To borrow from Winston Churchill after the Battle of El Alamein, Tuesday’s news that Sony Pictures Entertainment had relieved Mike Richards of executive producing duties for both “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune” does not represent the end of the long-running — and recently shambolic — “Jeopardy!” host audition process. Nor does it represent the beginning of the end. But it should represent the end of the beginning.
Richards’s complete separation from “Jeopardy!” not three weeks after he was named as Alex Trebek’s prime replacement represents a necessary, but on its own insufficient, step to restore luster to a quiz show brand that has become tarnished in recent weeks. Lest anyone believe the tryout process to this point has remained on the up-and-up, consider this nugget: The most experienced female game show host in American television history (by a mile) wanted to try out for the role, but couldn’t get an audition. Yet her snub isn’t the one making headlines.
The ongoing saga, the latest chapter of which unfolded on Tuesday, has prompted no small amount of Monday morning quarterbacking regarding the process: whether it was rigged in Richards’s favor, where the process should go from here, and who should ultimately work behind the “Jeopardy!” lectern. The more details that come to light, the more the process does appear biased — all the more reason to start the search from scratch.
Burton’s Lobbying Got Him an Audition
Upon learning of Richards’s decision on August 20 to step down from hosting, much of Woke Twitter responded with calls for former “Reading Rainbow” host and July “Jeopardy!” guest host LeVar Burton to become the permanent host. But while the actor may hold appeal to some for his political views, those views don’t necessarily make him a good game show host.
Granted, Sony appeared reluctant to grant Burton a spot in their guest host lineup, doing so only after a very public lobbying campaign that included an online petition. The company also gave him one week’s worth of shows to make an impression (all of which taped in a single day), while most guests hosted for two weeks, and placed his episodes opposite the Tokyo Olympics, limiting his exposure.
If Burton had a deck stacked against him, he still underperformed when it mattered most. His tone and demeanor seemed off, and he made two noteworthy errors during his week’s worth of shows. Perhaps Richards and Sony edited (or didn’t edit) his mistakes as with the other guest hosts. But in this observer’s opinion, Burton’s overall performance was sufficiently uneven to justify removing him from the running based solely on the merits.
Denied a Tryout — Because of Her Experience
Compare Burton’s experience to a paragraph in a recent New York Times story about the behind-the-scenes machinations regarding the “Jeopardy!” audition process:
Meredith Vieira, the former “Today” show star, was one television personality eager to try out as a guest host. But she was not offered an audition, with the studio saying it was not interested in anyone currently hosting another game show, according to three people familiar with the audition process who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
I won’t feign objectivity about Vieira. She served as host when I appeared on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”, and my experience then led me to recommend her as an ideal “Jeopardy!” emcee shortly after Trebek’s death, not knowing whether she had an interest in the job, which she apparently did.
But the rationale described to the Times to justify excluding Vieira from the “Jeopardy!” audition process makes little sense, on multiple levels:
- Vieira’s current show, a syndicated show based on the board game “25 Words or Less,” isn’t exactly a household name. Despite following game shows rather closely, I had not heard of the program until I researched Vieira’s current status when writing my original article last fall — and I didn’t know the program airs in my local media market until doing background research for this article.
- Ken Jennings, “Jeopardy!” consulting producer and in-house hosting candidate, holds an affiliation with another game show, one much more prominent than Vieira’s: He serves as a regular on the ABC primetime quiz competition “The Chase.” The fact that the Wall Street Journal reported Jennings, despite his role in a competing show produced by a competing outfit (Britain’s ITV), was Sony’s prime candidate to replace Trebek until his controversial old tweets re-emerged suggests something of an ex post facto justification for excluding a qualified candidate like Vieira.
- More fundamentally, Sony’s stated reason precluding Vieira from auditioning from the job is that she…has game-show hosting experience. Think about that for a second.
“Jeopardy!” incredibly fast pace requires a nimble host who can think on his or her feet. Much more than a show like “Wheel of Fortune,” it needs someone who has experience hosting similar types of programs, just as Trebek hosted numerous other game shows before, and during, his time emceeing “Jeopardy!” Those facts, and that history, make the stated excuse for excluding Vieira — as well as the process by which Richards and Sony selected candidates to try out for the hosting job — appear slightly ridiculous.
First Lady of Game Show Hosts
While it has grown slightly in recent years, the list of American female game show hosts still remains comparatively small: Arlene Francis on “Blind Date”; Betty White on “Just Men!”; Vicki Lawrence on “Win, Lose, or Draw“; Brooke Burns and (more recently) Sara Haines on “The Chase“; Anne Robinson and (more recently) Jane Lynch on “The Weakest Link“; and Leslie Jones on the remake of “Supermarket Sweep.”
With more than 2,000 episodes shot over 11 years as host of “Millionaire,” not to mention her work with “25 Words or Less,” Vieira appears to hold more experience hosting American game shows than all other female hosts combined. If that wasn’t sufficient to get her an audition to try out for “Jeopardy!” then what exactly was?
The way Sony Pictures Entertainment gave Vieira — and potentially other qualified candidates like her — the back of their hand speaks to what they need to fix about the audition process for the next host of “Jeopardy!” Particularly after concerns that Richards orchestrated the process that led to his selection, they need to make their criteria for asking people to audition, and selecting the permanent host, completely transparent — a process that is both fair and seen to be fair.
Richards’s full departure from “Jeopardy!” allows the show to start fresh, with a new process for a permanent host. Hopefully, that process will include a stint for Vieira behind the lectern at Sony Pictures Studios’ Stage 10. Neither she, nor anyone else, should have the hosting job locked up, but she’s earned the right to audition for it.