They're calling Ken Jennings the Joe DiMaggio of game shows.
After his six-month-long, 74-game winning streak on the show “Jeopardy!” came to an end Nov. 30, the 30-year-old software engineer from Utah walked away wealthier by a staggering $2.522 million. That makes Jennings the biggest winner in television game show history.
Quiz shows have been around since the 1950s, but prizes of such magnitude are a relatively new phenomenon, thanks to “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” which debuted on The Walt Disney Co.'s ABC network in 1999. That was the first game show to feature $1 million stakes. By 2000, every broadcast network had a seven-figure show on the air, according to Steve Beverly, a professor at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., who runs tvgameshows.net, a Web site for fans and contestants.
Indeed, eight out of the top ten game show winners all walked away with wads of cash thanks to “Millionaire” or to one of the many clones that it spawned during its heyday. Jennings is only the second million-dollar winner on “Jeopardy!,” which is produced by Sony's television production unit, because until 2003 all “Jeopardy!” champions were sent packing after just five wins.
A $2.5 million payout may sound steep, but it's a drop in the bucket considering that the show earns between $50 million and $70 million a year, according to Beverly. And it was well worth it — the buzz about Jennings' juggernaut boosted the show's viewership by 22 percent.