What Is Drama? The Bungled Plan at ‘Jeopardy!’ to Choose a New Host


From The New York Times, I’m Dodai Stewart. An old favorite in American TV came back this week, a little tarnished. The trivia game show “Jeopardy!” lost its host last year, when the legendary Alex Trebek died in November. After his death, the show had to face a grim reality: how to move on without the man who was the heart of the show for decades.

Times reporters Mike Grynbaum and Nicole Sperling covered the challenge “Jeopardy!” had, transitioning into a new era with a new host, and how it all went terribly wrong.

I talked to Nicole about the show’s deep roots and its descent into drama.

So Nicole, the first thing I would just want to say is that I did grow up in a “Jeopardy!” Household, where my mom would, like, yell out the answers. I once saw Alex Trebek on a flight — on a plane, and I gasped, because he’s a legend. But were you, or are you, a “Jeopardy!” fan?

I would say I’m an occasional “Jeopardy!” fan. It’s just kind of feels like it’s always been there, right? It’s always —

Right, it’s always around. And even if you don’t watch, you know that it’s been on forever. Everybody knows the theme song — or the whatever, the thinking music — you know —

— which is why it’s so weird that there’s a “Jeopardy!” scandal.

I know, is nothing sacred?

It was the last bastion of purity in our lives, and that too has been sullied by drama.

Before we get into this tangled tale —

Yes.

I want to know. How long has “Jeopardy!” been around? When did it start?

So the show actually began airing in the ‘60s, in 1964.

These three people will compete today on “Jeopardy!“.

So Merv Griffin, who, as we all know, was like the game show extraordinaire. He created the show with the help of his wife, Julann, who suggested giving the contestants the answers and making them come up with the questions. A man named Art Fleming was the initial host.

Thank you. The contestants for the day — good morning, players. Look at the board now, as we all play “Jeopardy!“. Thank you.

It was canceled in 1975 due to poor ratings. It returned in 1978, but then it disappeared again, and then returned for good in 1984 with Alex Trebek as the host.

Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. On behalf of all of us, welcome to America’s favorite answer and question game, “Jeopardy!“. You know how we play it. We provide the categories and the answers. And it’s then up to our contestants to give us the right questions. Players, as you know, any time —

So really, he’s been the face of that thing this entire time.

Did he have the mustache?

So the only thing — that’s the biggest change that’s happened on that show, is Alex Trebek’s facial hair.

The big story everyone’s talking about — Alex Trebek’s mustache, the return.

Alex Trebek getting an earful about his mustache.

With or without, what do you think?

I — you know, I’ve gotten used to it without.

Yeah, me too.

Because Alex Trebek changing his facial hair, adding a goatee or a mustache, or shaving it is — you know, news.

Right, because “Jeopardy!” is the show with the man with the mustache. Alex Trebek is “Jeopardy!“. They’re the same. It’s synonymous.

Yes. Yes.

So I’m curious. What is Alex Trebek’s background? Where did he come from?

So he’s a Canadian. He got a philosophy degree from the University of Ottawa. And he was really into broadcasting. He hosted two shows in Canada, a show called “Music Hop,” a high school quiz show called “Reach For The Top” —

— with, obviously, greater ambitions. And he likes to say that he got the job as “Jeopardy!” host because he, at one point, filled in on “Wheel of Fortune” in an emergency, when the original host, Chuck Woolery, was hospitalized. So he came in in 1984. He’s a serious, well-mannered man who gave a lot of answers, and people gave a lot of questions. And people always assumed he was really very smart.

Right.

And I think he was smart — but he was always very smart, because as he said, he always had the answers.

And I think he also just seemed very kind. He wasn’t condescending when people would get things wrong, which —

I mean, most of the time he was not condescending. He definitely had a no nonsense demeanor. I mean, I remember — the thing that stands out of my mind is when people get it wrong, he goes, “Ooh, no, sorry.” Like, that — that little phrase, “ooh, no, sorry.”

Yes.

Oh, sorry.

And we’re out of time.

You know, sometimes, he just — he can’t resist. But you know, also, he was considered one of the most trusted people in America, apparently. And he actually brought this up in an interview. Like, Reader’s Digest did a survey. And he was in the top 10 of the most trusted people in America, between Bill and Melinda Gates.

Oh my gosh.

Ironically.

I believe it. He was always just in your living room as a calm and steady presence.

Definitely.

So it’s clear that people loved Alex Trebek. Did that translate into “Jeopardy!” being a hit, business-wise, or for the studio?

It has been reported that “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune” together bring in $125 million in profit to Sony Pictures. And that’s real money. And —

Yeah.

It was something that was kind of turnkey. And people at Sony Pictures didn’t take it for granted, but relied on it. It was the thing that they didn’t have to worry about. They could focus on other things.

