By Lynn Elber
Eight months after the death of beloved “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek, the daily syndicated quiz show chose its executive producer, Mike Richards, as Trebek’s successor over a field of celebrity candidates.
But after fan backlash to a selection process that turned messy in recent weeks, producer Sony split the pie by naming another guest host, actor Mayim Bialik, as emcee for “Jeopardy!” primetime and spinoff series, including a new college championship.
In another nod to “Jeopardy!” devotees, longtime 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.”
In his guest-host appearances, 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, 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 Andrews) making inroads in recent years.
Richards has a long 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.
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 handing the transition gracefully: The show respectfully and 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.
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 auditon and selection process was a stunt, with the conclusion foregone. They also expressed doubt that Richards was right for the job.