows:

Awareness: Expressing a preference for and beginning to participate in the activity.

Attachment: Developing a strong psychological connection to the activity along with viewing the activity as an extension of oneself.

Allegiance: Establishing an enduring psychological connection to the activity.

Movement through these stages, as proposed in a study of recreational mountain skiers (Alexandris et al., 2017), is accompanied by an individual’s re-orienting his/her social life and behavior as a consumer “in order to overcome constraints and spend more time in his/her favourite leisure activity.” In terms of Jeopardy!, then, fans have developed an intrinsic attachment to their half-hour of answers and questions, not only watching as bystanders but actually becoming involved. Indeed, there is an active community of “blind guessers” on Twitter in which viewers must guess what the Final Jeopardy itself will be just from the announcement of the category (#blindguess).

You can now see how deep the wounds can be to fans who feel that they’re being shut out of a decision that they regard as key to their own personal sense of identity. The choices the producers made so far violate this sense of trust and allegiance to the core values of integrity and objectivity.

Corporate Social Responsibility and Fan Loyalty

Moving beyond the individual’s personal allegiance to a brand, or in this case, a TV show, further research on fandom shows the importance of a company’s commitment to values promoting social causes. In a 2017 study, University of Minnesota’s Yuhei Inoue and colleagues showed how fans of sports teams identified more strongly when the teams appeared to uphold the principles of corporate social responsibility (CSR). The team involved in this study was a member of the Australian Football League, which as a body addresses such issues as employee well-being, environmental sustainability, and community engagement.

Using a sample of 634 fans (75 percent male), the UM researchers tested the relationships between perceived CSR, involvement, commitment, and the team’s performance. As examples of the PCM items, the authors asked participants to rate the extent to which their lives are oriented around the team, feel like the team is “part of me,” and derive pleasure from watching their games. Items such as “I continue to be a member (i.e. fan) of this team because I like being associated with them” measured commitment.

Turning to the findings, the combination of perceived adherence to CSR policies by the sports team predicted a sense of involvement which, in turn, predicted commitment to the team. The authors concluded that, on the basis of these relationships, “companies should design, communicate, and activate their CSR initiatives” as a way to promote fan involvement.

However, there is a note of caution that would seem to apply to the decision by Jeopardy! producers to ignore their own fans: “before implementing a new CSR program, soliciting information on specific causes perceived to be important by target customers and designing the program to address the most valued causes are essential.” In other words, the producers should have taken seriously the demands for greater adherence to facts, integrity, and diversity that clearly are high priorities for the show’s fans. After all, this was the set of values viewers had come to expect from the past 37 plus years of episodes.

To sum up, Jeopardy! fans are loyal, but their loyalties are being severely put to the test throughout this set of faltering moves by its producers. Installing a new figure who will restore the program's core set of values can help ensure the continued loyalty of its fan base in the years, if not decades, to come.

References

Inoue, Y., Funk, D. C., & McDonald, H. (2017). Predicting behavioral loyalty through corporate social responsibility: The mediating role of involvement and commitment. Journal of Business Research, 75, 46-56. https://doi-org/10.1016/j.jbusres.2017.02.005

Wu, R., Wang, C. L., & Hao, A. (2020). What makes a fan a fan? The connection between Steve Jobs and Apple fandom. In C. L. Wang (Ed.), Handbook of research on the impact of fandom in society and consumerism. (pp. 378–396). Business Science Reference/IGI Global. https://doi-org./10.4018/978-1-7998-1048-3.ch018

Funk, D. C., & James, J. (2001). The Psychological Continuum Model: A Conceptual Framework for Understanding an Individual's Psychological Connection to Sport. Sport Management Review, 4(2), 119-150. doi:10.1016/S1441-3523(01)70072-1

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