Who Wants to Be the Next ‘Jeopardy!’ Host: Bill Whitaker

Who Wants to Be the Next ‘Jeopardy!’ Host: Bill Whitaker

The cavalcade of “Jeopardy!” guest hosts continues. Following two weeks hosted by CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, journalist Bill Whitaker, best known for his role in the long-running CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes,” began his own trial tenure behind the lectern.

Consistent with the practice for all guest hosts, “Jeopardy!” is matching contestants’s winnings with donations to a charity of the host’s choice in lieu of an honorarium — for his run, Whitaker selected the Media Fellowship House. Lest conservatives think Whitaker’s charity will somehow subsidize leftist newspapermen, “Media” in this case refers not to journalism but to a town in Pennsylvania outside Whitaker’s Philadelphia birthplace.

A Curious Choice

Whitaker seemed an interesting choice to guest host “Jeopardy!”, and his professional resume boasts of a career featuring more than four decades in journalism, most of them with CBS. As someone who will turn 70 this summer, he will be the oldest of the 16 guest hosts by several years. Katie Couric and LeVar Burton, the next oldest guest hosts, each turned 64 this winter, making them about five and a half years younger than Whitaker.

By itself, Whitaker’s age should not disqualify him for the role of a permanent replacement to Alex Trebek. After all, Trebek himself hosted the program right up until his death at age 80. But if the show’s executives want longevity in a permanent host — the potential new face of their franchise for decades rather than years — then they might want to choose a host of younger vintage at the time of his or her selection.

Whitaker’s style and delivery also seem quite distinct from Trebek’s. Both on “60 Minutes” and in his appearance on “Jeopardy!”, Whitaker comes across somewhat stiff and formal. Whereas Trebek deftly glided across material, Whitaker exhibited a slightly stilted approach in his first five episodes.

Updates on the Selection Process

In a recent podcast interview with the Wall Street Journal, executive producer Mike Richards provided more insights as to the host selection process. He considered it likely, but not definite, that the permanent host of “Jeopardy!” would come from among the cadre of 16 guest hosts. That casts doubt on whether my original choice for a permanent host, former journalist and game show host Meredith Vieira, remains in the running for the “Jeopardy!” gig.

Richards also confirmed my speculation that the show wants to have its permanent host in place for the start of taping the 38th season of “Jeopardy!” — which may present some logistical difficulties. The show normally starts taping new episodes in mid-summer, but the episodes hosted by Joe Buck, the last guest host, will not air until the week of Aug. 9.

By this point in the spring, “Jeopardy!” has likely finished taping its 37th season, including all of the episodes with its guest hosts. LeVar Burton’s wife Stephanie sent (then quickly deleted) a tweet of her husband on the “Jeopardy!” set during his taping in late April, even though his episodes will not air until the last week of July.

If the show’s producers want to select the permanent “Jeopardy!” host from among the 16 guest hosts, they already have the material they need to make a final selection based on the in-studio performance. But because some of the guest hosts’s episodes may not air publicly until after the announcement of a permanent host, the production staff may find it difficult to fully gauge relevant responses from the show’s fan. Some fans may also feel left out at the conclusion of an audition process designed (among other things) to solicit fan feedback for a permanent “Jeopardy!” host.

Richards did make reference to “Jeopardy!” using focus groups as one method to gauge fan reaction. The show wants feedback, but of a more fully formed and nuanced version than that which often appears on social media. Richards spoke of making an “informed decision” based on “real analytics and real testing.”

How executives at Sony Pictures Entertainment navigate the endgame of “Who Wants to Be the Next ‘Jeopardy!’ Host” — both the timing of the announcement and the person they end up selecting — will serve as the end of a “reality” competition unlike most others in television history.

Chris Jacobs is founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, and author of the book, "The Case Against Single Payer." He is on Twitter: @chrisjacobsHC.
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