Alex Trebek: His popularity not in jeopardy

"Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek with Susan Spencer.

(CBS News) WHO IS ALEX TREBEK? is the proper response to the phrase: He's the subject now of a Sunday Profile by Susan Spencer of "48 Hours":

The answer is: A quiz show.

Q. What could possibly get Washington's power elite out of bed on a Saturday at the crack of dawn?

A quiz show that's become an American institution, impressing even former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs: "Flying on Air Force One and Marine One, like, that's just an airplane painted blue and white. But this is 'Jeopardy,' for goodness sakes!"

And talkmeister Chris Matthews: "I'm terrible on food, on pop culture. I don't know who these Kardashians are."

And basketball great Kareem Abdul Jabarr: "If they're going to ask questions, like, about medieval Spain and stuff like that - I've seen those, I couldn't do that!" he laughed.

They are just a few of the so-called power players whose special shows air this week - their insecurities handled with grace by the man whose firm hand has guided "Jeopardy" for 28 years, host Alex Trebek.

"You come across thinking that [he] is easily the smartest guy on the planet because you also get the impression he doesn't actually need all those cards," Gibbs said of Trebek.

Trebek does nothing to dispel that idea . . . providing a soothing, supportive presence for nervous contestants whose answers must be in the form of a question."

"I'm on their side," Trebek said. "I want to be perceived as the best friend these contestants have, because if I'm not perceived that way, the audience out there, the television viewers, will turn against me.

"And I don't want you to turn against me!" he laughed.

Unlikely! He's got 6,000 "Jeopardy" episodes under his belt.

He says he gets so wrapped up in the game "that quite often I don't know what the score is."

No matter . . . he insists the show's not about HIM.

When asked what accounts for the show's success, "It's a good show. It satisfies one aspect of humanity that is very, very important, and that is our need at a gut level to compete. We want to know how good we are, how fast we are."

It's won Trebek and the show a slew of Emmys - quite a leap from his high school days in Ottawa and his early jobs at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

"The only reason I got into broadcasting was, I needed money to pay for my junior and senior years at college, and they hired me, those fools!" he said. "I did everything - I did newscasts, I did sports, I did dramas."

But in 1962 he found his true calling, a high school quiz show called "Reach for the Top." A dozen more less-than-memorable shows followed. Then in 1984, Trebek hit his own Daily Double.

"They called me up one day and said, 'We're going to syndicate 'Jeopardy!'; Would you like to host it?'" he recalled. "And I said, 'Are you going to pay me?' They said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'Okay. I'm your man.'"

Its success and format has made the "Answer as 'Jeopardy!' Question" a part of pop culture, in TV and the movies, from "Groundhog Day" and Seinfeld" to Taco Bell commercials.

Trebek often plays himself, as he did in "The Golden Girls" and "Cheers."

And in more than a dozen episodes, "Saturday Night Live" has had a field day. Trebek loves it: "When you make fun of someone like me, and a show such as 'Jeopardy!,' it means we've arrived. We're part of Americana, we're a part of the American cultural scene."