‘Jeopardy!’: Why Did the Show Once Change the Rule About Buzzers?

by Chris Haney

Unlike some other game shows, Jeopardy! contestants have to wait until the clue has been fully read before they can buzz in. Fans of the quiz show know that longtime rule well. However, most fans may not remember that the buzzer rule has not always been the same.

It’s obviously important that Jeopardy! contestants have the knowledge to answer the host’s clues. But it’s equally important for the contestants to master using the buzzer. Their timing and reflexes when pressing the signal button can make all the difference. Only fractions of a second can make the difference between you or your competitor buzzing in to answer correctly.

For years, the show has had the same rules. Yet in the early years of Jeopardy!, it was more of a free-for-all when it came to buzzing in. The quiz show didn’t have any rules in place at the time, so contestants could hit their buzzer at any point while the clue was read. Unsurprisingly, this led to “quick guesses, negative scores and general confusion,” according to Jeopardy!‘s official website.

Fast forward, and the rules we know today about buzzing in have a very intricate system to make sure no one buzzes in too early and that everyone has a fair shot at answering. In fact, the buzzers are basically turned off entirely and will not respond until the host is finishing the last syllable of the last word in the clue. A Jeopardy! staff member sitting offstage presses a button that activates the panel’s buzzers as the host finishes the clue.

A Behind the Scenes Look at ‘Jeopardy!’s Logistics

Although that’s the gist of it, there are some other details on the inner workings of Jeopardy! that most viewers at home never see. Not only are the buzzers turned on by someone off-camera, but a series of lights on the gameboard helps to notify the contestants it’s time to buzz in.

As soon as the operator enables the buzzers, the edges of the answer board light up and flash. Yet viewers at home never see the lights. That’s because on television, the text of the clue is always still on the screen. Unless you’ve been to a taping of the show, you likely never knew the contestants had an indicator of when they could buzz in.

At the same time that the lights flash, the signaling device is turned on. The system works by recognizing the first buzzer pressed. Additionally, when the system accepts the first signal, all other signals are then ignored. Subsequently, the contestant who buzzed in first is revealed when their podium lights up.

So what happens if a contestant buzzes in too early? The system locks them out for a quarter of a second, which helps keep the game flowing and rewards the other, more patient contestants.

Many also likely wonder what happens when multiple contestants buzz in at the same time. Jeopardy! tells its contestants to continue to hit their signal button until the confirmation light pops up on their podium or the host calls their name. That’s why fans occasionally see contestants mashing the buzzer like crazy.

The show’s precise engineering within their signaling system is much more technical than most realize. But it’s the main reason the show runs so smoothly and a key contributor to one of the most popular game shows around.