On this day in 2004, after winning 74 straight games and more than $2.5 million–a record for U.S. game shows–Jeopardy! contestant Ken Jennings loses. Jennings’ extended winning streak gave the game show a huge ratings boost and turned the software engineer from Salt Lake City, Utah into a TV hero and household name, at least temporarily. Barbara Walters named him one of the 10 most fascinating people of the year (along with Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Republican operative Karl Rove and hotel heiress-socialite Paris Hilton, among others) and Jennings appeared on such shows as Late Night with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and even Sesame Street.
Jennings, who was born in 1974, outside of Seattle, Washington, graduated from Brigham Young University in 2000, where he headed the school’s national quiz bowl team. Having grown up watching Jeopardy!, he made his first appearance on the show in June 2004. After a record-setting six-month run, Jennings lost on a show that aired November 30, 2004, when he was stumped by the answer: “Most of this firm’s 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work only four months a year.” The correct response was the tax preparation company H&R Block. Propelled by his Jeopardy! fame, Jennings went on to become a pitchman for various products and write several books.
At the time of Jennings’ appearance, Jeopardy! was well-established as one of the top-rated game shows in American history. Created by TV talk-show host and entertainment mogul Merv Griffin (1925-2007), Jeopardy! debuted in 1964 on NBC, with Art Fleming serving as host. Griffin (who went on to create another hugely popular, long-running game show, Wheel of Fortune, which premiered in 1975) suggested a format in which contestants were given trivia answers in a variety of categories and then required to come up with the questions. Cancelled in 1975, Jeopardy! returned briefly, airing from 1978 through 1979. In September 1984, a syndicated version of Jeopardy! launched with Alex Trebek as host and Johnny Gilbert as the announcer.
Trebek, who was born in 1940 in Sudbury, Ontario, began his broadcast career in Canada and moved to America in the early 1970s, where he hosted such game shows as High Rollers and Battlestars. In 1991, he became the first person ever to host three game shows at one time, when he served as master of ceremonies for Jeopardy! along with Classic Concentration and To Tell the Truth. After more than two decades on Jeopardy!, Trebek has become a pop-culture icon and has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The erudite, articulate host is also a favorite parody target on Saturday Night Live and other shows.