Analysis

Mike Richards appears to have won the biggest prize in game shows. But a report from Variety earlier this month saying he’s in “advanced negotiations to host ‘Jeopardy!’” could signal a loss for the American entertainment juggernaut and its millions of fans, judging by the initial reaction.

There’s nothing wrong with Richards, the show’s executive producer and a former game show host himself. His stint as a guest host in February was buzzworthy in that it was pretty OK, as determined by a host of bloggers and Twitterati who probably weren’t familiar with his pretty OK history in the role on shows like “Beauty and the Geek” and “Pyramid.”

In the “Jeopardy!” sphere, he is the very definition of safe. You can’t blame Sony Pictures Television executives for wanting someone nonthreatening to the fan base. There are hundreds of millions of dollars at stake. But after building excitement and anticipation for the last eight months with a star-studded string of guest hosts, including Seattle champion Ken Jennings, beloved American institution LeVar Burton and even NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, a lot of people think the hiring of the 46-year-old television executive would show a tin ear for the moment and a myopic view of the show’s potential.

Seattle’s Ken Jennings was the first of 16 guests hosts of “Jeopardy!” (Ron Batzdorff / ABC)

Worst of all, from a pop cultural context, the move is … well … sorry, but it’s boring. And maybe even a little cynical.

“It leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth,” 2018 champion Ryan Fenster wrote in an email. “It seems fishy to me that they would offer up all of these big-name guests just to go with someone in-house. Maybe he’ll be all right, but I suppose it’s proof that ‘Jeopardy!,’ at the end of the day, is a business. They do such a great job of shielding the champs and contestants from that side of the show that we can forget it sometimes. Still disappointing, though.”

Other Seattle-area “Jeopardy!” insiders met it with a similar lack of enthusiasm.

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“If it is Richards, that was a well-engineered career move,” 2017 “Jeopardy!” champion Christy Karras said.

Leah Caglio, Seattle’s most recent “Jeopardy!” champion, said, “I don’t want to rag on Mike Richards,” but was disappointed to hear the news.

“I’m always worried that if the host doesn’t work out or if I personally don’t enjoy the host, it might kill it for me,” Caglio said. “I would hate to see ‘Jeopardy!’ kind of become a more glamorized, dumbed-down game show like ‘Deal or No Deal’ or something like that. That is my biggest concern, for sure.”

Seattle Times readers also seem to be of a different mind. As of this writing, 37% of those responding to an ongoing online Seattle Times poll say they’d like to see Jennings as host, with Burton coming in second at 23.5%, and “The Big Bang Theory” star and real-life brainiac Mayim Bialik third at 11.4%. Richards was polling at 6.4%. The poll will run until the end of the season. Let us know what you think.

There have been lots of opinions so far — though few interviews or leaks from those actually responsible for making the choice to replace longtime host Alex Trebek. Though there were 16 guest hosts, only a small handful of contenders really have been in the conversation to succeed Trebek, who died last November from pancreatic cancer.

Jennings, Seattle’s superchamp and something of a Trebek protégé, was the early front-runner despite a Twitter mishap, and he cemented that status with a smooth six-week run as host that remains the ratings winner over the other guests. The “Jeopardy! Greatest of All Time” winner remains a consulting producer on the show and is also one of the stars of “The Chase,” an ABC prime-time game show that features Jennings and his “Jeopardy!” rivals James Holzhauer and Brad Rutter.

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Burton, the “Star Trek” and “Reading Rainbow” star, overtook Jennings in public opinion when he announced last spring that he did indeed want to play along. His guest run last month went well enough (after what even his wife characterized as a faltering start), but did not appear to sway producers.

Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers quarterback, got plenty of attention, though he chose to return to the NFL and his scheduled $33.5 million salary. Bialik also got lots of positive reviews, as did former “Jeopardy!” champion Buzzy Cohen.

Mayim Bialik, shown here in a 2019 photo, got lots of positive reviews for her stint guest hosting “Jeopardy!” (Mark Von Holden / Invision / The Associated Press)

Richards hovered outside that public conversation, seemingly in a second tier of possibilities. He was also a longshot in the minds of oddsmakers, who consistently had him at 10 to 1 or worse, and that anonymous legion of entertainment website list makers, who never gave him a shot. In one of the most recent, on July 30, The A.V. Club ranked him No. 11 among hosts (a list Jennings topped).

