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NEAL CONAN, host:

First it was Brokaw, then Rather. Could Jennings be next? Well, if you're a fan of the game show "Jeopardy!," where contestant Ken Jennings has been the reigning champion since early summer, you can guess we're not talking news anchors here. And if you like your game show results to be a surprise, we must say the phrase that makes our bosses cringe: 'Turn off your radio, now,' because the rumors, they are a-flyin'.

All right. If you're still listening, we're going to let you in on the news. Tonight may be curtains for Ken Jennings, bowing off the series with $2 1/2 million in winnings. If you're a fan of "Jeopardy!," would his departure make you more interested in watching, or less? Give us a call at (800) 989-8255. And joining us now from Charlotte, North Carolina, is Mark Washburn, TV columnist with The Charlotte Observer.

And it's good to have you on the program.

Mr. MARK WASHBURN (Charlotte Observer Columnist): Thank you. Good to be here.

CONAN: So I'm sure you're hearing the scuttlebutt that tonight could be the end for Ken Jennings.

Mr. WASHBURN: I believe tonight is the end for Ken.

CONAN: How did we find this out?

Mr. WASHBURN: You know, the managing editor of our paper is a big "Jeopardy!" fan, so I was assigned months ago to cover all things Jennings. And getting information on the outcome of a "Jeopardy!" show is one of the hardest things you can ever do. They just don't tell. And contestants on the show sign contracts that say they won't divulge to their mothers what their winnings are or how the show came out. And it's almost easier to get the launch codes for the Russian nuclear subs than it is to find out a "Jeopardy!" outcome.

But there seems to be in this country what I've discovered is a "Jeopardy!" underground, and this is kind of a loose gathering of idiosyncratic, quirky kind of game-show people who watch every episode of "Jeopardy!," who look at how the questions are phrased, who glean from various sources how things come out and all that. And from, you know, this secret society of Masonic-like "Jeopardy!" fans, Jep! heads, I was able to learn quite a bit about what had happened, through people either in the audience or others who follow it like the Boston Red Sox statistics.

CONAN: We're talking with Mark Washburn, TV columnist with The Charlotte Observer. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And it's also the fact, isn't it, that the network, you know, that carries "Jeopardy!," mostly ABC, is hardly seeming to keep this under wraps.

Mr. WASHBURN: Well, I don't think it's in their best interest. And if you kind of look at the timing of everything, they threw the college tournament right in the middle of this month, starting it on a Wednesday, and it looked to me like they were trying to push the last Jennings episode down to the very end of sweeps, which they've been very effective in doing. And the sweeps end this week, and so here comes the big episode in the end, although Sony Television, which owns the show, has not said a peep.

CONAN: Yeah, but Jennings is--also happens to be scheduled to appear tonight on the "Late Show with David Letterman," and isn't "Nightline" doing a segment tonight on "Jeopardy!"?

Mr. WASHBURN: Yeah. So I think that the word is out. I don't think something of this magnitude could be kept very long.

CONAN: And November sweeps, of course, is just one of the two most important periods in the entire ratings year for the program.

Mr. WASHBURN: Advertising ratings tend to get set off of how well you do in November sweeps, so to say it's important is almost an understatement.

CONAN: All right. Let's get some listeners in on this conversation. We'll talk to Richard, who's with us from Boston.

RICHARD (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Richard, you're on the air.

RICHARD: Oh, thank you. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

RICHARD: I can't wait for Ken to get off.

CONAN: Why?

RICHARD: Well, I don't like his attitude. I don't like his personality. He's been on there way too long. He's been extremely lucky. I just think it's been bad for the show. My wife and I are both loyal "Jeopardy!" watchers. I've tried out for the show and gotten through the first round. I would hate to get in there and be put up against him because I think the people who've been there for 75 days have just--you know, they've been cannon fodder.

CONAN: Well, Mark Washburn, we should point out Ken Jennings has been able to stay so long because "Jeopardy!" changed its rules, I guess, about a year ago and said--it used to be you could only be a five-time champion, and then you retired to the Tournament of Champions, but then they changed it so you could stay on as long as you kept winning.

Mr. WASHBURN: You could go forever. And you have to wonder, gosh, were there people before Ken Jennings who were this good, who could go on and on and on and on--and there were some great names all the way back to the network days of "Jeopardy!," people who I can even remember watching as a kid that just seemed to be brilliant, like Jennings. And you also have to remember, there's a physical component involved in this winning, and that is that you have to have a sense of when to ring in. If you ring in before the question's over, you get locked out for a number of seconds. So not only is the guy a whiz at practically everything that they can come up with on the board, but he also seems to have an innate sense of when to push...

CONAN: When to push the button. And is Richard--are a lot of people like Richard, who can't stand him and stay away, or have ratings risen during Ken Jennings' run as champion?

Mr. WASHBURN: I think what he says is very true. I think a lot of people are turned off by it. And I hear this from folks who watch the show; they're like, you know, 'We want the game back. We want to be able to see plain old people get up there and slug it out, and we want to see, you know, people win the game who are just like people like us.' And I pity the people that went up against Jennings, because they know they're going up against this guy who basically can take anything from English history to mixing cocktail drinks and come up with the answers.

CONAN: Richard, thanks for the call, and I think you may get your wish.

RICHARD: OK. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Let's talk now with Terune(ph), and Terune's calling from Columbus, Ohio.

TERUNE (Caller): Hi. This is Terune from Columbus. I think it's fabulous that Ken Jennings has been winning consistently. I think people have been tuning in to see if he's going to win till the next game and stay on target. I think it's great. And I think it's unfortunate if he loses tonight, but I think he has every right to continue, you know, if he's been winning. I think it's great.

CONAN: Hm. I have to say, Mark Washburn, I'm more in Terune's camp. I enjoy watching Ken Jennings. But a lot of the time, by the end of a "Jeopardy!" round, I don't bother to watch the rest of the show; he's won already.

Mr. WASHBURN: He's already got it nailed, and there's only been a few people who have been kind of within field-goal distance of catching him, and it just hasn't happened yet. But I think tonight it'll probably go down to the wire and it'll be an exciting finish.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Terune.

TERUNE: No problem.

CONAN: And let's see if we can squeeze in Rick. Rick's in Tallahassee.

RICK (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking the call. But I'm absolutely fascinated with Ken, both by his knowledge and his strategies in the game, and I'm really interested in knowing how he lost, whether his knowledge failed him or whether someone had a better strategy or a combination of both, and so I hope not to miss that show.

CONAN: Well, Mark Washburn, if reports are accurate, it is more the former than the latter.

Mr. WASHBURN: I'm not going to spoil it, but I would have gotten the question wrong myself, and it's one of those when you get it wrong, you just slap yourself on the forehead when you hear it and you go, 'Of course.'

CONAN: It's one of those dumb "Jeopardy!" questions that it's easy to get wrong.

Mr. WASHBURN: It's easy to get wrong.

CONAN: 'Elves' would have been a good answer, for example, but it turned out to be wrong.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WASHBURN: I'm stealing that for tomorrow's story.

CONAN: And you're going to have to read that story in The Charlotte Observer. Rick, thank you for the call. And, Mark Washburn, thank you very much for being with us today.

Mr. WASHBURN: My pleasure.

CONAN: That's Mark Washburn, the TV columnist with The Charlotte Observer. We reached him at his desk there in Charlotte, North Carolina.

In Washington, waiting on the outcome of that final "Jeopardy!" answer, I'm Neal Conan, NPR News.

(Soundbite of "Jeopardy!" theme music)

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