TV Long View: 'Jeopardy' Champ James Holzhauer Is No Ken Jennings in the Ratings

James Holzhauer with total_Jeopardy-Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Jeopardy Productions, Inc.

James Holzhauer's Jeopardy winning streak has pushed the venerable game show back into the pop culture consciousness. The former sports gambler is, as of publication time, on a 22-game winning streak — the second longest in the show's history — and has racked up the 10 largest single-game winnings ever on the program.

Holzhauer's run has drawn attention for his utter dominance of the game — only twice so far have opponents even had a chance to catch him going into the Final Jeopardy round — and his aggressive betting on Daily Double clues and in the final round.

The winning streak has also goosed ratings for the syndicated mainstay. Holzhauer first appeared on Jeopardy on Thursday, April 4; the show averaged 9.58 million daily viewers that week, which included his first two victories. The audience grew in each of the two subsequent weeks, rising to 10.09 million the week of April 8 and 10.67 million the week of April 15 (the last frame for which syndicated ratings are available), an improvement of 11 percent over that time.

Holzhauer's run also improved both Jeopardy's household ratings and total viewership by 10 percent over the prior three weeks, and the show is running 3 percent ahead of its season average through the end of March.

Year to year, Jeopardy has also improved by 3 percent in household ratings during Holzhauer's run. Those are all strong numbers, especially considering Jeopardy was already in the highest echelon of syndicated programming; only Judge Judy and Wheel of Fortune have drawn more viewers this season.

Holzhauer has a ways to go, however, if he is to catch all-time Jeopardy record-holder Ken Jennings — both in terms of games won and in the ratings.

Jennings won a record 74 consecutive times on Jeopardy in 2004, accumulating more than $2.5 million along the way. Holzhauer is not quite a third of the way to Jennings' win mark, but much closer in terms of winnings — almost $1.7 million as of May 3.

Comparing raw ratings numbers now to those of 15 years ago — when less than 10 percent of TV homes even had DVRs, let alone multiple options for streaming video — won't tell us much. But Jennings had a much larger effect on Jeopardy's ratings relative to the previous year than Holzhauer has had thus far.

Over the course of Jennings' run, which spanned the end of the 2003-04 TV season and the first couple months of 2004-05, the show's ratings improved by 22 percent, per a press release from then-distributor King World.

Ratings for the show may continue to rise for however long Holzhauer keeps winning, but barring a massive spike in the coming weeks, it is unlikely his streak will result in gains as large as those of Jennings' run. Again, that's harder to do now in a time when viewing options are practically limitless.  

At 35 years and counting for its current iteration, Jeopardy is a habit as much as a TV show for its sizable audience. Holzhauer's streak is slowly pulling more people in, but it's not yet the phenomenon his predecessor's was.