How the ‘Jeopardy!’ host succession plan unraveled

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So much for the best-laid plans.

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Nine months ago, Sony Pictures Entertainment executives thought they had an ideal successor for "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek in Ken Jennings, a former contestant who held the record for longest winning streak on the game show, people close to the program said.

While Mr. Jennings didn’t have much experience hosting, the executives at Sony and producers at "Jeopardy!" were confident that he would grow into the role. He was a fan favorite and already a familiar face to the "Jeopardy!" machine from working as a consultant on the show since 2020.

This image released by Jeopardy! shows Alex Trebek, former host of the game show. (AP/Jeopardy! / AP Newsroom)

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Then came the old tweets.

Just before Mr. Jennings was set to be the first person to sit behind the "Jeopardy!" podium as part of a rotation of guests hosts, tweets he made years ago resurfaced.

"Nothing sadder than a hot person in a wheelchair," read one of the tweets from 2014. Mr. Jennings apologized, but the succession plan started unraveling.

Reaction to the tweets gave Sony executives pause, said people familiar with the selection process. Focus groups also didn’t react well to Mr. Jennings afterward, one of the people said.

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Properties like "Jeopardy!" also are closely watched by many on social media, including people who make it a practice to vet old posts and comments even as companies vet talent. Posts and pressure online can drive campaigns that further complicate the plans of billion-dollar companies.

"Jeopardy!" isn’t just a game show. It’s the crown jewel of Sony’s TV operations and one of the company’s most reliable revenue-generators. It has an incredibly loyal fan base, averaging close to 10 million nightly viewers, and it makes more than $100 million in profits a year. More than one-third of "Jeopardy!" viewers watched at least three times a week this season, making it the most loyal audience among all syndicated TV series, according to distributor CBS Media Ventures.

Smooth transitions in television are rare. Part of the challenge is the delicate dance producers must perform to keep an aging host happy and secure while planning for the future. Sony was confident that with Mr. Jennings, it could avoid the messy transitions other prominent shows, including NBC’s "Tonight Show" and CBS’s "The Price is Right," endured.

When Mr. Trebek suffered a mild heart attack in 2012, Sony executives had a short list of replacements, including Matt Lauer and Brian Williams. But after he recovered, the concerns over the inevitable faded, people familiar with the matter said. Mr. Trebek died in November.

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Sony had a way to buy some time. The plan was never to turn the keys over to Mr. Jennings permanently right from the start. Producers lined up a variety of big names to take their turn as host of the show. It was partially a stunt to drum up attention for the program, but also a way to see if any other potential hosts were waiting to be discovered.

Among those who asked contestants for the right question were Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, actress Mayim Bialik and actor LeVar Burton.

Also taking a slot was Mike Richards, the "Jeopardy!" executive producer and former standup comedian-turned-game show producer, who executives felt had the right amount of charm and looked the part of a host after guest-hosting.

Mr. Richards decided he’d like to be under consideration for the job, and Sony agreed, company officials have said. That’s when another round of headaches much worse than Mr. Jennings’s tweets began. After word got out that Mr. Richards was becoming the host, stories about old lawsuits from his producing days emerged that had accused him of pregnancy and gender discrimination.

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Mr. Richards issued a statement saying the comments attributed to him don’t "reflect the reality of who I am."

While the storm from the suits started to die down, there was a loud drumbeat on social media that Mr. Richards had rigged the game to come out on top. Sony denied that Mr. Richards had anything to do with the choice, saying that he was removed as a decision-maker as soon as he became a contender. Then the website the Ringer disclosed misogynistic and anti-Semitic jokes Mr. Richards had made on a nearly decade-old podcast called "The Randumb Show." He waved the white flag and resigned as host. Sony said he would stay on as executive producer.

A Sony spokeswoman said the company supported his decision to step down as host and was surprised to learn of his podcast and the language he used in the past. "Mike has been with us for the last two years and has led the ‘Jeopardy!’ team through the most challenging time the show has ever experienced," she said. "It is our hope that as [executive producer] he will continue to do so with professionalism and respect."

Mr. Richards still has obstacles to clear. He still must win over the anti-Richards camp inside "Jeopardy!" Many longtime staffers have not taken to him since he succeeded the beloved Harry Friedman, who ended his long run as executive producer in 2020. Mr. Richards has a force-of-nature type of persona, with sharp elbows that rub many of the "Jeopardy!" veterans the wrong way, people close to the show said.

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Earlier this week at a staff meeting, Mr. Richards apologized to employees for his past comments and said he was committed to regaining their trust, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Ravi Ahuja, chairman of Sony’s television division, attended the meeting and told employees that the studio was taking their concerns seriously. He said that while growing up of Indian descent in Mississippi in the 1970s, he was exposed to racially insensitive comments and knew the impact they can have, the person said.

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In a note to staff members, Mr. Richards wrote, "I want to apologize to each of you for the unwanted negative attention that has come to Jeopardy! over the last few weeks and for the confusion and delays this is now causing."

Mr. Richards remains in his original job. Sony executives note that 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.

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