‘Jeopardy!’Host Selection Process Fails to ‘Walk The Talk’

Death, taxes and “Jeopardy!” with Alex Trebek. For some, these were life’s certainties. That is, until Trebek, who’d hosted for nearly 40 years and 8,000 shows, announced in March 2019 he had late-stage pancreatic cancer. He died 20 months later, battling a disease that often kills within weeks or months.

So, while fans, management and owners of the second-highest-rated syndicated game show knew Trebek’s time was short, his off-the-charts ability to live and work for months with pancreatic cancer might have provided a false sense of security. That’s one way to explain a series of fumbles and flip-flops, including one last week, to name Trebek’s permanent successor. Another is mismanagement (more on that below).

Let’s begin with the latest development. Jeopardy! great Ken Jennings and actor Mayim Bialik were named Sept. 16 as interim co-hosts. Bialik’s hosting shows this week, Jennings in November.

There’s no timeline beyond 2021, the NY Times says. Considering this story’s many recent changes (see chart), it’s possible the Jennings-Bialik arrangement won’t even last to year’s end. Both of these interim hosts have baggage.

‘Who is Mike Richards?’

Complicating things, earlier this month new Jeopardy! shows appeared with Mike Richards as host. Yet Richards already was fired as host by the time the shows ran. There was no mention of that on-air. TV critics were aghast; some piled on hard.

Now the show’s former executive producer, Richards has an extensive past. That baggage and a perception that he rigged the selection process to favor himself led to his ouster.

An Aug. 18 story in The Ringer, posted the day after Richards was named host, was a catalyst in his departure as host and later executive producer.

The Ringer portrays Richards as an opportunist who manipulated the host-selection process. An allegation is that he consigned a fan favorite guest host, actor LeVar Burton, to preside during the Summer Olympics. The games preempted some Jeopardy! episodes, weakening its Nielsen ratings.

Sony Television Pictures insisted ratings and research (viewer focus groups) would guide its choice of a new permanent host among the nearly 20 who auditioned. It’s alleged Richards chose clips for those groups to watch that favored himself. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, Richards’s ratings were solid and fans and some TV critics liked his work as guest host.

More damaging, though, were videos on social of “The Randumb” podcast Richards co-hosted in a former role as executive producer of top-rated game show, “The Price is Right.”

Given the podcast’s title, it’s little surprise that there are 41 episodes with Richards and others making sexist remarks and disparaging women, in addition to making anti-Semitic and anti-Haitian comments.

On top of that, The Ringer mentions lawsuits against Richards and others, charging sexually inappropriate behavior at The Price. Female models working on that show filed the suits.

Richards issued a non-apology apology last month for his behavior, sending a note to Jeopardy! staff Aug. 9, days before he was named permanent host. The podcast clips since were removed, though Richards wrote they “do not reflect the reality of who I am.”

After he was ousted as permanent host, but was still Jeopardy! executive producer, Richards held a town hall with staff and apologized more effectively.

In addition to Richards’s alleged bad deeds, human error perhaps was part of Sony’s behavior. A company source said Sony was unaware of the podcast’s existence prior to The Ringer article. How could Sony have failed to vet Richards more completely at several moments?

First, recall he was Jeopardy!’s top executive, a show that throws off an estimated $125 million in profit annually and reportedly earned some $1 billion in profit during the Trebek era. Second, he was named permanent host. Third, Sony stuck with him after he was forced to step down as permanent host.

“It was probably a case where [Sony] felt they knew him so well or thought they did,” says Andy Merrill, partner at Prosek Partners.

This is common when “people are so close to a situation” they fail to enlist a third party to provide an independent point of view, he adds.

As we ask each month, ‘Was this a crisis, and was it averted?’ Merrill and Trisha Larocchia, chief client officer, North 6th Agency, believe the Richards affair wasn’t a crisis in the existential sense. “The show will go on,” Merrill says. Adds Larocchia, “Jeopardy!’s brand definitely took a bit of a hit...[Richards’s initial appointment left] fans feeling duped.” Both say Jeopardy! underestimated its fan base’s fervor and intelligence. The selection process made it “seem [like] the brand wasn’t really walking the walk or honoring its roots,” Larocchia says.

However, both PR pros agree removing Richards completely will help regain trust.

Last week’s choice of interim hosts leaves Merrill perplexed. As noted earlier, Bialik and Jennings come with issues. Both are “less than ideal,” he says. Instead the show should “run a thoughtful process to identify the right successor...and enlist the very loyal, highly educated, passionate and opinionated fans...so that they feel some ownership, rather than alienating them. Each day they fail to do so is killing the Jeopardy! franchise.”