what is...a mess?

Inside the Jeopardy! Host-Hunting Meltdown

Sony looked aside as an unknown EP crowned himself Alex Trebek’s replacement. How did this happen?

Photo: Carol Kaelson/Jeopardy Productions Inc.
Photo: Carol Kaelson/Jeopardy Productions Inc.

Dumping Mike Richards as host of Jeopardy! solved one problem for producer Sony Pictures Television. Sacking him as executive producer, a move widely anticipated as inevitable by many in Hollywood, would help even more. But now, following weeks of relentlessly negative PR, even banishing Richards from the studio’s Culver City lot might not be enough to resolve the crisis surrounding America’s most beloved game show. It also won’t answer the question on the minds of so many in the entertainment industry: What the hell was Sony thinking?

While Schadenfreude rivals greed and vanity as one of Tinseltown’s key energy sources, the drama engulfing Jeopardy! right now is most definitely not one of those grab-the-popcorn-and–Red Vines spectacles folks in the business (not so) secretly enjoy, like Jeffrey Katzenberg doing a belly flop with Quibi. There is no pleasure being derived from watching Alex Trebek’s legacy trashed in real time by the sleaziest host-replacement process since Jay Leno conspired with NBC to screw over Conan O’Brien. Instead, the industry veterans I talked to last week were objectively sad about the whole mess, and even angry. “Jeopardy! is an American institution,” one told me. “For them to sully its mark on society with this sort of embarrassment, to put it through this, and tarnish its reputation? It’s a crime.”

Trebek’s passing and the need for his replacement didn’t come as some unexpected surprise. Sony has literally had years to get ready for this eventuality — and under one of the studio’s former leadership teams, it took the task incredibly seriously. More than a decade ago, I had lunch with Sony TV’s then-chairman, Steve Mosko, who told me he kept a list by his phone filled with the names of people who might be worthy of the gig, and regularly updated it if a new candidate crossed his radar. His plan was to make sure Jeopardy!’s exec producer at the time, the legendary Harry Friedman, would not have to start the search process from scratch. This effort almost surely intensified after Trebek suffered a heart attack in 2012 and began broaching the subject of retirement during interviews.

But Mosko left Sony in 2016, and his institutional knowledge of the Jeopardy! business walked out with him. What happened in the next few years may very well have contributed to the mess we’ve seen over the past few weeks. Longtime Fox exec Tony Vinciquerra was named head of Sony Pictures Entertainment in mid-2017, and he quickly tapped Mike Hopkins to run Sony’s TV business. Unlike Mosko, who has decades of experience overseeing programming units, Vinciquerra and Hopkins spent the bulk of their pre-Sony careers in operations, sales, and distribution roles. Though they’re both well-respected within the TV world, it’s not a stretch to imagine neither man shared Mosko’s passion for managing the particulars of key Sony franchises such as Jeopardy!

To be fair, Hopkins didn’t completely ignore the game-show space, but unfortunately, one of his most important actions helped set in motion the mess playing out right now. About two years ago, in June 2019, Hopkins stole away an experienced and well-regarded producer from Fremantle; a press release touting the deal said this producer would work on new projects for Sony and mine its existing intellectual property for possible reboots. But the real purpose of this hire would become clear a few months later. In August 2019, Friedman stunned the game-show world by announcing that he would step down from his role overseeing both Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! at the end of the 2019–2020 season. Exactly four weeks later, Sony announced that the producer it just snagged from Fremantle would now take on a much bigger role: replacing Friedman as the guardian of the studio’s quiz-show crown jewels. You don’t have to be a pro at Jeopardy! to know that producer’s name was Mike Richards.

This timeline has resulted in fevered speculation in the game-show community: Did Richards, in addition to setting himself up as the heir apparent to Trebek, also collaborate with Hopkins to push Friedman out? After all, if Friedman had still been running the show when Trebek passed away, it’s quite possible that Richards, whose hosting résumé mostly consists of a couple of short-lived cable productions, might not have even gotten an audition for the Jeopardy! gig. But as juicy as this theory is, there’s one hole in it: Friedman himself says it’s completely bogus. “The ‘pushed out’ scenario is simply ridiculous,” the producer emailed me last week, briefly breaking his determined silence since the start of L’Affaire Richards.

Although he politely but firmly declined to talk at all about the selection of Richards, his firing, or what should happen now, Friedman went on the record with me to ensure there was no confusion about the circumstances surrounding his departure from Sony. “The real origin of my retirement plans began in April 2018, when I was hospitalized for 30 days for a series of three abdominal surgeries,” he wrote to me. “I was later told that these were life-threatening episodes. I made a full recovery, but the experience had a profound effect on how I viewed my work-life balance.” Friedman decided to retire after the 2019–2020 season, his 25th year at Sony, and says Vinciquerra and Hopkins, who like past studio execs offered “unwavering support and encouragement,” both tried to convince him to stay. He makes it clear he has zero hard feelings toward his former employer: “If Sony was trying to push me out they sure had a strange way of showing it!”

