Do gameshow writers do their homework?
June 9, 2012 7:45 AM   Subscribe

How much planning (or lack thereof) goes into the selection of knowledge-based game show categories & questions?

I was watching a TV game show where, during the introductions, the host asks the contestant what types of questions they're hoping will be asked or what their weak areas are. Now presumably the questions are already chosen at that point, but it made me wonder: Do staff take into account a contestant's profession and background when choosing questions? All the suspense is lost if a player's million-dollar question is about their day job and it's not really fair to the other contestants to watch a Jeopardy player sweep a category about their home state. Is this part of the planning of the show?
posted by Gordafarin to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I don't believe it's part of the planning of Jeopardy specifically. I recall sometime in the past year or two a Final Jeopardy question or a Daily Double was directly in one player's described wheelhouse and Trebek made a point of saying how the questions were set in advance regardless of players' backgrounds. (Sorry I don't have more specifics on this.)

There are so many other play factors built in to a game, like speed and strategy, that a player with specific knowledge of a certain area doesn't always have a huge advantage. Take, for example, that the Jeopardy buzzer is know to be hard to get used to. That gives the returning champion a slight advantage. And then there's wagering on Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy, and deciding whether to answer questions you're not 100% sure about, risking a loss.
posted by dayintoday at 8:07 AM on June 9, 2012

Best answer: Former Jeopardy contestant here, and I really lucked out on my categories on my first game: I'm a medical librarian, and there was a category about videos about viruses, and I minored in music history and am an avid musician and there was a classical music category. In the game before me, the guy who I went on to beat swept (or maybe nearly swept) a category of Woody Allen movie questions. The guy who beat me cleaned up in a category about 70s sitcoms while the other challenger and I (whose prime TV-watching years were in the 80s and 90s) looked on in horror.

But, here's the truth: ther contestant producers (who work with and select the contestants) hardly have any contact at all with the people who write the questions, and none at all on the day of the taping. There's also an element of randomisation. I could have just as easily ended up in the Woody Allen game, and I probably would have tanked. At least on Jeopardy, they're not tailoring the questions to contestants. I think Jeopardy contestants, like everyone else, just have a lot of little areas of specialty and you luck out once in a while.

Consider also: in my first game, my fellow contestants and I sat dumbly through several questions in a sports category - I guess none of us knew squat about sports. The producers don't want that to happen because it's boring and slow. But it happened!
posted by mskyle at 8:44 AM on June 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

Also Jeopardy contestant--I just got lucky and ran a category on show tunes. Nothing in my bio would have suggested this knowledge. The questions and categories are so random as is the matching-up of contestants--I had to go early because someone dropped out at the last minute.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:57 AM on June 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Another former Jeopardy! contestant, here.

One of my fellow competitors was lucky enough to get a relatively obscure/difficult category that lined up almost perfectly with his career. He swept that category early on and built enough momentum that he was able to dominate the rest of the round. He didn't do quite as well in the next round, but he ended up winning the game. I'm not sure whether he went on to be a juggernaut returning champion or anything, but I'm pretty sure that his success in our particular game was due to the luck of getting that category.

I found the bulk of all the Jeopardy! clues I ever came in contact with to be general knowledge questions that would be answerable by almost anyone. I think the only benefit to getting a category that is in your wheelhouse is that it boosts your confidence.
posted by Sara C. at 9:22 AM on June 9, 2012

Response by poster: Wow, who knew there were so many Jeopardy contestants on MeFi? Great answers, thanks!

It'd be great if anyone has any insights on other shows, too - the original show that got me thinking was Pointless, where there are only 4 or 5 categories per show and one category can be the difference between moving on to the next round or being eliminated.
posted by Gordafarin at 9:52 AM on June 9, 2012

At least 30 Mefites have been on Jeopardy, according to the Wiki - some people aren't listed, though.
posted by k8lin at 10:04 AM on June 9, 2012

They randomize Jeopardy! clues (and clues on other games) partially in response to game show scandals in the 50s. Quiz Show is one dramatization of the scandal history.
posted by tantivy at 10:19 AM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yet another Jeopardy contestant and I am English. First round had a category on English questions, which I did well on, including Daily Double. Second round had a category on medicine and my med student opponent cleaned up. The third contestant was a sports journalist and there was nothing on sports. She came third. Probably all chance.
posted by TheRaven at 11:03 AM on June 9, 2012

From 1996-1998 there was a game show on Lifetime called Debt (hosted by Wink Martindale) where the winner of the preliminary rounds would go on to the bonus round at the end of the show. In the bonus round, the contestant had to answer 10 questions in 60 seconds. All the questions would be on a pop culture subject that the contestant would have picked before the show (as something they had a lot of knowledge in). I haven't really seen that kind of pick-your-subject done elsewhere.
posted by sarahnade at 11:46 AM on June 9, 2012

How One Game Show Question Writer Did It

The $64000 Question was a quiz show on CBS TV from 1955 to 1958. Each contestant would choose a category, and all questions were in that category. But the show liked mixed-up contestant and category pairs, so for example, Dr Joyce Brothers (psychologist) chose the category 'Boxing', and answered questions about who-beat-who in 1922.

The president of a small college thought he could use the publicity, so he applied to be a contestant in the category of animated cartoons. He was chosen for the show, and so he studied up on animation--he went to the New York Public Library Main Branch, got all the books he could about animated cartoons(there weren't many then), and started reading.

The quiz was one question a week--contestants kept coming back. So he kept going to the library and studying.

And then he noticed something. There were pencil marks in some of the books. And the marks correlated with questions he had been asked.

After that, the quizzes got a bit easier.
posted by hexatron at 6:10 PM on June 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

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