It's all over for Arthur Chu, the game theory-using villain of Jeopardy. Chu's 11-day win streak on the trivia game show ended on Wednesday night's episode, and he finished with $297,200 in total winnings, the third-most ever for a contestant.
Chu's Daily Double-targeting strategy, unfriendly-to-the-audience style of play, and overall aggressiveness made him one of the most compelling stories and personalities on nightly television, and his departure leaves a distinct hole on the show. Jeopardy stars who cross over into pop culture are few and far in-between, a list consisting almost solely of Ken Jennings.
But don't expect Jeopardy to go fading back into irrelevance so quickly. "We've been refining our social media strategy in general over the past year and a half," Jeopardy spokesperson Alison Shapiro told The Wire. Though the show has long focused solely on the trivia rather than promoted its individual contestants, the attention given to Chu's run has made show-runners reconsider its approach. Jeopardy is set to take on some of the best parts of modern reality television.
"I've said for a long time, kind of as a joke, that Jeopardy is the oldest reality show on television," Keith Williams, the founder of The Final Wager blog that analyzes Final Jeopardy wagers, told The Wire. But it was a reality show without many personalities, a deliberate decision by the show's higher-ups, including host Alex Trebek. "With an inscrutable, polite persona and packaged asides, Trebek fit perfectly in a program without characters, storylines, or action, a show that starred the audience at home," The Atlantic's Paul Glavic noted. No contestant could be bigger than the trivia and Trebek.
That fear of promoting contestants appears to be no more.
That may seem like a blah social media post to get people to watch, but it's a significant strategy change for Jeopardy. Previously, the majority of its Facebook and Twitter posts were simple hints to Jeopardy questions or promotion of contests. Now, the show has realized that Chu was the star, the draw, the main reason people want to watch. Not the trivia, and not just Trebek. "We know that ratings go up when a contestant goes on a streak, so by the same logic social engagement goes up when people see a contestant on the run," Shapiro said. Jeopardy's social media job, then, is to promote that contestant more actively and let everyone know a streak is in progress.
The show previously would promote contestants only once they reached a streak of five consecutive wins, a relatively high bar. That's now down to three in a row, Shapiro told The Wire. "People started talking about [Chu] after his third win, too," she said. "It's certainly given me ... the idea that maybe we should be doing more with people who have won three games."
One reason Chu has gained such notoriety is his tweeting about the show and shaming his haters as his episodes appear on TV. (The episodes were filmed back in November.) He jumped from a follower count of a few hundred to just over 11,000 during his run. “Chu is the first contestant we know of that reached this many people through social media,” Shapiro told The New Yorker. That attention was great for Chu, who said in that same article that he'd like to create a career as a motivational speaker.
Twitter's help in pushing Chu to nightly news star was not lost on Jeopardy. "Yes, we definitely saw a spike in social engagement for the weeks he was on," Shapiro confirmed to The Wire in an email. To keep that momentum going, the show is enlisting Arthur's help, and his Twitter handle.
(No, he would not hang on.) Indeed, the live-tweeting of episodes among contestants has taken on a life of its own, and was especially noticeable during the College Tournament. Those 18-to-22-year-old contestants happily tweeted about their clothes, about Trebek, and about their grievances with the questions without spoiling the end. That could be the norm for contestants soon enough.
The goal to increase Jeopardy's social media presence and appeal to young people could create some issues should future contestants knowingly play into that villainous role that Chu created. What happens when new contestants get on the show only to cheekily launch a viral campaign for themselves? Could we see intentional sniping between contestants? Perhaps a funky bowtie or a Terd Ferguson-like hat? Getting attention from Trebek rapping or weighing in on the pronunciation of GIF is one thing. How will the show react when a contestant shows up in clown makeup?
Keith Williams, for one, thinks the show's contestants trend too geeky to ever be as salacious as other reality shows. However, he notes their opportunity. "In a lot of cases [it's] the only chance they'll ever have to be on national television and be seen by 15 million people." Those 15-minutes of fame can be appealing to everyone. Just ask Arthur. “Basically, I like attention," he told The New Yorker. It seems Jeopardy does, too.