So while Richards probably isn’t quite the evil genius his detractors make him out to be, what remains true is that the folks charged with running the search for Trebek’s replacement did not have the same depth of experience and understanding of the franchise as Friedman or past Sony execs. In addition to this power vacuum in the Sony exec ranks, as the Ringer’s Claire McNear reported in her definitive story last week, there was a similar leadership void at the show itself: Not only was Friedman gone, but Jeopardy! also lost a couple of key on-set staff members, and many folks worked remotely during the pandemic. You couldn’t script a more perfect scenario for a newbie such as Richards to seize control of the host-replacement process and engineer it so he emerged with the job. (McNear details exactly how he did this in her report, while the New York Times dug up some early dirt on this a few days before her story broke.)

Sony, of course, has tried to dismiss the idea that Richards picked himself, noting that he didn’t have the final call and that other execs took over the formal selection process once Richards emerged as a serious candidate. The studio told the Times that the decision was ultimately made by Vinciquerra, and a person familiar with the situation confirmed to Vulture that he was involved from the start and had the last word — after consultation with other Sony execs, including some with considerable knowledge of the game-show experience. But at least one Hollywood TV vet I spoke with remains dubious. “I am sure [Vinciquerra] was not all that involved in this until the shit hit the fan, and now they need to clean up the mess,” this insider told me.

But let’s assume Vinciquerra was hands-on in the search for Trebek’s successor. In a way, that’s even more damning. While an exec at his level would surely have a voice in such a consequential call, there is no way someone with as many other responsibilities and priorities as Vinciquerra (who is very much not known as a creative exec) is best-equipped to make what is, in the end, a casting decision. It would be like Jeff Bezos having final say on who should star in Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings series: not unimaginable, but not good.

But why did nobody at the studio ever think to bring Friedman into the process? I get why Richards didn’t reach out: It’s clear he has coveted a big-time hosting gig for years, and he (rightly or wrongly) figured Friedman would not agree. But once Hopkins left, Vinciquerra and his underlings should have realized their collective lack of experience regarding all things Jeopardy! (including its quasi-spiritual connection to its audience) might be a problem. It’s possible they figured Richards, whose tenure as EP of The Price Is Right and Let’s Make a Deal saw both shows thrive creatively, possessed all the game-show gravitas they needed. Or maybe they simply believed that focus groups and data-filled spreadsheets would be their salvation — that a new host could be chosen the same way Netflix decided to green-light two seasons of House of Cards based on metrics showing its subscribers liked Kevin Spacey movies. But whether due to hubris or negligence, not involving the man who helped shape the modern-day incarnation of Jeopardy! cost the replacement search some much-needed legitimacy. If Richards and Sony “had brought Harry into the process and got his blessing, it would have meant so much,” one veteran TV exec told me. That they opted not to “tells you everything you need to know.”

A Sony rep had no immediate comment on Friedman’s role (or lack thereof) in the host search, nor any additional statements beyond those the studio issued last week. And for the record, Friedman says he’s not at all offended he wasn’t asked to weigh in on the choice. “I was not consulted on any aspect of the host selection process, nor did I expect to be,” he told me. Friedman did not elaborate, but perhaps he didn’t feel qualified to advise Sony on its final choice unless he was involved from day one and had a chance to interact with all the candidates. Or he might have felt a sense of professional courtesy to Richards, since it was Richards — not Friedman — who would have been working as EP with the new host.

But while it’s possible Sony felt the need to remove the training wheels and let Richards take command, it’s clear now that the studio gave him too much autonomy too soon. Whatever his reputation from his days at Fremantle, Richards let his own ego and desire for on-camera stardom take priority over protecting the institution of Jeopardy!, and Sony should have seen that long ago. A pivotal moment, I think, came back in November, right after Trebek died. The show needed to acknowledge his passing on-air, since there were still several weeks’ worth of pretaped episodes hosted by Trebek left to broadcast. But rather than enlist a familiar face such as former champ Ken Jennings, or even Wheel co-host Pat Sajak, Richards decided the best person to pay homage to Trebek on camera was … Mike Richards. “When does the fucking exec producer of a show do the tribute as opposed to someone people know?” one gobsmacked industry observer asked me. Sony execs should have realized the person in charge of their search process wanted that process to lead back to him and immediately separated him from the hunt.

Unfortunately, common sense seems to be in short supply at Sony these days. (I don’t write those words lightly, as I think those of us who cover Hollywood can be too quick to scream “disaster!” — I excitedly predicted NBC was about to enter a “death spiral” … in 2013.) And yet time and again, the studio has failed in building a bridge from the Trebek era to the future. It allowed the guest hosts and, more importantly, viewers to think that there was a fair competition going on to find a new emcee, when it now appears to have been a rigged process, thus undermining audience confidence in a beloved show. Richards, and by extension Sony, also seemed for months to ignore the online activism behind the effort to get LeVar Burton hired as host. When it finally gave the actor a tryout, his shows were scheduled opposite the Olympics, all but ensuring his ratings would be lower.

