Television

Before Jeopardy! Can Choose Its Next Host, It Needs to Decide Who Its Audience Is

The Mike Richards debacle is a sign the show needs to think less about its past and more about its future.

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 08: Flowers are seen on Alex Trebek's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on November 08, 2020 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images)
Flowers adorn Alex Trebek’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Rich Fury/Getty Images

When Jeopardy! began the process of replacing Alex Trebek after his death late last year, it was clear it would be challenging. Trebek’s lengthy tenure and sterling reputation as both a consummate professional and an exemplary human being meant that Sony Pictures Television was looking not just for someone to host a game show, but someone who could live up to the legacy of a host whose identity had become synonymous with the quiz program for generations of viewers.

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That having been said, it did not have to be this challenging. The selection of executive producer Mike Richards and his subsequent removal after what Variety dubs a “cascade of scandals” is an indictment of Sony’s vetting process, yes, but it also reveals how confused the studio has been about its goals all throughout the process. Even before Richards’ hiring, the discourse around the search for a new host reinforced how Jeopardy!’s place within the television industry and popular culture is fraught with uncertainty. As the show’s producers—who, at least as of this writing, still inexplicably include the tarnished Richards—return to a carousel of guest hosts, they do not just need to decide who should be the host of Jeopardy! They need to decide who the show’s audience is, and who it will be.

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A key source of tension has been the demographic reality of Jeopardy!’s audience. In a word, it’s old. In 2011, Newsweek reported that the show’s median viewer was 65, and that was after the show spent years modernizing itself with video clues and more themed tournaments. (Before then, the median viewer age was 70.) This is not to say that younger people aren’t watching Jeopardy! The show has a very active fan base on social media, and lots of millennials like myself grew up watching it with their parents or grandparents. However, those viewers make up a small percentage of its total audience, even if they make up the majority of those tweeting their opinions throughout the host “auditions” that aired throughout 2021.

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The disconnect between social media chatter about the host search and the show’s core audience undoubtedly complicated public perceptions of Sony’s decision-making. The campaign to have former Reading Rainbow host LeVar Burton take over the hosting job generated a meaningful groundswell on Twitter, but the reality is that a Twitter groundswell meant little to the vast majority of the show’s audience, and thus to Sony’s bottom line. While many were confused why Sony would ever select a nonentity like Richards—who previously hosted the short-lived Beauty and the Geek—when there was such strong public support behind Burton, syndicated television is a space where Twitter is not even close to reflecting “the public.” It was hardly a surprise that the show’s selection process—which privileged focus groups shown select episodes of different candidates—failed to match the prevailing opinion of the internet. Syndication is an inherently conservative industry built on familiarity and continuity to ensure that shows remain part of viewers’ daily routines. And those routines are also predominantly reliant on linear broadcast television, which is increasingly less likely to be how the social media audience rallying behind Burton watches TV in the first place. In an especially risk-averse corner of an already risk-averse industry, pleasing the show’s exuberant but small online fan base is a lower priority than keeping regular TV viewers from changing the channel.

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However, while Jeopardy!’s audience may not be extremely online, the campaign around Burton and the general Twitter dissection of the revolving podium reinforced that the show’s audience is not a couch-bound monolith, despite Sony’s attempt to treat it as one. The choice of Richards revealed that Sony looked at the challenge of replacing Alex Trebek and believed the best option was a cipher: a completely generic figure with zero public reputation who could slip into the role without upsetting an imagined, generic, average viewer of the show. And while Claire McNear’s reporting at the Ringer revealed that Richards had far too much baggage to be the cipher they wanted, it doesn’t mean their logic for bypassing the other candidates has changed. Based on the industry’s continued positioning of white men as neutral—as opposed to symbols of a regressive norm—choosing Richards was an attempt to answer questions about the future of Jeopardy! with a resounding “No comment.”

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Of course, Richards’ subsequent removal made a significant statement, and one that Sony will be forced to follow up on. The studio is now under even more intense scrutiny, and its decision will send a clear message about how the show’s producers intend to manage and grow the Jeopardy! audience moving forward. A former contestant like Ken Jennings—once presumed Trebek’s obvious successor—or Buzzy Cohen would suggest a desire to speak to the show’s fan base across generations. A newsperson like Robin Roberts or David Faber provides both experience in and recognizability from broadcast media familiar to the show’s older demographics. Actors like Burton and Mayim Bialik are the most likely to expand the show’s audience, new faces implying that Jeopardy! sees change as a key part of its future (which is supported by the choice to tap Bialik to host prime-time specials and spinoffs, a consolation prize compared with the syndicated series).

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And yet, it seems entirely possible that Sony goes back to the drawing board in favor of finding a less-problematic version of Mike Richards that keeps them from having to face the existential crisis the show is facing as linear viewing shrinks with each passing year. The fact is that there’s a logical argument against any consequential decision Sony might make in choosing a new host. If Jeopardy! fans are already invested in the show, why bring in a former contestant to host when you can at least try to expand the audience with a different selection? If newscasters predominantly appeal to Jeopardy’s existing demographic, doesn’t that just reinforce the show is only aimed at them? If young people aren’t watching linear television, why try to use a new host to appeal to them at the risk of alienating the viewers who are actually tuning in and generate the ad revenue that makes the show so successful? It’s easy to read these justifications as mental gymnastics to justify hiring a mediocre white man, but they’re more accurately the death throes of an industry in crisis.

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That is admittedly overstating things: The death of the linear television industry is not imminent, but it is nonetheless in progress, and the selection of a new host for a game show has emerged as a definitive moment in its timeline. As a venerable institution, Jeopardy! is a bellwether for how legacy programs will be able to adapt into the future, and the Richards debacle showed that Sony has no immediate desire to face the music of the television industry’s Final Jeopardy. But there is reason to believe the show is capable of surviving the transition ahead. The news cycle around Richards has (rightly) treated Jeopardy! as a cultural good, with viewers and nonviewers alike arguing over its future. While there might be strong opinions about one host or another, the basic investment in the show’s continued existence suggests that viewers will collectively rally behind a host from any number of different backgrounds if it means that the show’s legacy—and by extension Alex Trebek’s—lives on in some form or another.

Perhaps Sony will find a host who will accomplish this single-handedly. But everything about this process so far suggests that the question is less who will be hosting Jeopardy!, and more whom Sony believes they will be making Jeopardy! for in the decades to come. If they’re able to focus on that question, they might just find an answer.

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