And the category for final “Jeopardy!” is: Getting the hire right next time.
Succumbing to harsh backlash from loyal viewers, Sony, producers of the venerable game show, parted ways with newly minted host Mike Richards on Friday and now must navigate a public relations firestorm that critics say was of their own making.
“Jeopardy” is a noun meaning “peril or danger.” Here it is in a sentence:
“My job is in jeopardy because of my past comments.”https://t.co/E7xeeNTN4g
— Dictionary.com (@Dictionarycom) August 20, 2021
Richards was named “Jeopardy!” host last week but past sexist remarks and litigation from his days as show runner of “The Price Is Right” led to the split.
“It was a huge mistake in judgment, and they definitely have egg on their face,” said Evan Nierman, founder of the PR crisis management firm Red Banyan. “It’s embarrassing. But it’s not likely going to be a legacy issue for them. The scorn and attention is on the former host, not the show itself.”
Richards, who will remain as the show’s executive producer, was among 14 guest hosts who filled in this season after the death in November of the beloved, longtime host Alex Trebek.
While Richards’ front-of-the-camera work was generally well received, his selection as Trebek’s full-time replacement stunned many fans.
“It was almost as if they got lazy and said, ‘You know what, he’s in close proximity, so let’s just use him,’ instead of rebranding and taking the opportunity to shift,” said Holly Baird, a public relations consultant in Southern California.
In the face of Richards’ unceremonious departure, the next man or woman selected to host “Jeopardy!” will have to be beyond reproach, said Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
“The person you put in place of Alex Trebek, you want to be cleaner than the person you’d nominate for the Supreme Court,” he said. “In fact, they’ve have to be a lot cleaner than a Supreme Court justice.”
Thompson urged “Jeopardy!” producers to think long and hard about the show’s legacy as premium, daily programming.
“It would be one thing if this guy (Richards) were doing a snarky late-night talk show,” Thompson said. “They put him in the place of ‘Jeopardy!’ arguably one of the most beloved, one of the most scandal-free entities of American culture. ‘Jeopardy!’ is where you went to get away form this kind of stuff.”
The show’s popularity and high standing with viewers will surely survive one week of controversy, the PR analysts said. But another might do some real damage.
“You can be forgiven for one colossal hiring mistake, but they can’t afford a second,” Nierman said. “They need to be incredibly thorough, buttoned up and scrub the internet history and footprint of any individual they plan to put on the air.”
While Baird is rooting for “Reading Rainbow” host LeVar Burton to get the gig, she’s hoping the person selected will be a uniting figure.
“No negative feeling about the show. We just want them to do right by the brand,” Baird said. “‘Jeopardy!’ is a global brand and they have to have someone who can connect, who can bridge the gap from the tragedy of losing Alex Trebek.”
David K. Li is a breaking news reporter for NBC News.