But most inexcusable, perhaps, is Sony announcing that Richards will stay on as Jeopardy! executive producer, and, presumably, oversee the search for Trebek’s replacement once again. “It is our hope that as EP he will continue to [lead Jeopardy!] with professionalism and respect,” the studio said last week in a statement accepting his resignation as host. This decision had industry insiders I spoke with incredulous. “Why would they let history repeat itself by putting the guy who manipulated the first process in charge of the second one?” one source said.

A half-dozen or so observers I’ve talked with in recent days think it’s a given that Richards will be sacked as EP, and that the delay is just about settling his contract. But even if so, Sony has already done further damage to the show’s brand by not moving decisively. Cory Anotado, founder of the must-read game-show industry website BuzzerBlog, says Sony’s actions have bordered on soul-crushing. “Jeopardy! has always been on its surface a meritocracy in its format — the best person generally wins,” he told me. “And until the past couple weeks, everyone assumed the people on the other side of the cameras were playing with the same morals. It hurt to see the keys to a well-loved pastime like Jeopardy! passed off to the host of Beauty and the Geek, the man who admitted he doesn’t have a mind for trivia.”

Despite the awfulness of this situation, I believe Jeopardy! will be okay in the long term. As Anotado told me, the show is “an American institution, bigger than just a licensed property of Sony Pictures Television,” and as such, I think fans will find a way to rally behind it — assuming the studio doesn’t botch things further. “My advice to Sony would be, you need to get back the 30 years of tradition and respect that Jeopardy! built up,” Anotado says. Like everyone else I spoke with for this story, he believes firing Richards as EP is job one: “It’s evident that despite the things he’s said about the show, he doesn’t actively respect the history of the show, the institution of the show, or what the show means to its fans.”

I also agree with one veteran producer who told me he believes Sony needed to be on the phone with Friedman yesterday, begging him to take on the host search process and maybe even briefly return as exec producer. That is probably a longshot, but it’s certainly worth the effort: Friedman could go a long way in restoring some of the luster the show lost this month, and his experience cannot be underestimated. Anotado agrees approaching Friedman makes sense, but he thinks the solution is already on the Culver lot. “I would promote [supervising producers] Lisa Broffman and Rocky Schmidt to co-executive producers,” he says. The duo “have been with the show for over two decades each and fully understand what the show has become.” He also thinks they should have final approval on the eventual new host.

As for the $64,000 question — who should finally replace Trebek — I’m not even going to pretend to have an opinion. More than one observer I spoke with believes Ken Jennings remains the safest, most reliable choice, even if it will continue the long history of white men in suits hosting game shows. Anotado thinks two people left out of the initial host hunt — CNN analyst and anchor Laura Coates and sports announcer Alex Faust — should at least be given “untelevised screen tests, using one mock week of shows as an audition. Alex Trebek specifically named those two people as potential replacements for his spot, and his wishes should be respected.”

What’s nearly as important as who gets the gig at this point is making sure the replacement process is respected by the audience, as well as all of the talent involved. Sony should not rush things, tempting as it might be to give the job to Jennings or newly named prime-time host Mayim Bialik. While viewers (and Jeopardy!’s affiliate stations) want stability, the studio can’t afford to get it wrong again. I would push any decision back until at least late winter or early spring 2022, and rather than have a weekly parade of guest hosts, identify three or four already-proven names and have them take over for monthlong stretches.

Most importantly, Sony should commit to maximum transparency, letting the world know ahead of time how it will choose and who will be involved in making the call. I know that’s not how things usually work in Hollywood casting, but Jeopardy! really isn’t just another game show. Sony and Richards have done serious damage to one of the most popular programs on American TV, and yes, one of the studio’s most important assets. They need to work overtime to make things right.

Mosko oversaw Sony’s TV division from 2000 to 2016. An icon of the game-show industry, Friedman began producing Wheel of Fortune in 1995 and Jeopardy! in 1997. He was promoted to executive producer of both in 2000 and retired in 2020. The breezeway between the sets of Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune bear his name. While Mosko had a lot on his plate at Sony, folks around Hollywood often joked he spent half his time worrying about three things: Seinfeld, the studio’s soaps (Days of Our Lives and The Young and the Restless), and game shows Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. Vinciquerra and Hopkins were colleagues at Fox, and before joining Sony, Hopkins was CEO of Hulu. The global media conglomerate controls the rights to most of the English-speaking world’s major game-show formats. (Sony is arguably a close second.) They didn’t even have the knowledge Hopkins gained during his roughly three-year tenure at Sony, because he left the to run Prime Video and Amazon Studios before the hunt for a Trebek replacement began in earnest.
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