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Texas State professor Gwynne Ash to appear on Jeopardy!

By Marc Speir
University News Service
February 28, 2008

Gwynne Ash

One year ago, Gwynne Ash took a preliminary online test to qualify as a competitor on the game show Jeopardy!

One plane trip, in-person exam, rehearsal and series of interviews at a regional tryout center in Atlanta later, the professor from the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Texas State University-San Marcos was told someone would get back to her if the show was interested in having her as a contestant.

In October, the phone rang.

“I’ve always been a fan of the show,” said Ash. “I thought competing was such a good idea until I was actually on it!”

Ash is contractually bound not to give away her results in advance. Her appearance will broadcast on the NBC network Feb. 28. Locally, it can be seen on San Antonio-based KENS-TV at 4:30 p.m. and Austin-based KXAN at 4:30 p.m.

Shot on location in Culver City, Calif., the show invited Ash to the Sony Pictures studio lot last November, where the program tapes material months in advance. With only four days of shooting a month, Jeopardy! films five shows each taping, totaling 20 episodes monthly.

Prior to her arrival, Ash studied what she said were her weaker subjects including U.S. presidents, African capitals and James Bond films. She even bought books that offer secrets from previous winners of the show. Advice from the books ranges from studying reoccurring categories and using mnemonics, to building a podium and becoming comfortable with the surroundings of the set.

“For me, memorizing facts for the show was not very effective,” said Ash. “I kept wondering, ‘Is everyone studying 12 hours a day like the guy in this book?’”

Visiting the show for an appearance comes out of a contestant’s pocket unless the competitor is a returning champion. To defer some of the costs, the show awards third place $1,000, second $2,000, and first the amount won on the show, even if it’s only $1. The upside in that scenario is the winner is allowed to play another game.

Upon arrival to the set, Ash met approximately 15 other contestants from different backgrounds such as graduate students, lawyers, librarians and even a basketball announcer. Production assistants interviewed each contestant, directed individuals to makeup rooms and hosted a rehearsal on how to use the buzzers and play the game.

“It was a pretty heady group to be in,” Ash said. “The fear of humiliation became a big factor.”

Ash’s sister, Aimee, accompanied her to California, serving as a coach, providing support and sitting in on the taping at a section reserved for family and friends. Tour bus groups or locals typically fill the rest of the audience.

Ash said the main thing that surprised her about the tapings were the many pauses during filming.

“It’s not as fluid as it appears,” Ash said. “There are a lot of stops to reapply makeup or because of other things.”

When there were stops in production, contestants were asked to turn their backs to the game board and wait for the technical team to fix a glitch or re-shoot a portion of audio or video.

She said the most important factor for success on the show is timing the buzzer correctly. The game show provides two practice rounds for competitors to pick up the skill before the audience arrives.

“There is a definite physical factor in the buzzer,” Ash said. “There are lots of times all three (contestants) know the answer but don’t ring in at the right time.”

Despite the high pressure and delays, Ash said she was prepared when the game began.

“I was very nervous leading up to the start of the game,” Ash said. “Then I was surprised how composed I became, because at that point, there was too much else to think about.”

Information on contestant eligibility for Jeopardy! can be found at: http://www.sonypictures.com/tv/shows/jeopardy/contestants_searchinfo.php.