Ahah! The Ken Jennings phenomenon on Jeopardy is due to a rule change. My guess is that Jeopardy consciously set out to make stars of their best contestants. From Dana Stevens' "The Man Who Knew Too Much," at Slate.
As of yesterday, the 30-year-old software engineer from Salt Lake City had won a total of $788,960, beating the previous record-holder, Tom Walsh, by a margin of over $600,000. Granted, this unprecedented victory streak was also made possible by this season's change in Jeopardy! rules—the term limits have been lifted, as it were, so that the run of a winning contestants may continue indefinitely, instead of being stopped after five consecutive games.
Jenning's streak is at 26 now, so the previous rule obviously had a big impact on the best contestants. The new rule has got people watching - however fortutious or planned was Jennings' arrival - which is the point of the show. Stevens continues:
Watching Ken Jennings play is like witnessing any great athlete in top form: He's the Michael Jordan of trivia, the Seabiscuit of geekdom. ... At the end of last night's show, Tom, Ken's nearest challenger, had only $400 left, and his written response to the Final Jeopardy question was a limp, indecipherable squiggle. (To be fair, Ken didn't know this one either. But he still had $22,000 left to bet.) Jenny, a tiny, bespectacled woman with a voice like Lisa Simpson's, had pulled off some impressive turnarounds early in the game, but she was no longer even on the board; her balance had gone to zero, forcing her to sit out the final round. Poor Tom had a sad-sack demeanor that was hard to warm up to, but watching Li'l Lisa kick Ken's ass would have provided a feminist thrill.
Stevens is a playa-hata! She's bad, too, if one can compliment a writer like that.