LOS ANGELES — After weeks of guest hosts on “Jeopardy!” that included celebrities from TV, sports and journalism, the daily syndicated quiz show chose its executive producer, Mike Richards, as the successor to beloved host Alex Trebek.
But after fan backlash to a selection process that recently turned messy, producer Sony split the pie by naming another guest host, actor Mayim Bialik, as emcee for “Jeopardy!” prime-time and spinoff series, including a new college championship.
In a nod to “Jeopardy!” devotees, longest winning-streak champion Ken Jennings will return as a consulting producer.
Richards will retain executive producing duties for “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune,” Sony Pictures Television said in a statement Wednesday. The studio also appeared to deflect the idea that it was bowing to the dismay that some fans expressed when word leaked last week that Richards would be the pick.
“We knew early on that we wanted to divide the hosting responsibilities and it became very clear that Mike and Mayim were the undeniable choices. They were both at the top of our research and analysis,” said Ravi Ahuja, Chairman of Global Television Studios for Sony Pictures. “We took this decision incredibly seriously.”
As a guest host, Ahuja said Richards was “at ease behind the podium and a double threat as producer and host. Mayim has a wonderful energy, an innate sense of the game, and an authentic curiosity that naturally represents the ‘Jeopardy!’ brand.”
Richards was the second of the temp hosts who filled the void left by Trebek’s death, with “Jeopardy!” champs Jennings and Buzzy Cohen, actors Bialik and LeVar Burton, NFL player Aaron Rodgers and TV journalists among the others.
The studio didn’t break the game-show mold by choosing Richards. White male hosts have long been the convention, with a few women (among them Meredith Vieira, Jane Lynch, Leslie Jones) and a larger contingent of Black men (Wayne Brady, Steve Harvey, Anthony Anderson) making inroads in recent years.
While Richards proved an excellent host, a “fantastic opportunity for radical change has been lost,” said Deepak Sarma, a Case Western Reserve University professor and Netflix cultural consultant. For the marginalized, Sony’s decision confirms suspicions that “penetrating some privileged worlds is impossible,” Sarma said.
Richards has an extensive, Emmy Award-winning game show resume. He was the executive producer of “The Price is Right” and “Let’s Make a Deal” for more than a decade and produced the 2020 revival of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” His on-camera experience includes hosting “The Pyramid” and “Beauty and the Geek,” a reality show.
He joined “Jeopardy!” as the replacement for retiring executive producer Harry Friedman starting with the 2020-21 season, and was in the job for only a few months when Trebek, 80, died last November of pancreatic cancer. Trebek was host for 37 seasons.
“No matter who they picked, some of the viewers were going to be unhappy, because it wasn’t Alex Trebek,” said media consultant Bill Carroll.
Jennings, who holds the record for most regular-game winnings with $2.52 million and the longest winning-streak, 74 games, had been considered a frontrunner, along with Cohen and Bialik (“The Big Bang Theory”). Burton had his own chorus of supporters, including the petitioners whom he credits with getting him on the show last month.
Sony had been handling the transition gracefully: The show regularly saluted Trebek’s legacy, made charitable donations in his memory and framed the succession of guest hosts as a chance for viewers to adapt to change and, just maybe, have a hand in the choice.
In interviews, Richards portrayed himself as a relative bystander in the process, one who had stepped in as guest host only when needed.
When Variety reported last week that he was close to signing a deal, fans and observers questioned whether the supposed audition and selection process was a stunt, with the conclusion foregone. They also expressed doubt that Richards was right for the job.
There were other candidates with the gravitas and resume that “Jeopardy!” and its viewers deserve, said Andy Saunders, a longtime viewer and administrator for The Jeopardy! Fan website.
Richards will have to earn the respect already accorded to others who tried out, Saunders said. He’ll still watch the show as the site’s operator, but said, “I would certainly not begrudge any other viewer who would choose to tune out.”
Filling the host’s job was never easy. Affection for the Canadian-born Trebek made finding a replacement both a gesture of regard for him as well as a business decision. Viewership shifted under the guest hosts, but “Jeopardy!” remains among the top-ranked syndicated programs.
When Richards spoke to The Associated Press in May, he asked that viewers give the new host a fair shot.
“My hope is that whoever is chosen will be given a chance to prove why they were chosen, without too much static,” he said. “Ultimately, we are trying to put out the best product for our fans.”
“Jeopardy!” returns for its 38th season on Sept. 13, with taping set to begin this month.
In a statement Wednesday, Richards said he was honored to be chosen for the job and promised to adhere to Trebek’s belief that “the game itself and the contestants are the most important aspects of the show.”
If Richards holds to that approach and “doesn’t get in the way of the focus of the show,” consultant Carroll said, viewership is likely to remain strong.
Bialik, who played a scientist on “The Big Bang Theory” sitcom and is one in real life, was among the fan favorites to succeed Trebek.
“What started out with my 15-year-old repeating a rumor from Instagram that I should guest host the show has turned into one of the most exciting and surreal opportunities of my life!” she said in a statement.
She’ll be host of “Jeopardy! National College Championship,” which Sony announced Wednesday. The prime-time ABC show will feature 15 colleges from across the country competing over two weeks.
Story by Lynn Elber, Associated Press