Why is the story about Canadians not being allowed to take the Jeopardy! online test getting so much media coverage?

Me and some Canadian…

Some part is likely the irony: Alex Trebek, who has been hosting the show for 32 years now, was born in Sudbury, attended high school in Toronto, university in Ottawa, and started in television on the CBC. But I think the main reason this story has been getting so much play is more complex, and more important than the Alex factor.

What gives me the right to have an informed opinion on this subject? I am Canadian, I was a contestant on the show (air date March 18, 2011) and I travel the world doing research on the media industry.

And I want everybody to step back for a second, and try to realise just how weird and remarkable it is that Canadians can pass the online quiz (when they are allowed to write it!), appear on the show at all, do reasonably well or even win some of the time.

I happened to study US History and Political Science in university, which was helpful for doing well on the quiz, the audition process, and the show itself. But that knowledge base, while important, makes up much less than 10% of the material anybody who actually makes it to the show has to know. Yes, other academic knowledge around US authors, poets, painters and the like matters too. But most of the stuff you need to know isn’t taught in any school I know!

The 50 states, their capitals, state flowers, state insects and mottos? All popular culture: music (country and hip hop), movies, and every single TV show? Lots of people around the world know about Big Bang Theory and might answer all five clues in a category based on that show…but what about cable shows that are not global franchises? Referring to US Presidents by their NUMBERS is not how anyone outside of the US talks about them, but you need to know it on Jeopardy!

Of course you also need to be an expert on pro sports like US football, baseball, basketball and (to a lesser extent) hockey history and team trivia. But you also need to know all the COLLEGE teams and championships and nicknames. Don’t believe me? In January of 2016, a returning champion was mercilessly mocked for answering that the Crimson Tide was the nickname of Auburn University (an Alabama university of about 20,000 students 100 miles southeast of Birmingham), rather than the University of Alabama (an Alabama university of about 30,000 students 60 miles southwest of Birmingham.)

What kind of idiot could make that mistake, am I right?

1) Canadians deservedly take a great deal of pride in being on the show, competing at the highest levels, and even winning. It is really a remarkable achievement to know that much about our neighbour to the south. We would hate to lose that chance. As a Canuck, I was terrified when the Final Jeopardy category was on US Presidents, and elated that I got it right (and the American winner got it wrong.)

2) US players also need to answer the occasional question about Canada…but it is not the same. Virtually all Canadian-themed Jeopardy! puzzles could be solved by the average 12 year old Canadian, whereas many of the harder American-themed questions couldn’t be answered by the vast majority of university-educated US residents.

3) But the most amazing thing about Canadians-being-on-Jeopardy is how exceptional it is in a global context. As I have traveled the world, I cannot think of another country where the citizens could play (and win) on such a body of national knowledge for a foreign country game show or equivalent! Not just France and Germany, divided by a language and a history of conflict. Even countries with the same language and peaceful relationships (Austria and Germany? New Zealand and Australia?) would not be able to play each other’s equivalent of Jeopardy.

There are many ways the US-Canadian relationship is special, or even unique. But I don’t think anyone has ever remarked on the game show angle before. Yes, Canadians chafe at the extent of cultural hegemony at times, and we are always hurt that we know so much more about them than they do about us.

In some way, the Canadian desire to play Jeopardy is a very real sign of a love affair with the US. It may be a bit of an unrequited love affair, but — despite the state nicknames category — it is not a trivial love either.

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