But as we know, they did actually have to worry about it, because Alex Trebek is a human. He’s only human. And they would have to replace him eventually.

Well, he had suggested in 2018, to much uproar, that he might retire in 2020. He kind of walked that back after he said it, saying, the only reason he would stop working was if he was no longer cognitively able to do so. I mean, as guest hosts have said, who have come off the show, that it is more work than it looks on television.

Hi, everyone. I have some news to share with all of you, and it’s in keeping with my long and —

And then he went on the show and announced his diagnosis on March 6, 2019, that he had pancreatic cancer.

Now normally, the prognosis for this is not very encouraging, but I’m going to fight this. And I’m going to keep working. And with the love and support of my family and friends —

But he said he would not step down.

I plan to beat the low survival rate statistics for this disease. Truth told, I have to, because under the terms of my contract, I have to host “Jeopardy!” for three more years. So help me. Keep the faith —

And so he stayed with the show. And you could see — it looked like he was wearing wigs. It looked like there was more makeup on. And he was very open about the pain that he was going through, the treatment was causing him. He talked about laying on the floor in between tapings because he was just in excruciating pain. I mean, he was very transparent about how brutal the disease was, and how brutal the treatment was to try and save him.

And he went on with another video a year later, saying that only 18 percent of people with pancreatic cancer like his survived that long. So it was clear that the end was near. It’s just no one wanted it to happen.

Hello, I’m Dan Harris. We are coming on the air at this hour with some breaking news. We have learned that longtime “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek has died after waging a brave and very public battle with stage IV pancreatic cancer. One of the most enduring and recognizable figures on television.

He worked up until 10 days before he passed away. So he filmed a lot of episodes that had yet to air after he passed. And so “Jeopardy!” made the decision — Sony made the decision to air those shows after his death. And I think a lot of the reason for that — on “Jeopardy!“, the contestants, and the questions, answers, are king. And that’s what’s paramount.

So wait, what do you mean when you say the contestants are king, or that they’re paramount.

For those contestants, they worked — you work really hard to get on to “Jeopardy!“. And so they felt the fairest thing to do was to air those episodes. And it’s probably what Alex would have wanted, and he probably asked them to do so. I mean, I wouldn’t have been surprised if that was his directive.

I do think it raises this gigantic question, which is, how do you replace a beloved icon? You become accustomed to the host of a show like that, that’s on daily. And I remember when they replaced the legendary Bob Barker on “The Price is Right,” it’s very unnerving. You have to see a new face and get used to a whole new personality.

Right.

So what was the plan at that point to replace Alex Trebek?

Well, what they decide to do, is they decide to bring in a litany of guest hosts for one to two weeks at a time — different people from different backgrounds, whether it’s sports, or broadcasting, or former contestants.

Here is the guest host of “Jeopardy!“, Katie Couric — Robin Roberts — Buzzy Cohen.

And that does two things for them. One, it buys them some time. It allows people to grieve — so it allows those die-hard fans who are used to seeing Alex on that show every night, a chance to get used to other people giving those answers. And then finally, it’s a P.R. moment, because you can get a different flavor every two weeks of how these different individuals would host a show like this.

So who are some of the most notable guests they brought on to host?

Well, I think people really loved Aaron Rodgers, because he’s a football quarterback. And they’re not used to — I mean, do football quarterbacks ever talk? Like, we don’t ever see them speak.

In the 1960s, these Midwesterners earned five N.F.L. championship trophies.

Green Bay Packers?

He was a big favorite. People liked him a lot. People, of course, loved LeVar Burton —

Our final category today is Shakespeare’s Plays. And here, players, is your clue —

— because of what he represented to many people from their childhood, with the “Reading Rainbow” and those other programs that he did.

“Let’s all sink with the king” is a line from the opening scene of this play. You have 30 seconds. Good luck.

Ken Jennings was one of the hosts. He has the longest winning streak for the game show, with 74 consecutive wins.

Which company did you think of in the business of travel?

His reign at “Jeopardy!” is unparalleled.

What is H&R Block — oh.

And then you had people like Anderson Cooper and Bill Whitaker, people that you’re used to seeing on television, but kind of operating in a different capacity. And I think that was intriguing to people, because you got to see if the chops that they’ve developed as broadcast hosts was transferable to being a host of a game show. And sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t.

There were some controversial ones. You had Dr. Oz, who had been on there.

Oh — through the looking glass. This nursery rhyme character is depicted as an egg in human form. David?

What is Humpty Dumpty?

Correct.

That’s a guy who has often promoted some conspiracy theories in his line of work, so that was deemed as a little controversial of a choice, considering “Jeopardy!” is supposed to be all about the facts. But for the most part, it was people that were respected in their various fields. You had Savannah Guthrie. You had Sanjay Gupta. I mean, you had people who were respected for their knowledge and for their brains, and who could also communicate with audiences on live television.

