'Jeopardy!' returns for 37th season with socially-distanced set

Champion Ken Jennings is also back.

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/ Source: TODAY
By Randee Dawn

"Jeopardy!" is the quiz show with all the answers, but there was one big question once it went on production hiatus due to COVID-19 restrictions: How could it ever resume filming?

On Monday, the answer became clear when the show returned for its for a 37th season with a redesigned set and at least one big change behind the scenes — 74-time champion Ken Jennings has signed on as a consulting producer.

“The most obvious of course you can see right now we have separated our lecterns to provide a little extra social distancing for our players," longtime host Alex Trebek said at the beginning of the show. "We’ve done the same thing for our staff and crew; we’re trying to provide as safe an environment as possible as we produce these new programs for your enjoyment."

Trebek, 80, said earlier this month he was excited to return to the airwaves, despite his announcement last year that he has stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

"I feel good, and I feel excited because once again 'JEOPARDY!' has demonstrated that it's at the forefront of television programming," he said in a statement. "I believe we are the first quiz show to come back on the air in the COVID-19 era. On a personal level, I'm excited because it gets me out of the house. It gives me something to do on a regular basis, and I was missing that."

In the show that aired Monday, all three contestants were new and from Southern California.

“Our returning champion, Zach (Newkirk), was unable to travel from the East Coast here to play today but we will be bringing him back to the program in just a few weeks time," Trebek explained.

During its hiatus, "Jeopardy!" has featured classic early-season episodes, along with tournaments from across the years. And while those have been airing, the designers have been inventing a whole new look to the set to accommodate social distancing. There will be more space between the three contestant podiums, which will also be at a safe distance from Trebek's podium. In addition, the statement explained that protocols are in place, aligned with current government guidelines, to protect contestants, staff, crew and talent.

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Meanwhile, Jennings (who recently won the "Greatest of All Time" competition among the show's elite winners) is now part of the team. He'll present special video categories, develop projects, assist with contestant outreach and serve as a "general ambassador for the show," explained the statement. His first video category will air Sept. 15.

Trebek with contestant Ken Jennings after Jennings' record-breaking streak on the show in 2004. Getty Images

"Though I've played my last round of 'Jeopardy!' as a contestant, I'm delighted to have the opportunity to remain involved with my favorite show," Jennings said. "I'm still in on all the action, but I don't have to worry about phrasing things in the form of a question anymore."

Casting procedures for the show were changed a while ago; "Jeopardy!" now offers an Anytime Test, where potential contestants can audition whenever they like. Those who pass an online test are randomly chosen to go to the next round on Zoom. There's more information here.

So here's a new answer: We are! And the question: Who's ready for more "Jeopardy!"?

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect the premiere of "Jeopardy!" aired on Sept. 14, 2020.

Samantha Kubota contributed.