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Who outsmarted NBC, not his market?

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In 1964, the “suits” at NBC thought that, unless its questions were dumbed down, the new daytime TV game show Jeopardy! would die a quick death due to poor ratings. The show was too highbrow to appeal to mass audiences, they said.

More than 40 years later, of course, Jeopardy! is one of the most popular and successful TV shows in history … due, in large part to the show’s producer, Merv Griffin, who refused to underestimate his market.

Only weeks into the show’s first season, Griffin met with the “deeply concerned” head of research at NBC, who said that his surveys showed that the show would be off the air in two months. Why? Because most daytime TV watchers were about as smart as middle-schoolers, he said, and Jeopardy! was way over their heads.

Griffin put on what he hoped was a suitably serious expression. He thanked the research chief for coming to see him, told him that this was extremely valuable information, and said he’d “get on it” immediately.

Then, Griffin did nothing. The show—bolstered by enthusiastic word-of-mouth marketing—took off and ran unchanged for 2,753 episodes. Griffin came away from the experience with a healthier respect for middle-schoolers.

Lesson: Never talk down to your market.

— Adapted from “Putting 13-Year-Olds in Jeopardy,” Merv Griffin with David Bender, Across the Board.

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