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For A Show Full Of Answers, 'Jeopardy!' Host Selection Raises A Lot Of Questions

Mike Richards is the new host of the daily syndicated game show <em>Jeopardy! </em>Maybe you've heard of it.
Carol Kaelson
Jeopardy Productions, Inc.
Mike Richards is the new host of the daily syndicated game show Jeopardy! Maybe you've heard of it.

Let me say first that I don't have opinions — at all — about whether Mike Richards, who was recently announced as the new host of Jeopardy!, will be a good host. (While they announced that there are two new hosts, understand that's not really the case — more on that in a moment.) I haven't been terribly interested in post-Trebek Jeopardy!, and I didn't closely follow the weeks in which there were guest hosts like Aaron Rodgers, Robin Roberts, LeVar Burton, and others. So I'm entirely willing to give all the benefit of the doubt to them that he did a good job guest-hosting and will be a good permanent host.

But I did follow this closely as a story about a cultural institution trying to manage the expectations and wants and needs of a lot of passionate fans while also accommodating business imperatives that are undoubtedly pretty overwhelming.

And to me, it seems like they mangled this process, regardless of whether they mangled the choice itself.

1. Hiring the boss as the host requires extra care, and they didn't take any.

Richards has hosting experience — he hosted Beauty and the Geek, an oddball WB/CW show, years ago, and he has hosted a couple of smaller-potato shows. But his big credentials are in producing. He has executive produced much bigger shows, including The Price Is Right.

There's no getting around the fact that when a guy comes in as the production boss of a show and — what do you know? — he's the host a year later, you have to be careful to avoid the appearance of a sort of a sham process, where the guy essentially hired himself. Don't get me wrong: Nobody who understands TV would think that he could hire himself with no input from anyone else, particularly the executives at Sony Pictures Television. But he talked like he was at least partly running the search as recently as April. You can't blame people for thinking it's weird.

2. Questions have percolated about whether Richards himself has been entirely candid

Richards said that his own guest-hosting stint was sort of an accident, an emergency "who me?" thing. But The Ringer has reported that this might not be so and that some sources say he capitalized on a small logistical issue to put himself on the schedule. Moreover, in the statement he made after he was announced as the new host, Richards said, "Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined being chosen to step into a role of this magnitude." This from a guy who also threw his hat in the ring to replace Bob Barker on The Price Is Right? Who came to Jeopardy! when it was going to need a new host? Who's going to believe he never thought about it?

He could have just said, "I've been a producer more than I've been a host, but I've always dreamed of a job like this. I threw my hat in the ring, but I stepped back from the selection process to avoid influencing it as much as possible."

That might have seemed a little more persuasive. That this is not something he ever could have imagined just seems tough to believe, and the persistent myth-building that it just sort of happened is an equally tough way to sell his ascent. Which, again, a lot of fans have approved of on the merits.

3. The two-hosts thing is silly and, again, disingenuous

The announcement of Richards was disguised as an announcement of two hosts who would share responsibilities: He would do the "daily syndicated show," and actor Mayim Bialik, who had been one of the guest hosts, would do prime-time specials and spinoffs. The more accurate description of this arrangement is that Richards is hosting the show, and Bialik is hosting some specials. The job to succeed Trebek on Jeopardy! proper? It went to Richards. Not two people. Richards. And the more they put out statements that obscure the result, the more it makes it seem like they don't want to talk about what really happened.

4. It's dangerous to make it seem like you are doing something you are not doing

When you run a bunch of guest hosts through what you imply are tryouts and then you pick the boss who oversaw their auditions, it can make it seem like the whole thing was kind of a joke. Again, this has nothing to do with whether Richards is a good host or not — from what I've heard from people who followed more closely than I did, he got a good response, even though some people certainly found him, for lack of a better term, game-show-host-y.

But if you think there's any chance you're going to pick the guy who's in charge of the show, making it seem like you're doing a kind of open call just gives people more time to develop preferences for other people you will seem to have rejected. It also gives them more time to get frustrated that you auditioned at least some hosts of color, at least some women, but then you pick one of the lowest-profile people involved, who happens to be the white guy in charge. Again, it's not necessarily the wrong choice, but it's awkward, and perhaps unnecessarily so. Writer Melanie McFarland has laid out some of the reasons why they might have done it this way and why the whole guest-hosting business might have been — as she puts it — for show.

5. This guy?

Taking for granted that Richards is good at hosting Jeopardy!, there's another problem that resurfaced in the last couple of weeks: two lawsuits from his time at The Price Is Right in which models suggested that the environment at the show was hostile to them. Richards addressed these issues with a fairly limited "this isn't who I am" and "I would never be disrespectful"-type statement, but looking at this entirely cynically: He's not a star, and they had lots of other options, so why take on all this baggage at a time when so much of television is trying so hard to at least create the impression that it takes this stuff seriously?

Time will tell whether this works out or whether anyone cares about any of this in two weeks, let alone two years. Jeopardy! is a show that lives on habit, and habits are harder to break than to simply continue. I've learned many times over that inside-baseball stuff about how the sausage is made often makes no difference whatsoever to the viewing decisions of TV viewers (or moviegoers, or what have you). But this has been, from the outside, messy, messier, messiest.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.