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The Nation

This Woman Beat Ken Jennings: 'Who Is Nancy Zerg?'

The longtime reigning 'Jeopardy!' champion is finally dethroned after becoming the winningest contestant in game show history.

December 01, 2004|Scott Collins and Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writers

In an era of fleeting celebrity, "Jeopardy!" contestant Ken Jennings strung out his 15 minutes of fame for five months, 2,700 correct answers and more than $2.5 million in prize money.

Then he met up with Nancy Zerg. And before you could say "Anticlimactic endings for $100, Alex," the clean-cut, Salt Lake City software designer who had become the winningest game show contestant in history had finally been outsmarted.

"You are indeed a giant killer," host Alex Trebek told Zerg, a 48-year-old real estate agent and former actress from Ventura, after she bested "KenJen," as he's become known to game show fans, in an episode that aired Tuesday night.

Jennings' demise started when he blew "daily double" questions twice, giving Zerg the chance to go in for the kill in "final Jeopardy." The category: Business & Industry.

The clue: "Most of this firm's 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work only four months a year." Jennings appeared stumped, while Zerg scribbled quickly and confidently and came up with the correct answer: "What is H&R Block?" When Jennings' answer came up "What is Fed Ex?" Zerg threw her hands to her face in disbelief. The unseated champ shook her hand and hugged her, saying "Way to go! Way to go!"

Jennings' streak helped revive interest in one of TV's oldest game shows, boosting "Jeopardy!" ratings by 22% (the episode broadcast Tuesday was taped Sept. 7).

"I'll probably always be remembered for this, although I don't want to peak at age 30," he said in an interview Tuesday.

Although he didn't win many points for charisma, his nice-guy demeanor earned him fans.

"He was just a genuine young man who is the antithesis of what this country has made into an antihero," said Steve Beverly, a former broadcaster and college professor who founded TVgameshows.net, which followed the Jennings reign diligently.

"On 'Survivor' and shows like that, you succeed by being mean to other people and being destructive to the human spirit," he said. "This guy is a genuine role model for learning. People were hungry for something different."

And next stop -- three-picture deal? Well, probably not. But Jennings did just sign with UTA, a major Hollywood talent agency that also represents such A-list stars as Jim Carrey, Johnny Depp and Harrison Ford. The agency says it's looking to develop Jennings as a commercial pitchman or TV host. (Watch out, Trebek.)

"I could see him hosting a game show," said UTA partner Jay Sures, insisting that Jennings is not just smart but "incredibly witty."

Jennings -- currently on leave from his regular job -- hasn't exactly mastered the art of show-biz hyperbole: "Maybe this is all wishful thinking. But I'm excited to see what the options are."

Whatever the future holds, his big scene Tuesday with Zerg was short on drama.

"He loses so quickly, so terribly unsatisfying, you want him to do a great death scene or something," said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for Popular Television at Syracuse University.

"Think about how long it took Jimmy Smits to die on 'NYPD Blue.' And for 'Seinfeld' and 'Friends,' there were these big countdowns. I feel cheated. I wanted something like that for Ken Jennings. Hopefully they will bring him back tomorrow for a proper farewell."

Thompson said he could picture Jennings as the host of a game show but warned that history shows pop culture has a short memory. Remember the first millionaire on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire"?

"Not many people remember John Carpenter now," Thompson said. "Pop culture dissolves this stuff quickly. Time will be cruel to Ken Jennings unless he does find some other entree into celebrity-dom. My guess is that within five years, Ken Jennings is going to be an answer in the really difficult TV trivia category of 'Jeopardy!' "

This week, though, viewers will have a hard time avoiding him. Publicists for "Jeopardy!" carefully divided his appearances between ABC and CBS, given that the game show frequently appears on ABC stations but is distributed by King World Productions, a sister company to CBS.

This morning, Jennings was set to appear on both ABC's "Good Morning America" and the syndicated "Live With Regis & Kelly," which appears on many ABC stations. Tonight's "Biography" on cable network A&E will profile Jennings and other "Jeopardy!" winners. And next week, a Barbara Walters special on ABC will feature Jennings as one of the most fascinating people of 2004.

Jennings appeared Tuesday on both CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman" and ABC's "Nightline."

Stacey Lynn Koerner, executive vice president at New York-based ad firm Initiative Media, credited Jennings for boosting the fortunes of "Jeopardy!" Its nighttime version was developed 20 years ago by Merv Griffin.

Jennings "generated a whole lot of buzz about a show that was just sort of out there, around forever, and appealed to an older demographic," Koerner said.

But the ultimate credit belongs to the "Jeopardy!" producers, who recently changed the show rules to allow contestants more than five consecutive wins.

"The longer somebody stays, the more equity is built," said Thompson. "They are a recurring character that people get to know and come back to see if he'll win or lose."

Winner Zerg did not return calls on Tuesday. She told the Associated Press that she psyched herself up before the game by repeating: "Someone's got to beat him sometime, it might as well be me."

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