The search for the new host of ‘Jeopardy!’ didn’t have to be such a mess
The clue is “this is possibly the most avoidable debacle in contemporary TV history”, and the answer is: “What’s the Jeopardy! host search?”
Last week, Mike Richards, the game show’s then-new-host-to-be, dropped out of the gig after unsavoury comments he had made in the past on a podcast resurfaced. And just like that, Jeopardy! is back to square one. The search for Alex Trebek’s successor has become a mess – a completely unnecessary one.
When Trebek died in November 2020, it was clear that the question of his succession would be a tricky one. Whoever came next would have some immense shoes to fill. Trebek’s personal was intimately tied to Jeopardy!’s popularity. He was an efficient but ever-personable host. He exuded a cool, understated smartness. Sure, part of the appeal of Jeopardy! resides in the show’s format (questions as answers? Devilish but brilliant) and the questions themselves (just hard enough to make you feel smart when you nail them). But really, up until last year, if you watched Jeopardy!, you watched at least in part because you knew Trebek would be emceeing.
Sony Pictures Television, the show’s production company, began rolling out guest hosts in March this year, beginning with Katie Couric. This wasn’t a bad idea. It gave viewers time to get used to seeing someone else at the hosting lectern, without having to commit to a specific person just yet.
But was the exercise really necessary? From the get-go, Jeopardy! fans had made their preference clear: they wanted LeVar Burton as the new host. The actor, known for his roles in programmes such as Roots and Star Trek: The Next Generation, also hosted the educational children’s series Reading Rainbow from 1983 to 2006, earning 12 Daytime Emmys and a Peabody Award.
Burton was among the list of guest hosts, stepping in this past July. By then, fans had long campaigned on social media for him to be Trebek’s official successor. Burton himself had made it clear he was up for the job. “I don’t believe there is anyone out there who is better suited for this job than me, he told Entertainment Weekly in April. “And I will go to my grave believing that.”
But alas, it was not to be. On 11 August, Sony announced that Richards would be Trebek’s de facto successor. He and Bialik would share hosting duties, with Richards acting as full-time host of the daily game show and Bialik hosting its prime-time and spinoff series. The backlash was instantaneous. People wondered why Sony had made a show of considering several potential new hosts, only to give the gig to a longtime executive producer. Some compared Richards to Dick Cheney, who in 2000 was supposed to evaluate potential running mates for George W Bush and ended up landing the position.
Soon, Richards’s past came under scrutiny. He sent a note to Jeopardy! staffers addressing two past discrimination lawsuits dating back to his previous producing position on The Price is Right, denying any wrongdoing and describing the lawsuits as “employment disputes”. And then, there was the podcast: according to The Ringer, Richards “repeatedly used offensive language and disparaged women’s bodies” on The Randumb Show, which he hosted between 2013 and 2014. This included, according to the website, using the words “booth ho” and “booth slut” to refer to his co-host’s former job as a model at CES (a large tech trade show), among other remarks.
Richards apologised for the comments, saying “it is humbling to confront a terribly embarrassing moment of misjudgment, thoughtlessness, and insensitivity from nearly a decade ago”. But the remarks were hard to unheard. Crucially, it was hard – if not impossible – to imagine Trebek saying the same things. Richards ended up quitting after just nine days, saying his takeover would be “too much of a distraction for our fans” and “not the right move for the show”.
Hindsight is everything, but it’s unclear why Sony didn’t listen to viewers when they had made their preference for Burton so clear from the onset.
Burton was the popular vote, and Jeopardy! Is a show for which you want to listen to the popular vote. It’s a show that works because it feels personal to those who watch it. But Sony didn’t listen. Now, they have backed themselves into a corner and the show remains host-less, almost a year after Trebek’s death.
Finding the new face of Jeopardy! was never going to be an easy task, but it didn’t have to be such a mess. Fans deserved – and continue to deserve – better.
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