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‘Jeopardy!’ Fond Farewell to Alex Trebek Followed by Ken Jennings’ Hosting Debut: How Many Will Watch?

Several game show enthusiasts/media professionals provide their ratings opinions on Trebek’s finale and start of a new era with the show's famed champion

The first week of 2021 on network television features a flurry of game shows, new and returning. It will conclude with the most notable game show event in recent memory: the final episode of Alex Trebek as host of “Jeopardy!

It’s a moment we hoped would not happen since learning of the news he was diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer in March 2019. Despite his health, Trebek still powered on and continued to host “Jeopardy!” exhibiting the same passion and vigor as before. The show had always generated memorable moments but the past two years has especially showcased several of the series’ biggest. This includes the All-Star Games tournament for 2018-19 that grouped various teams of three former champions apiece (Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter as two of the team captains); the 32-game winning streak (the show’s second-longest) by James Holzhauer who amassed over $2.4 million from those games, the second-largest total earnings ever for non-tournament games; Holzhauer winning the 2019 Tournament of Champions narrowly defeating Emma Boettcher, the same person who had also previously prevented him from extending his streak to 33 straight victories; the epic four-night Greatest of All Time Tournament on ABC featuring Jennings, Holzhauer and Rutter; and, Jason Zuffranieri matching David Madden for the fourth-longest streak in series history: 19 consecutive wins.

The poignant moments with Trebek were also ones to treasure. In 2019, one contestant did not give the correct response to a Final Jeopardy clue but instead wrote “What is We [Love] You, Alex?” which made the host choked up a bit with emotion. Recent champion (from Nov. 5, 2020) Burt Thakur, a project engineer from Palm Springs, California, got teary-eyed revealing that he had learned the English language from listening to Trebek each day while growing up.

Trebek was one of the most beloved celebrities of all time, earning the respect of his peers, employees and the public at-large. His fame spanned several generations from his six decades of broadcasting, going back to his beginnings in Canada at the CBC. His hosting gigs of other game shows included “The Wizard of Odds”, “High Rollers”, “Double Dare” (the 70’s daytime version, not the Nickelodeon kids game), “Classic Concentration” and “To Tell The Truth.”

His final episode was originally scheduled to air on Dec. 25, 2020, so expect some of the content — the categories and clues — to be Christmas themed. Its airdate was moved to Friday, Jan. 8, amidst an even tenser time in the United States. Aside from the pandemic, issues of civil unrest, police reform and the presidential election have also been major concerns and all intersecting at the Jan. 6 insurrection and attempted coup by Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The unprecedented event might put normal nightly TV schedules of programs this week in flux. Will it or another breaking news occurrence preempt “Jeopardy!”? Perhaps the last Trebek episode could provide a much-needed and welcome respite from current events, mostly thanks to the late Trebek himself. In two of the episodes that have aired since his passing, he had offered inspirational messages for viewers: on Thanksgiving, he believed that unity can help bring us out of our COVID crisis and, at the start of this week (Jan. 4), to be generous to those who suffered from the pandemic “through no fault of their own” in the aim to “build a kinder, gentler society.”

We still sorely miss Trebek, and hearing his aspirational words taped months ago hold significant weight and importance now more than ever. Many will want to check out his final original episode to wish him a fond farewell: an above-average 12 million viewers.

Ken Jennings, the famed 74-game champion from 2004 and Greatest of All Time tournament winner last year, will be the first interim host. His first episode airs on Monday, Jan. 11. Although “Jeopardy!” producers plan to invite other celebrities (reportedly among them, news anchor Katie Couric) to guest-host the show in the coming months, rumor has it that Jennings will become its permanent host once the next season starts filming in the summer. Jennings, already an established legend of the series, will draw significant curiosity: I’m expecting 10.5 million.

I inquired with some professionals and game show aficionados in the media industry to provide their ratings prognostications for the upcoming milestone episodes of “Jeopardy!”. To compare or contrast with my predictions, here are their takes:

Marc Berman, editor-in-chief of Programming Insider

16.9 million

Needless to say, this size audience is unprecedented in today’s cluttered multi-platform environment. But Alex Trebek was truly beloved and the viewers want to say a proper goodbye. On Monday, I estimate 17.5 million viewers for a first glimpse of Ken Jennings as the interim host.

Terence Henderson, T Dog Media

Given Jeopardy! is one of the top syndicated shows, tons of fans will tune in to say goodbye to Alex Trebek. I predict 16.2 million on Friday and 14.6 million when Jennings takes over Monday.

Jason Jacobs, KUOO deejay/sports announcer

15.7 million viewers- I think we will near Jeopardy highs with Alex’s final episode. It might even outdo Jennings’s final episode, but that won’t be easy to do in this day and age. 15 million is still double the average Jeopardy numbers.

Bob Boden, Executive Vice President of Production and Development for Entertainment Studios, former programming chief at Game Show Network

I’m gonna go out on two limbs and predict that Alex’s last show will generate 16 million and that Ken’s first show will get 20 million.

I figure that Friday HUTs are lower than Monday’s and that there will be a ton of promotion over the weekend for Ken’s premiere.  For what it’s worth, I think that time-shifted viewing will provide at least a 20% lift on Friday’s episode in an adjusted +3 calculation.  I know that the numbers game was quite different in 2004, but I would like to think that Ken can top his own best performance from when his streak ended.

Anxious to see how this all plays out, pun intended.

Chad Mosher, elementary school teacher/game show writer; contestant of such game shows as “Jeopardy!”, “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?” and “Million Dollar Password”

I’m going to say 13.5 million for each episode. There is sufficient interest in both topics, but the finale being on a Friday, along with recent backlashes surrounding Ken Jennings may hinder a larger viewership spike for either.

Dexter Johnson, game show blogger at The Blog Is Right

I predict a little more than 14 million viewers will tune into Alex Trebek’s final episode on Friday, January 8. Although the potential viewership for this bittersweet broadcast would take a hit because it’s airing on a Friday evening in some areas, I believe the staggering ratings will stem from Trebek’s generationally diverse and beloved fanbase, the publicity the episode will receive (and has received) on a local and national level and there are still several viewers who will have time to watch it working from home due to the coronavirus or if they are still taking their New Year’s vacation – even if they are using it for background noise.

For Ken Jennings’s first appearance as a Jeopardy! host, I believe around 11 million viewers will tune in to see the show’s dramatic shift. Unlike Alex’s final episode, I don’t believe there will not be as much intrigue by the average television viewer to watch Ken temporarily takeover the helm (similar to when Drew Carey succeeding Bob Barker on The Price Is Right), but it will still rightfully pique the interest of Jeopardy! and game show fans.