On Twitter, and talking to people, I definitely saw that people had super strong feelings about LeVar Burton.

Right — no, LeVar Burton did definitely bring in a lot of people to watch him. People really wanted to see him behind that podium. So they brought him in. They brought him in, though, for only a week. It was during the Olympics. So the ratings weren’t as good as they were for other contestants, but there were a lot of factors kind of going against him at that time too.

Yeah, but the most emotional responses I saw were about LeVar Burton, and people feeling like maybe he didn’t get a fair shot. And I saw other people had other favorites, and I think that’s why it was surprising, with all these famous names in the mix, that when the rumors started coming about who would get the job, the name was Mike Richards. Because my reaction was: Who?

You were not alone in having that reaction. So Mike Richards started his career as a stand up comedian, and he went on to host game shows, like the mid-2000s show “Beauty and the Geek.”

Welcome to “Beauty and the Geek,” you guys.

Not sure if you’ve ever seen that. I miss that one.

Gentlemen, you are about to embark on a quest like no other. You guys up to the challenge?

Hells plural, yeah.

He also hosted and produced numerous series for the Game Show Network. And then he auditioned to replace Bob Barker on “The Price is “Right,” which, he didn’t get that job. Drew Carey got the job. But he was brought in as the executive producer then, and he spent 11 years turning that franchise into a hit.

So it was because of Mike Richards’s success on “The Price is Right” that he was brought in to executive produce “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!“.

OK, so even though the public had no idea who he was really, behind the scenes, he was seen as someone who was directly responsible for keeping these shows relevant as executive producer.

Right.

But I feel like the minute I started hearing his name, I also started hearing about things from his past.

Yes. From the very beginning, there were warning signs. On August 4, the Hollywood trade paper Variety wrote that, per their sourcing, Mike Richards was the frontrunner for the job. And so it was before Sony had announced it. And right after that, it came to light that there were discrimination lawsuits from decades ago from “Price is Right” that he was implicated in.

— one of the show’s models claiming Richards and other producers discriminated against her after she became pregnant, something he denied. The suit later settled out of court. Earlier —

And so he went and he sent this memo to his staff, saying that this is not who I am, these comments are not who I am. So that was the beginning of, like, the rumblings that there could be an issue with him. But Sony didn’t stop going forward with him as their choice.

The search is over. So who is your new “Jeopardy!” host? Current “Jeopardy!” executive producer Mike Richards.

And they announced him as the host on August 11th.

Richards will take over as host of the long-running, daily syndicated show.

People were definitely upset.

Some “Jeopardy!” fans are not happy over the decision to name the show’s executive producer as the new host.

And I do believe it’s because he was in charge of finding that replacement for Alex Trebek.

— host. Doesn’t feel like anybody wanted this Mike Richards guy? He obviously wasn’t the internet’s choice. I feel like the internet wanted LeVar Burton.

And he responds to me, saying, that is who the —

— is Mike Richards, you’re not alone. Mike Richards is a straight cis white man.

You would imagine, like, an executive producer who puts in work behind the scenes. And they probably feel like they deserve it too, but we don’t know this man. LeVar Burton, we grew up with him.

A lot of people compared the whole situation to Dick Cheney’s search for the new V.P. that wound up being Dick Cheney. So he says he did not put himself into the job. It was a decision made by Tony Vinciquerra, who’s the head of Sony Pictures. But that was the sentiment that was felt all around.

Right. It felt like there were insinuations from fans that the process had not been fair.

In his defense, Mike Richards did get very high marks for his performance from a lot of people. People thought he was very smooth. I mean, he was the guy on there who actually had the most game show experience. But for the “Jeopardy!” fans, they wanted someone who is more erudite, more steeped in trivia, someone who felt more germane to the game than someone who was flashy and smooth in front of the camera.

This seemed like an incredibly messy situation for “Jeopardy!“. Mike Richards had this huge cloud looming over him. There’s both the lawsuits and the fans’ accusations that maybe he somehow rigged the system to get the job.

Yeah.

And they announced him as the host anyway.

Right.

I don’t think anybody realized that there was even more that was going to surface.

Yes. Claire McNear, who is a journalist who had recently written a book about “Jeopardy!“, she wrote a lengthy piece for The Ringer website. And in that piece, she unearthed a podcast that Richards had recorded from his “Price is Right” office. It was called “The Randumb Show.” .

How are you today, Beth?

I’m really good, actually. How are you?

I’m really good today. I’m a little ty-ty, because we had a big “Price is Right” day yesterday, which we’ll get into. But we have a very good — oh did you?

The Ran-dumb Show, as in D-U-M-B?

Yes.

OK.