There’s still a glimmer of light for those who wished for a different outcome. Variety’s report, which is based on anonymous sources, says negotiations are ongoing with other candidates and that the deal with Richards wasn’t final. No other legitimate news outlet has matched the Variety report thus far, either.

There was also the recycled news of Richards’ legal issues during his 10-year run as executive producer of “The Price is Right,” seemingly forgotten until his potential hiring came out. Richards and the show faced three lawsuits by models who appeared on the long-running TV staple. The Los Angeles Times reports two were settled out of court and Richards was severed from the third.

Karras, a freelance writer and editor (who writes for The Seattle Times occasionally), holds out hope the producers will still decide to shake things up. Karras won $32,000 in her two-day appearance on the show, and like the thousands of competitors who have appeared over the decades, she cares deeply about the show and its direction.

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Hiring Richards would be a missed opportunity, she thinks.

“I would, like many people, love to see something kind of different,” Karras said. “I think my overall opinion is that no one can replace Alex Trebek, so you might as well not even try. No one can be like him, so you might as well go in a different direction. And I would love to see, therefore, a woman doing it, a person of color doing it. Those would be great options, I think, and there are plenty of people out there who … could do that, who could be a great host.”

She said “60 Minutes” correspondent Bill Whitaker’s run was “underappreciated” and thought “Today” host Savannah Guthrie’s divisive stint was a good one as well.

Caglio and Fenster are definitely Team LeVar, and still hold out hope for a “Star Trek”-like reversal of fortune like the ones his character, Chief Engineer Geordi La Forge, was known for.

LeVar Burton guest hosted “Jeopardy!” July 26-30. (Carol Kaelson / Jeopardy Productions, Inc. via The Associated Press)

“I truly believe he is the proper heir to Alex Trebek,” said Fenster, a graduate student and seven-time champion who won more than $159,000 on the show in 2018. “He has an earnestness and understated zeal that matches the tone of the show. Alex Trebek had an air of wisdom mixed with enthusiasm for the game that I think LeVar has, or at least will grow into given time.”

Caglio, a project manager who won more than $19,000 earlier this year, grew up watching Burton, from his emotional portrayal of Kunta Kinte in “Roots,” the groundbreaking 1970s miniseries based on Alex Haley’s novel, to his friendly spirit on PBS’ “Reading Rainbow,” a show he hosted for 23 years.

She thinks he represents a chance to grow and broaden the show’s audience.

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“The contestants, and myself included, are overwhelmingly white,” Caglio said. “So I feel like having more representation on the show would be better. And Mike Richards was good, but he was just kind of like, you know, normal, basic, and LeVar brings more personality.”

This is where members of the “Jeopardy!” family worry cynicism has crept into the process. A big topic throughout the search has been the chance for the show to become something of a positive example by making a progressive choice. If the women and people of color were never seriously considered — Richards moved into his executive producing role in 2020 as Trebek’s health began to fail more noticeably — what does that say about the show?

“Nobody really knows if the guest hosts were kind of auditions for a potential new host or if they already had an idea of who would be the new host and they were just using the auditions to kind of fill time,” Karras said.

Other questions emerge: Was Trebek popular because of “Jeopardy!” or was “Jeopardy!” popular because of Trebek? Does the syndicated show’s long-term success rely on the new host being popular? Or will it roll right along?

Fenster feels the safest way to address those questions is to go with those who know the game best.

“If LeVar doesn’t make the cut, which would be a huge disappointment, I think it would be best to go with one of the former champs: Ken Jennings or Buzzy Cohen,” Fenster said. “Jeopardy, as a game, is more than just Alex Trebek, but it has a certain legacy of its own that he helped shape, and playing on its legacy with a former champion as a host would work very well indeed. The worst thing they could do would be to nominate someone who comes off as arrogant or superior to the contestants.” 

Karras thinks the “Jeopardy!” format will always be popular to some degree. But a misfire on the host could lead to a viewership drop.

“I think people would still watch it,” she said. “But would as many people watch it? I don’t think so if you can’t find someone with that charisma.”