James Holzhauer Returns to 'Jeopardy!' as Insiders Reveal Financial Details of a Record Streak

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

The champion's fate is already pretaped, so ad buys are locked in and big ratings don't mean big bucks for Sony Television as producers scramble to make arrangements should host Alex Trebek step down amid a battle with cancer.

James Holzhauer's return Monday to Jeopardy! after a two-week break for a teachers' tournament promises to be a ratings bonanza for the syndicated quiz show.

When last we joined the 34-year-old champion, he was 22 games into an unprecedented winning streak, accumulating $1.7 million and breaking records for the 10 highest single-day winnings in Jeopardy! history. The Las Vegas professional gambler is averaging $76,864 per show, enough for second place on the all-time winners list behind only Ken Jennings ($2.5 million over 74 games).

In the week of April 29, the show notched a peak 8.3 rating — its highest since March 2005 — and averaged 13.28 million daily viewers for the week. (By comparison, Game of Thrones' final season premiere drew 11.8 million live viewers, though that number shot up significantly with delayed viewing.)

But while the buzz surrounding Holzhauer is invaluable, it won't lead to any increased revenue for producer/distributor Sony Pictures Television. According to well-placed sources, the studio generates roughly $125 million each year in profit from Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, the crown jewels of its syndicated game show empire.

Those profits come from licensing fees from stations; ad sales; and, believe it or not, Jeopardy! slot machines, which produce up to $25 million in revenue annually, according to one source familiar with the revenue breakdown.

While the frenzy around the current winning streak is boosting ratings and media attention, Holzhauer-mania won't translate to increased advertising revenue because those ad deals were locked in long before he began betting big and demolishing competitors.

Conversely, Holzhauer's outsized winnings will make no significant dent in Sony's profits or present budgetary concerns for the show, which costs between $1 million and $1.5 million per week to produce, says the source.

Of much greater concern at the moment to Sony and Jeopardy! staffers is the health of  Alex Trebek. The 78-year-old host revealed in March that he is battling stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Despite debilitating abdominal pain, Trebek has not missed a day of work since receiving his diagnosis.

Still, the possibility that Trebek will step down is a very real and imminent one. The two key decision makers overseeing the order of succession are longtime Jeopardy! executive producer Harry Friedman and Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Tony Vinciquerra.

The Sony leadership is said to have kept a list for some time of possible replacements for Trebek, who has hosted the show since it was revived by creator Merv Griffin in 1984. In the past, some of the candidates have included Matt Lauer and Anderson Cooper. It is unknown which names currently sit on the list.

For now, at least, Trebek can rest as the show has completed taping its 35th season, with the 36th scheduled to begin shooting in Los Angeles later this summer.

Will Holzhauer be back for it? His fate is already sealed and will reveal itself beginning Monday. He's not saying, nor are his competitors: Contestants sign documents promising not to reveal the outcomes of their games, and the staff and crew are bound to do the same.

But as far as the studio audience goes, it's largely left to the honor system. "We do ask them not to reveal anything they have seen, but that's the extent of the precautions," says Jeopardy! head writer Billy Wisse.