Less than 24 hours after Alex Trebek’s death, rumors began to fly about who would be the next host of “Jeopardy!” The Wrap reported on Monday that ABC News anchor and “This Week” host George Stephanopoulos has begun an intense lobbying campaign for the job. So much for allowing time to mourn the recently departed.
Upon announcing Trebek’s death, Sony Pictures Studios did not comment about a new host. The fact that former “Jeopardy!” champion Ken Jennings joined the show as a producer beginning this season has led some to speculate whether he was being groomed for the job. New Executive Producer Mike Richards said at the time, however, that Jennings’ role did not presuppose an inside track to the hosting gig.
For most regular “Jeopardy!” viewers, the idea of anyone other than Trebek hosting the show is difficult to contemplate. While Trebek did not host the original version of “Jeopardy!” — Art Fleming emceed the daytime version broadcast on NBC — the Fleming-hosted shows ended in 1979, meaning Americans younger than 50, or most of the country, know no other host.
That said, upon learning of his cancer diagnosis last year, one name immediately came to mind as the best fit to host “Jeopardy!”: Meredith Vieira. I’ll admit my biases upfront. As the host of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” when I appeared on the show, Vieira and I got along well, and I quickly became a fan. For many reasons, she ticks all the boxes necessary to host “Jeopardy!”
Vieira Has the Background and Temperament
Vieira has spent decades in television, working for all three major networks in a variety of roles. While “Jeopardy!” pre-tapes its episodes, her experience in live television and interviewing guests makes her comfortable ad-libbing with contestants on camera.
Not only does Vieira bring a television background, but she brings the right kind of TV background for “Jeopardy!” A wisecracking host such as Steve Harvey or Jimmy Kimmel just wouldn’t do. The show covers a lot of material in half an hour; there isn’t time for a host like Harvey to consume two minutes doing a comedy bit. As Trebek wrote in his memoir: “Every moment you focus on yourself is a moment that you’re taking away from the contestants.”
Vieira started out as a TV reporter and worked at “60 Minutes” for three years before leaving to host CBS morning news, ABC’s “The View,” the “Today” show at NBC, and her own talk show. Her background combines both hard journalism earlier in her career with a greater focus on talk shows and interviews over the past two decades.
By contrast, other journalistic candidates mentioned for the “Jeopardy!” role have political affiliations or baggage that could turn off viewers. Trebek, a Canadian by birth, became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1998 but generally avoided politics. Stephanopoulos worked as a Democratic operative, including in the Clinton White House.
If the political leanings of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper — mentioned over the years as someone who could host “Jeopardy!” — didn’t damage his chances, his recent comments comparing the president of the United States to an obese turtle almost certainly did. As for Matt Lauer, whom Brian Stelter claimed in 2015 could take over hosting duties, the less said about him, the better.
Vieira’s resume gives her the serious chops to host a scholarly quiz show while keeping “Jeopardy!” far away from political food fights — the perfect combination.
She Roots for Contestants
I taped my episode of “Millionaire” on the day after the 2012 presidential election, which made my winnings a very nice way to get over any post-election hangover. On that November Wednesday, a nor’easter brought an early dose of snow and sleet into the New York area, forcing the crew to end the day’s taping prematurely so the audience and crew could get home safely.
As I left the set, Vieira asked if I was headed back to Washington that night. I replied that, yes, I needed to get back to work and the impending debate on the “fiscal cliff.” She sounded concerned by my answer and told me to take care of myself heading back to the train station. Her comments showed that her kind maternal instincts extended to the contestants she encountered on stage.
A week or so later, a card on “Millionaire” stationery arrived in the mail:
Vieira didn’t have to write a note like that. I certainly didn’t expect it. The fact that she went out of her way to do so, despite a frantic taping schedule — “Millionaire” recorded five shows a day, four days a week, taping an entire season’s worth of shows in three months that fall — shows how she cared about the people she met as host.
Several years ago, one of the “Millionaire” producers admitted publicly that when casting the host for the syndicated version of the show, they wanted someone “who would love the contestants and be willing to root for them.” Regis Philbin, host of the original ABC version, didn’t fit that bill; producers told me during rehearsals he focused primarily on finding something in each contestant he could turn into jokes.
By contrast, Vieira’s warmth and sincerity made me and my fellow contestants feel at ease in a high-pressure environment. She would have the same effect as the host of “Jeopardy!”
She’s Already Replaced a Legend
When I first told friends about my “Millionaire” appearance, I didn’t realize how many people thought Philbin still hosted the show, even though he had given up the emcee duties a decade previously. Whereas Regis’ original “Millionaire” dominated ABC’s primetime lineup for several years, becoming a cultural phenomenon, Vieira’s syndicated version garnered fewer viewers in daytime or late-night time slots.
But Vieira took a landmark franchise, remaining faithful to the original despite slight rules tweaks, and made it her own. She hosted the show for 11 years in syndication, winning two Emmys for Outstanding Game Show Host in the process, beating out Trebek both times. She could do the same with “Jeopardy!”
I mention the fact that Vieira is a woman last for a reason. I don’t subscribe to woke politics, and I consider “The Simpsons” replacing existing voice actors with African Americans an exercise in pandering. If someone who meets all the criteria happens to be female, however, I would give her an edge over her competitors.
Vieira has already helped break sex boundaries in game shows. About the time she took over “Millionaire” in 2002, she and Anne Robinson of “The Weakest Link” became the first females to host game shows since Vicki Lawrence hosted “Win, Lose, or Draw” in the 1980s.
The stable of American television quizmasters has become far more diverse since Lawrence’s hosting days, when Galoob issued a Mr. Game Show toy, featuring a stereotypical white male, a nattily dressed and well-coiffed emcee. Race and sex diversity doesn’t help when it detracts from the show itself, as in the case of Leslie Jones hosting the new “Supermarket Sweep.” Having a female host America’s brainiest show, however, would send an important and welcome message without degrading standards merely to make a political point.
Does She Want the Job?
Is Vieira even interested in hosting? I have no idea. She obviously remains interested in game shows, hosting “25 Words or Less,” a program syndicated by Fox, but she might not have an interest in a move from New York to Los Angeles or a lot of cross-country commuting that would come with the “Jeopardy!” role.
Regardless, the show’s producers would do well to call and ask. “Jeopardy!” could certainly do worse than Meredith Vieira as the show’s new host, and I don’t think it could do any better.