Jeopardy! Contestants Weigh a Second Shot at Glory Versus Crossing the Picket Line
Jeopardy! is not like other game shows. Players who pass the tests, nail the interviews, and receive the call to take the stage to test their trivia knowledge have often waited years for the opportunity — it is a dream come true. A second chance is basically unheard of, save for the few who wind up on a Tournament of Champions-qualifying winning streak.
But thanks to extraordinary circumstances, a second chance is exactly what the show is offering to some former players: As of now, Jeopardy!’s 40th season, set to premiere on Sept. 11, is inviting select contestants from previous seasons to play in a new set of games. The season will start with a Second Chance tournament, in which players from the COVID-restricted season 37 who excelled but didn’t win will return for another chance at glory. Later in the season, a Champion’s Wild Card tournament will bring together champs from seasons 37 and 38, along with the Second Chance winners, to face off in an even bigger showdown.
As five former Jeopardy! contestants who were offered spots in these tournaments tell Polygon, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime — again. It’s also an ethical nightmare.
“When I got a call gauging my interest in participating, my initial reaction was pure shock, because I’d given up any fantasies about being invited back,” one season 38 champion says. (All spoke on condition of anonymity, so as not to affect their chances to appear on Jeopardy! in the future.) “But once that initial shock wore off, it was replaced by the dread of having to make an impossible decision.”
If Sony Pictures Entertainment, which produces Jeopardy!, goes forward with its current plans for season 40, cameras will roll as thousands of members of the Writers Guild of America remain on strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers over a lapsed labor contract. Jeopardy! employs WGA writers to come up with its snappy trivia clues, but for now, without newly written answers and questions available, the show plans to use “a combination of material that our WGA writers wrote before the strike, which is still in the database, and material that is being redeployed from multiple, multiple seasons of the show,” said Jeopardy! showrunner Michael Davies on this week’s episode of the Inside Jeopardy! podcast. Davies also spoke about the writers’ importance to the show itself and as part of the “family” of behind-the-scenes people who make it. “There is something I have to say right at the outset, and that is how much I admire and miss our writers,” he said. “They are beloved and valued members of the Jeopardy! team, just as they value every other member of our team.”
Jeopardy! producers have already reached out to certain contestants from seasons 37 and 38 in order to book tape dates for the upcoming tournaments. But how long Sony will need to rely on returning players and old material is a huge question, for the show and the entire industry; there is currently no end to the strike in sight. A Deadline report earlier in August suggested that the WGA and AMPTP were at a standstill over the mere idea of returning to the bargaining table.
But according to the WGA, there is no ambiguity in what deciding to appear on the game show would mean for a player’s relationship to the striking workforce.
“Jeopardy is produced by a struck company,” a WGA spokesperson told Polygon via email. “Anyone participating in a Jeopardy production would be crossing a picket line comprised of Jeopardy writers who wrote the clues.”
For one former season 37 contestant, who wrote to Polygon over email, the taping of her Jeopardy! win stands out as “a completely perfect day.” So when a contestant coordinator called her out of the blue earlier this month to offer a tournament slot, a rush of emotion came flooding back.
“The idea that I get to go back and do this again?” she says. “And this time without the strict COVID regulations? Someone would actually do my hair and makeup? I could take a picture standing next to the host? And even better — I would be in a tournament?!? I’ve heard such amazing stories of the tournament experience (win or lose) and I was so excited to be a part of that. My brain was just reeling at this new opportunity that I never thought I would have.”
Still, she politely declined — at least for now. While she was more than happy to play in a tournament again, she would not participate as long as the WGA strike “was unresolved.” The contestant coordinator told her that she wasn’t the first person to come back with that response.
“I am so angry at the show and Sony leadership for doing this,” she says. “Calling with vague invitations on Thursday and then announcing publicly on Monday what the plan was before telling the invitees? Waiting to tape season 39 [Tournament of Champions] and any possible season 39 Second Chance or Wild Card tournaments until the strike is resolved… but somehow it’s okay to invite season 37/38 players?”
The other former champions speaking to Polygon about being offered a Jeopardy! reappearance express a similar unease over their dreams being pitted against a belief in what the WGA is fighting for. While the strike circumstances came up in at least one offer, in which a contestant coordinator expressed solidarity with those on strike and affirmed that no union writers crossed the picket line to create new content, the caveats haven’t provided much comfort.
A season 38 player, who spent months preparing for what would turn out to be a two-episode run on the series, notes that while participating in season 40 may not constitute scabbing in the literal sense — he wouldn’t be replacing the striking workers involved with the show — his position as a dues-paying member of a different labor union makes solidarity a priority for him. He won’t undermine the strike.
“I realize that there are other contracts at play among the other crew members that make Jeopardy! possible,” he says, “but we’d still be charged with walking through a passionate group of human beings fighting for their livelihoods in order to play a game. Do I expect them to see my solid-colored business casual wear and practice buzzer and go, ‘Oh, if it’s for Jeopardy! it’s cool?’ Of course not. And I wouldn’t want them to.”
Two other season 38 champions offered spots in a season 40 tournament say they feel fortunate to be in a comfortable enough financial position so as not to feel the draw of the potential prize money. But both know that’s not the case for every former contestant that Jeopardy! is asking to make an agonizing call. “I won’t judge them if they accept,” says one of the champions, “but I’m certainly judging the studio for putting us in this position.”
Still, there’s that tug of reliving the rush of play one more time. “I feel like I’ll regret it forever if I decline what is likely my one chance to go back on the show,” one former champion says. “But I’ll also regret it forever if I accept but have to cross the picket line to do it. It honestly makes me wish I’d never gotten the invitation at all.”
While the Jeopardy! champions Polygon spoke with all have strong feelings about not crossing the picket line, a few are holding out hope that the strike might be resolved in time for them to participate. One of the season 38 players asked the contestant coordinator to schedule his tape date “as late in the year as possible, because it gives the studios enough time to meet the writers’ demands.” He says he plans to check with his own union’s leadership to “discuss all possible consequences or ramifications to crossing the WGA picket line,” but adds that if Jeopardy! asked him to decide now, it would be a hard no.
As they mull the opportunity and hope for resolution, these contestants all carry some level of disappointment in the producers of their favorite show for even asking in the first place. One player refers to it as a “betrayal.” Another says the offer felt like a “gut-punch.” Everyone wanted to return to the Jeopardy! stage, but not like this.
“It’s honestly souring my opinion of Jeopardy! for putting us in this position, having to choose between supporting the strike and going back on the show that many of us have loved our whole lives,” says a season 38 champion. “I also think if I decline the invitation, it will be easy for the production to find someone who’s happy to replace me. It makes me wonder if it would be better to just cross the picket line but donate my winnings, than for someone who doesn’t care about the strike at all to take my place. I really don’t know what the right thing is to do.”
Hours later, the contestant reached out to Polygon again to say she had declined.
[Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.
Additional reporting by Samit Sarkar.]
Disclosure: Rank-and-file staffers at Polygon are members of the Vox Media Union, which is affiliated with the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE). The Vox Media Union’s collective bargaining agreement is separate from the Minimum Basic Agreement, the labor contract between screenwriters and television and film producers. The current labor dispute between the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers and the Writers Guild of America (which consists of the WGAE and its sister union, the Writers Guild of America West) does not involve the newsroom unions that are affiliated with the WGAE.