‘Jeopardy’s’ Weirdest Week Ever Begins. Will Audiences Stay For It?

‘Jeopardy’s’ Weirdest Week Ever Begins. Will Audiences Stay For It?

The show's new host departed the day after he taped the first five episodes of 'Jeopardy's' 38th season, leading to what will likely stand as its most awkward week ever.

On Monday, “Jeopardy!” began its 38th season in syndication with even more changes than when it started its 37th season last September — but for entirely different reasons. Last year, lockdowns halted production of “Jeopardy!” and other TV shows in spring 2020 and forced new safety precautions, a spacing out of contestant lecterns and an audience-free soundstage among the most significant.

This year, by contrast, the turmoil at “Jeopardy!” comes from within rather than from without. Sony Pictures Entertainment named executive producer Mike Richards the show’s host on August 11. He lasted but a week in that “permanent” role, giving up hosting duties on August 19, only to get fired from “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune” entirely on August 31.

Sony made the right call in terminating Richards, who failed to inform company executives about boorish comments he had made on several podcasts years ago, even after details of several sexual discrimination lawsuits recently re-emerged. But his departure as host came one day after he taped the first five episodes of “Jeopardy’s” 38th season, leading to what will likely stand as “Jeopardy’s” most awkward week of episodes ever.

Stuck with Episodes

Because Jeopardy! tapes serially — i.e., every show features a returning champion — Sony cannot as a practical matter not air the Richards episodes. It also can’t scrap the shows and re-tape with a different host, as a different contestant might win.

As a result, Sony remained stuck with airing this week’s episodes once. But suffice it to say these episodes likely will never air again, given that they serve as a reminder of how badly the company botched the process of selecting a host to succeed Alex Trebek.

Awkward Promotions

Even though Sony has to air the episodes themselves, that doesn’t mean it has to highlight Richards’s role in them. Multiple videos released by Sony promoting this week’s episodes say not a word about Richards, and in one case show the “Jeopardy!” soundstage with contestants behind their lecterns, but no one at the host’s position.

One contestant, who will appear on Friday’s episode, tweeted last week that, while he and his fellow contestants took two promotional photos — a headshot and a picture with Richards — “Jeopardy!” only sent him the former and not the latter. The omission makes sense on multiple levels; not only does Sony want to sever any reminder of Richards’s association with the show, but his termination meant he could not autograph photos with contestants, as Trebek did.

That said, the “Jeopardy!” producers did not edit the opening segment of Monday’s show. Whereas announcer Johnny Gilbert introduced last season’s guest hosts as such, he gave Richards the windup — “And now, here is the host of ‘Jeopardy!’” — he had heretofore given Trebek alone.

As to Trebek, his name made an appearance during the opening, as his wife and children helped dedicate Stage 10 on the Sony Pictures Studio lot in his honor. The nonagenarian Gilbert, who recorded most of his audio segments from a home studio last season for health and safety reasons, also made a brief on-camera appearance from his usual post in the studio.

But two individuals did not make an appearance. Ken Jennings and Buzzy Cohen, two former “Jeopardy!” champions who each guest-hosted episodes last season, attended the Trebek dedication ceremony but were reportedly kept off the soundstage during the day’s taping because Richards reportedly felt unnerved by their presence.

Champion an Afterthought

Amidst the awkwardness of this “Jeopardy!” drama, champion Matt Amodio has become almost an afterthought. On Monday, he won his 19th consecutive episode, spanning the hosting stints of Robin Roberts, LeVar Burton, David Faber, Joe Buck, and now Richards. His more than $600,000 in winnings ranks third-best ever, behind only Jennings and James Holzhauer, yet most stories about the program over the past month have focused on the failed host search.

In rolling out the show’s 38th season, “Jeopardy!” has tried to emphasize its continuity and tradition with the hashtag #TheGameContinues. But the way Sony mangled its search for a new host badly damaged the show’s goodwill in the press, with the public, and with regular viewers and alumni (including yours truly).

However, just prior to Richards’s removal as executive producer, Sony sources said that, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “the ratings for Jeopardy! are holding steady, an indication that while the drama behind the scenes is big among industry insiders and social media, the audience will keep watching the show.”

In other words, the same group that offered a business-school case study in poor succession planning over the past few months said they essentially take the show’s audience for granted. As for “Jeopardy!,” yes, the game continues — for now. But if the corporate rot that caused the Richards debacle persists, the popular quiz show may find itself — pardon the pun — in jeopardy.

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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