It was, like, 41 episodes of the show. She easily found it. It still existed on the internet. And there were a lot of bad jokes and inappropriate comments about women on this podcast. And she smartly took audio clips of it and sprinkled it through The Ringer piece, because hours after her piece posted, they pulled all the episodes off the internet so they couldn’t be found.

Oh, wow.

So they knew it was not a good look. You know — and there were a lot of distasteful things. There was a 2013 episode where he joked about women who dress like hookers on Halloween. In another episode, he called his female co-host a booth slut because she once worked as a model at a consumer show in Las Vegas. He described women who wear one piece swimsuits as looking really frumpy and overweight.

And then he referred to stereotypes about Jews and large noses. The Anti-Defamation League, at that point, called for an investigation into him, particularly over his comments regarding Jews.

Oh. Did Sony not vet this guy?

So, you know, it’s interesting, because we definitely asked that question during our reporting. And I had one person tell me, well, when you’re vetting someone for a behind-the-scenes job, they’re not vetted as closely as they would be for a public facing job — which, I understand that, but that in and of itself causes a problem. Because a public facing job — yes, the public sees you — and you’re interacting with the public. But when you’re a behind the scenes guy, you’re managing an entire group of people.

You actually have, you could argue, much more impact on people’s lives than a guy —

You have a lot of power.

Totally.

Yes. OK. So it was these revelations about the podcast — this is what finally cost him the job as host.

Yes, so the Ringer article came out on August 18th. And that’s when all the podcast material came to light. That prompted the Anti-Defamation League to call for an investigation. And it looks pretty bad. The next day, Mike Richards goes to set. They do a dedication ceremony to Alex Trebek before the show begins. He films five episodes that day. And then the next day, he resigns as host, because the uproar had just gotten so great that Sony felt that it could no longer — he was becoming a distraction to the show.

So he leaves that day as the host, but he remains as the executive producer of both “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!“. And they try to make things OK. He says that he’s agreed to go through some sensitivity training, but that drumbeat won’t cease. And it’s curious to those both inside Hollywood and those watching all around the country, that it was OK for him to remain as executive producer, leading groups of people for both “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!“, but it was not OK for him to host the show.

It seemed that the optics were more important than the actual guy himself. And so Sony announced his resignation as producer on August 31st.

It feels like “Jeopardy!” had to learn the hard way that it’s not the ‘80s anymore, and it’s not just a mono-cast system. You don’t just broadcast to the fans. They can respond back. And there are more ways for them to talk back than ever. And audiences are questioning everything. And replacing Alex Trebek with a woman, a person of color, someone different, would have been a way for this show that’s been around for decades to age with its audience and evolve into a current day, and show progress.

I think you’re absolutely right. I think the — putting in another white guy to run the show, who was not seemingly chosen fairly, is what has angered so many people. And yes, I think the show needed to evolve. I think the producers knew it needed to evolve, in that they at least were considering the social media reaction to the guest hosts that had been coming through. I just think they were caught unaware with the big mess they were creating.

It’s still very curious to me. They thought they could put in their guy, who had been doing a good job for them as their executive producer, and all would be well. Their problems would be solved. In their minds, he seemed like the perfectly fine option. It would just keep things going. It would actually create some continuity, because he had been familiar with the staff for so long — or at least a year.

But clearly, they had underestimated the power of “Jeopardy!“, how much “Jeopardy!” means to audiences, and how you couldn’t just put in anybody in Alex’s stead.

^archived recording^ (johnny gilbert)

From the Alex Trebek Stage at Sony Pictures Studios, this is “Jeopardy!“!

dodai stewart

OK, but “Jeopardy!” came back this week for a new season, even with all this happening.

nicole sperling

The season did kick off this week. And just to make things even more awkward, we are all going to see Mike Richards hosting “Jeopardy!” from Monday through Friday, because in that first day that he — his first and only day as host — he recorded five episodes. And the whole thing about “Jeopardy!” is that — and Alex Trebek made a big point of this — that he always wanted to be called the “host” of the show and not the “star” of the show, because in his mind, this show was about the contestants.

It was about the questions. It was about the format of the show, and it was not about him. And so they’re keeping the show on because of the contestants who were on the show that week that he was the host.

dodai stewart

OK, then we’ll get some more guest hosts, and then we’ll just see what happens.

nicole sperling

Yes well, that is the million question, isn’t it?

dodai stewart

Nicole Sperling, thank you so much.

nicole sperling

Thank you, Dodai. This was really fun.

dodai stewart

Just this week, we got a partial answer to that million dollar question. “Jeopardy!” announced the show will alternate between two guest hosts for the rest of the year. The first is actor Mayim Bialik, who had already been tapped to host “Jeopardy!”‘s primetime specials and spinoffs. The other one is “Jeopardy!” champion Ken Jennings.