ABC’s special Jeopardy! Greatest of All Time tournament is more than living up to its name, at least as far as the Nielsen ratings are concerned. Thursday night’s third installment of the event drew a massive same-day audience of 15.4 million viewers, more eyeballs than watched the first five games of last year’s NBA Finals or World Series, and a bigger number than any regularly scheduled series broadcast so far during the 2019–20 television season. What’s more, the Sony Pictures TV–produced GOAT has seen its audience grow every night it has aired this week: It debuted Tuesday with 14.4 million viewers and then notched 14.8 million on Wednesday. Network TV hasn’t been miraculously saved, but the numbers for prime-time Jeopardy! prove audiences aren’t ready to abandon traditional television just yet.
To be sure, the ratings for GOAT aren’t a total surprise, given the show’s already considerable fan base. The nightly syndicated version of the quizzer, also hosted by Alex Trebek, averages around 9 million same-day viewers, making it a bigger draw than many prime-time comedies and dramas. And last year, the final few episodes of James Holzhauer’s storied run on the show brought in over 14 million viewers. But GOAT is doing much better than ABC execs could have ever imagined, delivering both eye-popping total viewer numbers and very strong ratings in the network’s demographic target of adults under 50. The first two nights of GOAT notched a 2.4 rating in the demo, with night three likely to come very close to matching that when final ratings come out later Friday. Excluding sports, the only regularly scheduled broadcast series to score a bigger same-day demo rating this season was last fall’s season-two premiere of Fox’s The Masked Singer, and then just barely (it averaged a 2.5 rating.) In terms of specials and awards, the only things bigger this season have been Sunday’s Golden Globes (4.7), the 10 p.m. hour of Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve (3.2) and Little Mermaid Live! (2.6)
Because imitation is the sincerest form of television, it seems likely ABC’s rivals (and even ABC itself) will look to duplicate the success of GOAT by rushing on more game shows or tournament-style programming. The Alphabet long ago realized the Nielsen potential of buzzer-beaters, resurrecting a slew of classic formats, both for its Summer Fun & Games block (from Family Feud to Card Sharks) and, more recently, with the just-announced revivals of Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Supermarket Sweep, to be hosted, respectively, by Jimmy Kimmel and Leslie Jones. NBC has had modest success with its Ellen DeGeneres–hosted Ellen’s Game of Games, and CBS saw solid results last month with a pair of The Price Is Right prime-time specials.
Generating the sort of numbers ABC is getting with GOAT will likely prove difficult, however. As noted, Jeopardy! already boasts a huge, loyal daily fan base as well as a history of championship tournaments. What Sony and ABC have done with GOAT is to activate an army of viewers who were just waiting for such an event, while also capitalizing on the buzz surrounding Holzhauer. Trebek is also a beloved host, a fact underscored by the outpouring of fan support following his recent cancer diagnosis. A prime-time edition of, say, Wheel of Fortune could do well, but it’s hard to see it getting the same audience response as GOAT. Similarly, while NBC would probably be smart to dust off one of its past game-show hits (maybe a new take on The Weakest Link or a reboot of 21), there’s little chance such efforts would be met with blockbuster ratings.
But as ABC has proven with its Summer Fun & Games shows, you don’t need massive Nielsen numbers to make game shows work in prime time. With expensive scripted shows now regularly pulling fewer than 3 million same-day viewers on big broadcast networks, an hour-long episode of a game show which costs maybe half as much to produce but yields similar numbers can be considered a genuine success. What’s more, if done right, it’s possible to turn game shows into events, incentivizing audiences to tune in live, or at least the night a show airs, so the results aren’t spoiled. ABC will try to do that with its Millionaire reboot by having a play-at-home component to the game. And stunts like live musicals or sitcom episodes (ABC’s The Conners will air live the night of the New Hampshire primary next month) capitalize on linear TV’s ability to get audiences to watch shows at the same time. So while the success of Jeopardy!: GOAT won’t be easily replicated, it will almost surely inspire plenty of attempts to create more Big TV Events.