how-the-‘jeopardy!’-host-search-betrayed-the-show’s-most-basic-principles

The past week has not been a happy one for the producers of “Jeopardy!” — the long-running television quiz show still coping with the loss of its iconic host, Alex Trebek, to cancer last year. Plans for an orderly transition to its new permanent host, Mike Richards, collapsed into chaos when Richards, the show’s executive producer, announced Friday that he was stepping down following revelations that he’d previously made a string of disparaging comments about women, Jews and poor people and that two lawsuits alleged that, while a producer on the game show “The Price Is Right,” he discriminated against two of the show’s models. Actress Mayim Bialik will take over as interim host for the first few weeks following his absence.

Whoever is chosen, thank goodness the final “Jeopardy!” question for Mike Richards is: “Who isn’t the host replacing Alex Trebek?”

Richards was right to step aside given the controversy (though he denies any wrongdoing while at “The Price Is Right” and is so far keeping his executive producer role at “Jeopardy!”). But he was the wrong choice for the position in the first place. It’s unfortunate that “Jeopardy!” finds itself in this debacle of its own making, but Richards’ resignation gives the show a second chance at getting it right.

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Replacing Trebek, a beloved television institution who had been the show’s permanent host since its revival in 1984, was always going to be a difficult task. A consummate professional with years of hosting experience, Trebek always managed to strike the right balance between supporting the contestants when they gave the right questions and gently taking them to task with the air of a competent schoolmaster when they got it wrong. Trebek was the personification of the show’s competitive nerdiness in a television-friendly package.

I didn’t get much time to interact with Trebek when I competed on the show nine times, including in two tournaments, between 1997 and 2005. But I and just about every contestant I’ve ever met liked and respected him. Replicating the exact combination of traits that made Trebek so good at his job is impossible, but his example gives us an idea of who makes a good host: someone with a sense of humor, some erudition and the ability to make everything — especially wonky trivia — seem fun.

The show hit upon a brilliant idea to manage the remainder of the season after Trebek’s last episode aired Jan. 8, bringing in a cast of famous personalities to host the show for a few weeks each as a sort of good-natured open audition for the permanent gig. It brought the program tremendous goodwill and even had some surprises, like Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ excellent handling of the job. Despite a few missteps, such as only bringing on fan-favorite and “Jeopardy!” admirer LeVar Burton after an extended Twitter campaign (and an online petition) demanded the inclusion of the host of “Reading Rainbow,” the rotating cast was a success and kept people watching.

But then the show announced Richards as the permanent replacement, along with Bialik, a neuroscientist and former “Big Bang Theory” star (and someone I’d suggested to succeed Trebek two years ago), as the host of special presentations. Fans rightly greeted the choice of Richards with surprise and suspicion. Although Richards’ hosting stint was generally well-regarded, his position as executive producer made it appear he had chosen himself — a belief also held by many industry insiders, according to CNN.

The public debate about which guest host had done the best job and where that put them in the running — generating buzz and excitement about the show throughout the summer — now seemed like a pointless exercise, a bait-and-switch pulled on the show’s most devoted viewers. (Sony Pictures Television, which produces the show, has said that Richards stopped participating in the search for Trebek’s replacement once he became a candidate.)

The slate of guest hosts had been overflowing with diverse, star-studded talent, including Savannah Guthrie of NBC’s “TODAY” show, CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Robin Roberts of “Good Morning America” on ABC. Even before the allegations about Richards’ past behavior came to light, many younger fans were disappointed that another white man was going to replace Trebek, especially one with little pedigree or experience in front of the camera. A person of color or a woman presiding over America’s smartest game show would have been a powerful sign of social change.

More than that, however, the appearance of a sham audition and self-coronation flies in the face of one of the show’s most foundational features: meritocracy. More than most game shows, winning on “Jeopardy!” has a true component of skill. “Jeopardy!” contestants have to pass a test to even be considered. And once you make it to the stage, it’s not enough to merely know the answer: You have to be able to recall them quickly to ring in before your opponents. You also need to keep track of your score and the remaining categories of clues so you strategize correctly.

Like many contestants, I crammed trivia questions to be prepared ahead of time. I ran through lists of state flowers and longest rivers, although very rarely do the things you study actually come up in a game. The show itself goes by so quickly — until everything slows down and you zero in on a clue that can win or lose the game for you. (The longest three seconds of my life were when I searched my brain to correctly come up with “Who is Harry Blackmun?” in response to “He wrote the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade.”)

For “Jeopardy!” fans and participants like me, the fact that Richards didn’t seem to make it to prime time by dint of his own work and talent while the cameras were rolling would have eventually doomed his time as host, even without his checkered past. “Jeopardy!” fans prize the fact that the best players manage to rise to the top, and the rotating replacement hosts made it look like the producers wanted the same feeling in how they found their next face of the program.

“Jeopardy!” will have a lot of work to do to rebuild trust with its fans and, of course, to find a new host. For now the show is returning to the rotating guest host format. Bialik has her own sitcom and is probably not available to take over full-time hosting. While Burton remains a fan favorite, his ratings were among the lowest over the summer (he was up against the Olympics, however, so I think he deserves another shot). Ken Jennings, the “Jeopardy!” GOAT contestant, remains a strong candidate and had some of the highest ratings of any of the hosts — although having him at the lectern would intimidate the hell out of me. Whoever is chosen, thank goodness the final “Jeopardy!” question for Mike Richards is: “Who isn’t the host replacing Alex Trebek?”

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Catherine Ramen

Catherine Ramen is a writer who lives in New York City. She is the designer of the upcoming storytelling RPG, “Red Carnations on a Black Grave,” about the doomed Paris Commune of 1871.

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