“Jeopardy!’s” 37th season finally entered the record books on Friday — and quite a season it was. The year began with a return to tapings after an abrupt, COVID-inspired shutdown in the fall, and was defined by longtime host Alex Trebek’s November death.
After Trebek’s final episodes aired in January, “Jeopardy!” undertook one of the more public — not to mention long-running — audition processes in recent television history, with 16 different individuals serving as guest host. The process allowed viewers to mourn Trebek and provided potential visions of what the show might become in his absence.
Last Two Guest Hosts Overshadowed
CNBC anchor David Faber served as the penultimate guest host, donating his honorarium (an amount equal to contestants’ winnings that week) to the Robin Hood Foundation, an anti-poverty charity in his native New York City. While one of the lesser-known “Jeopardy!” guest hosts, Faber did a workmanlike job. He avoided major flubs — or at least avoided making flubs that ended up on-air — kept the game moving, and added occasional comments about his day job in markets and finance, without doing so in an overbearing manner.
Fox sportscaster Joe Buck concluded the guest host lineup, with his honoraria going towards KidSmart, an educational charity in Buck’s hometown of St. Louis. Whereas Faber brought a serious demeanor as “Jeopardy!” host, Buck seemed to be going through the motions, as if he was televising a meaningless football or baseball game that no one cared about. He exhibited a level of relative informality and detached bemusement, seemingly deriving the greatest joy when performing a Rodney Dangerfield impression during a clue about the late “I get no respect!” comic.
But events both on and off-camera ended up overshadowing both hosts’ stints. In the studio, Matt Amodio continued his series of impressive victories, racking up 18 wins and nearly $600,000 in winnings, which places him third on the all-time “regular season” earnings list. (Amodio did, however, botch the clue regarding Dangerfield, giving an incorrect response of “Don Rickles,” which one can attribute either to Buck’s awful impersonation or the proclivity of nerdy “Jeopardy!” contestants to remain oblivious about seminal individuals in popular culture.)
Amodio’s streak, which began under Robin Roberts, carried on throughout the hosting stints of LeVar Burton, Faber, and Buck. After “Jeopardy!” finishes airing four weeks of reruns over its summer hiatus, Amodio will return as champion when its 38th season kicks off on September 13.
Two Shows, Two Hosts
Speaking of next season, the bigger “Jeopardy!” news occurred off-camera, as the impending start of taping (likely this week) led to a decision on a permanent host. Variety first reported that the show’s current executive producer and February guest host, Mike Richards, was in “advanced negotiations” with Sony Pictures Entertainment to take over the hosting gig.
That report ended up being half-correct, as Sony announced last week that Richards would take over hosting the daily syndicated show, with actress Mayim Bialik — also a guest host — handling spin-offs and other specials for ABC.
The news prompted a bit of confusion, both for headline writers and viewers: “How can ‘Jeopardy!’ have two co-hosts?” But the practice has precedent in game show history. While Bob Barker hosted CBS’s daytime version of “The Price Is Right” uninterrupted from 1972 through 2007, hosts Dennis James and Tom Kennedy (along with Barker) took turns hosting a nighttime version that aired in syndication.
Two Competent Hosts
Sony’s decision seemed to have some logic to it. To this observer, Richards, Bialik, and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers seemed the consensus shortlist among the “Jeopardy!” guest hosts. Rodgers’s decision to return to football, and to Green Bay, effectively took him out of the running. Sony split the difference among the remaining two candidates, choosing to tap both their services.
Fans of LeVar Burton expressed their dismay with the decision, noting that the longtime actor only got a one-week hosting stint, sandwiched in the middle of Olympics coverage (which pre-empted “Jeopardy!” in some markets). But Burton’s problems lay less with the air dates of his episodes than with the episodes themselves. He made surprising errors, seemed overwrought at times, and — even for someone favorably inclined towards him, given his history as the host of “Reading Rainbow” — generally underwhelmed.
Other observers noted that Richards was involved in discrimination lawsuits filed while he served as executive producer of “The Price Is Right,” including allegations he made derogatory comments about the pregnancy of a show model who was later terminated. But these concerns did not dissuade Sony from hiring him as host. In a message to the “Jeopardy!” staff — which unsurprisingly leaked to the media —Richards claimed “the way in which my comments and actions have been characterized in these complaints does not reflect the reality of who I am.”
Because Sony selected an in-house candidate as the prime host of “Jeopardy!,” some noted that Richards “pulled a Dick Cheney.” The term refers to the 2000 episode in which then-Gov. George W. Bush, R-Texas, tasked the former defense secretary with vetting his vice-presidential candidates, only for Cheney to end up getting the VP nomination himself.
But another analogy comes from the fact that Richards was never scheduled to guest host “Jeopardy!” at all. Instead, he became a last-minute fill-in when Ken Jennings, the show’s first guest host, could not preside over two weeks of shows due to a scheduling conflict with his other game show, “The Chase.” In that sense, Jennings may have turned himself into Wally Pipp, the New York Yankees’ first baseman whose decision to take a day off in 1925 let Lou Gehrig grab his starting job.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
With two hosts designated for two roles, Sony has effectively committed itself to expanding the “Jeopardy!” platform beyond the daily syndicated show. It began this experiment with its “Greatest of All Time” specials on ABC in early 2020, just before the lockdowns hit. The positive ratings and favorable coverage for that event likely prompted Sony officials to explore other ways to extend the “Jeopardy!” brand.
But ABC also provides a cautionary tale about how overexposing a brand can weaken it. Two decades ago, the network used “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” to plug just about every hole in its then-deficient prime-time lineup. The gambit worked — but only for a time. Ratings eventually plunged, and “Millionaire” got relegated to syndication then ended up getting canceled entirely (albeit temporarily) in 2019.
Choosing the time “Jeopardy!” must replace an iconic host — and retain its loyal fan base in the process — to expand the brand’s reach represents a bold move on Sony’s part. Time will tell if it will end up proving overly ambitious.