Did ‘Jeopardy!’ drop the ball on picking its new host?
By Matt Collins Article may include affiliate links
Analysis: The announcement of Mike Richards as the new permanent host of the syndicated edition of “Jeopardy!” has gotten a lot of attention of late — and for good reason: The process was shrouded in mystery and misdirection.
For those of you who don’t know, “Jeopardy!” found itself without a host after Alex Trebek died in late 2020. The show was in the middle of its 36th season and still had months of episodes to fill once its supply of Trebek hosted ones taped before his death dried up.
To fill the time, the show had a mix of guest hosts fill in on one or two week rotations.
The process was touted as an “audition” process for a possible permanent replacement.
Some of the guest hosts — such as prominent news anchors with full time jobs — were probably never considered serious contenders since they’d most likely have to give up their day jobs (though, in theory, the tight “Jeopardy!” taping schedule of five shows per day two days a week means it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility for Trebek’s replacement to do two jobs).
Of those guest hosts was Richards, the executive producer of the show, who had just taken over that role for both “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune” in 2020.
He guest hosted in between Ken Jennings, a former contestant, and the string of other talent. Some reports have suggested he weaseled his way on camera for two weeks after taking advantage of a minor scheduling conflict with one of the guest hosts the show had lined up.
Some insiders say the scheduling conflict could have been resolved by simply changing tape dates and wouldn’t have affected production or distribution of the show — but Richards insisted the show move forward with its schedule.
Of course, Richards would ultimately be announced as the new permanent host of the show, which lead many to question how much “nepotism” influenced the final decision — and if the show knew all along Richards would get the job.
Fans had very mixed reactions, though overall opinions seemed to range from negative to a shrug. However, many felt hurt that the show had paraded through a cast of potential hosts that fans could hope for and get behind only to have it circle back to the guy who leads the show.
Fair enough; but it’s important to keep in mind “Jeopardy!” is a business. A very lucrative business. But that ultimately means that it’s perfectly entitled to make the decision of who will host without any outside input.
As executive producer, Richards was also perfectly within his rights to participate and influence the decision on the next host, at least as much as Sony Pictures Television execs would allow.
Of course, this also means that the show and Richards are responsible for handling how the announcement is made and what happens to the ratings as a result of the decision — the latter of which will play out on TV starting in the fall of 2021.
Many fans also pointed out that Richards essentially hired himself, though he always claimed that the ultimately decision was in the hands of Sony.
However, some felt Richards could have been upfront about his interest in the role and recused himself from the selection process.
Richards also could have simply announced he was interested in the role and wasn’t removing himself from the audition process. Was it a conflict of interest? Probably. But this is a Hollywood negotiation — not a billion dollar government bid.
It’s worth noting that the process of hiring a high profile host for a major syndicated show is not as simple as just hiring someone to work in an office.
Not only do multiple people have to agree on the pick, but there are often extensive negotiations with the talent’s agent to hammer out everything from salary and taping schedules to details such as wardrobe, travel and any number of “riders” that often include perks such as guaranteed snacks and beverages in the host dressing room.
Often these negotiations break down — or appear to break down — and it can then turn into a delicate balancing act of opening negotiations with other talent, often ones who weren’t the top choice.
The whole process then has to repeat itself — with the added possibility that the first choice may come back to the table or other choices walk away. Further, it’s not uncommon for multiple negotiations to be going on at the same time, creating a juggling act. Execs also have to contend with talent who have other projects in the works that may or may not move forward — which could affect their availability.
All of these talks are typically kept highly secretive, though it’s also not uncommon for leaks to show up in the media.
Sony also announced that it had analyzed research, ratings and focus groups to land on deciding Richards was the best pick, though it’s not clear exactly how much that played in the ultimate decision.
Many contend that if viewer reaction had been a true deciding factor, Richards likely wouldn’t have made it on the list of finalists given that his performance was judged by many as being (mostly) perfectly fine but not a standout.
That said, it’s always possible that other guest hosts were offered the deal but ultimately couldn’t come to terms with Sony on salary and other contractual issues. For example, Ken Jennings, who already has a consulting producer role on the show, and Buzzy Cohen, two names mentioned as fan favorites, could have been in the running for the job, but talks broke down early in the process, pointing the team in the direction of Richards.
Meanwhile, media watchers have speculated if Richards leveraged the situation to increase his power — and salary. Terms of his new contract have not been announced, though Trebek was reported to make about $18 million a year.
It’s not clear if Richards would make that much as host given that he doesn’t have the name recognition Trebek had built up, but it’s also likely (and fair) that Richards is being paid for his roles as both host and EP of both Sony shows.
Again, there’s noting wrong with Richards lobbying to get paid what he feels he’s worth. It could be viewed as a bit of a conflict since, as EP, Richards likely is privy to a lot of insider information about salaries and perks across the team.
“Jeopardy!” also took fire for the misleading way it announced there would be two co-hosts for the show — the other one being Mayim Bialik, the former “Big Bang Theory” and “Blossom” star who was a fan favorite during the tryouts.
The show attempted to spin Richards’ and Bialik’s deals as equal footing, when in reality Richards was, for all intents and purposes, Trebek’s replacement. Bialik’s deal calls only for her to host primetime specials the show will produce for ABC, of which only one was definitively announced — a college championship.
In the end, “Jeopardy!” probably would have been better off just acknowledging it had picked Richards for host and that Bialik would be coming on board for specials. Short, sweet and to the point. And not at all misleading.
Bialik is also under contract for a Fox sitcom, “Call Me Kat,” which is set to start its second season, which likely makes her a better fit for primetime hosting duties since those tapings can be scheduled around her other job.
Those primetime “Jeopardy!” episodes fall outside of the syndicated “main” episodes of the game show — in a nearly identical model of how “Wheel” airs in both syndication and a celebrity edition on ABC’s primetime schedule. Because of this, it’s somewhat disingenuous to suggest Bialik’s role is as prominent as Richards’.
Again, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the show deciding to split hosting duties or even attempting to puff up the choice. Ultimately that’s a decision up to the producers and, in the case of the primetime specials, ABC.
Here again, however, the show managed to irk viewers by trying to spin the situation to something it isn’t — and it didn’t take viewers long to figure out the slight of hand that “Jeopardy!” was attempting in its flurry of PR after the announcement (die hard “Jeopardy!” viewers do tend to be pretty smart, after all).
While fans likely would have appreciated more transparency into the process of replacing Trebek, “Jeopardy!” doesn’t “owe” them that or
“Jeopardy!” fans will likely never know the full story of what went down on deciding on Richards — and they don’t necessarily have the right to know.
However, the show could have done everyone a favor by being a bit more open and transparent.