Let Mike Be Like Mike. Not Your Distant Perception.

So my former Sony colleague Mike Richards is back in the news cycle, courtesy of a PEOPLE Magazine “exclusive” released earlier this week and penned by the apropriately monickered Gillian Telling, who at last is telling Richards’ side of stories that have dominated the media news and yes, click-bait worlds pretty much since Richards took on a far more public role than he had for the first couple of decades of his career.

In the article, Richards finally is accepting and taking the chance to tell anyone who is capable of digesting it what actually happened to his life and career, particularly in 2021 when he moved from being the relatively new executive producer of the revered quiz show JEOPARDY! (as well as its sister show, WHEEL OF FORTUNE) to one of the many guest hosts the show trotted out in their quest to replace the beloved Alex Trebek, who died of pancreatic cancer the previous November after a valiant and very public fight against the disease, to his official replacement, beating out who most fans saw as far more qualified.  Not just Ken Jennings, the show’s current host, but the likes of Mayim Bialik, Katie Couric, Joe Buck and the internet’s darling, LeVar Burton.

An awful lot of griping and conspiracy theories emerged when the far less well-known Richards was given the job, and in the summer weeks leading up to his first taping it sent many intrepid folks scurrying around cyberspace trying to figure out how and why this happened.  One such folk just happened to be a self-proclaimed JEOPARDY! expert named Claire McNear, and I covered her findings and motivation extensively in a post at the end of last year.  It was dropped smack in the middle of what was supposed to be a year-end “best of” reprise, so perhaps you missed it.  You can read what was written then if you choose; I certainly hope you will.  It will spare me the need to reiterate how galling I found McNear’s agendas to be, and how she got yet another chance to remind her readers of her personal preferences for her adopted show of choice in the wake of Bialik’s attempts to control the narrative of her dismissal as Jennings’ part-time co-host, and another chance for McNear to dredge up long-dormant news as she did when she reported on Richards’ history in 2021.

Richards addressed both issues in his sit-down with Telling.  He is detailed about the entire host search process, including the ways choices were made in the testing, which I can attest is absolute veracity given both my connections to those conducting it and my history with the business alliances Sony management had for years which contributed mightily to the quality of the results it generated.  In Richards’ words:

Richards says testing guest hosts would be a good way for them to understand who the Jeopardy! audience was a little bit better, especially since they were considering shaking things up a little bit.

“We could find out if they liked a Katie Couric-type, or maybe Anderson Cooper, or Mayim Bialik,” Richards says, adding that he assumed they’d automatically go with current host Ken Jennings.

Instead, he says, a company who specialized in focus groups was brought in to help make the decision.

I’ve already gone on record with my issues with the choice of the company that was made, one that now has deeper tentacles in finding on-air news talent and creating white papers on emerging business opportunities than their outdated ways to conduct qualitative research, particularly when they were not given specific enough direction to control for extraneous variables, such as the conflating of Bialik’s qualifications as herself and not her BIG BANG THEORY persona that she was far better known for.  But, hey, this is Mike’s moment, so let him continue:

Because Richards had had on-air experience hosting himself, like with the reality show Beauty & the Geek, New Year’s Rocking Eve in 2005 (when he worked for Dick Clark Productions), as well as Million Dollar Pyramid (sorry, Gillian, that was a pilot which he had no part of;  his version was a far more watered down version simplistically titled THE PYRAMID) and Divided on GSN, he says he was thrown into the mix of guest hosts.

He says the testing group said he did well — but when he was offered the job, he couldn’t believe it.

“No one was more surprised than me,” he says. “They told me, ‘We’d like you to be the host of the syndicated version of Jeopardy!’ I paused, and said, ‘Oh wow. Thank you. What’s the media plan?’ Because I was very concerned that this was going to be scrutinized as closely as a Presidential election. There was widespread belief that whoever got the job first wouldn’t make it.”

He wasn’t wrong. “Everyone was so angry because it looked like I had gone into a room and picked myself,” he explains. “And that’s not what happens in television, but I understood that that’s what the outward appearances were.”

And in the wake of that, McNear’s crusading narrative took its toll.  Telling recaps the impact and end results:

(T)he anti-defamation league called for an investigation into Richards after an article on Ringer.com was published, noting that Richards had said disparaging things about marginalized communities while hosting his podcast The Randumb Show in 2014.  At the time, Richards offered a public apology, telling PEOPLE in a statement: “It is humbling to confront a terribly embarrassing moment of misjudgment, thoughtlessness, and insensitivity from nearly a decade ago. Looking back now, there is no excuse, of course, for the comments I made on this podcast and I am deeply sorry.” 

At the same time, it also came to light that while he was executive producer at The Price Is Right, he had been named in former wrongful termination and discrimination lawsuits filed by the show’s models. He says he fully cooperated with the ADL investigations. “I told them, I’ll answer anything. I’m an open book, proud of what I’ve done. I’m proud of my track record as a boss,” he recalls. He adds, “It was insinuated that I had been personally sued for sexual harassment. I never had, but that didn’t matter.” (Richards was ultimately dropped from the suit.)  The damage was done. Richards left his position at Jeopardy!, and says the fallout was both painful and frightening when it came to the hate he and his family received. He notes that it was COVID, the country was divided over everything from politics to vaccines, and that he definitely bore the brunt of many people’s anger. He also says that a lot of what was written about him was half-true, or taken out of context. “But by then everyone was like, ‘Oh he’s just a horrible person.'” He adds, “It was the price you pay for getting thrust into the zeitgeist in a very inopportune moment.”

I can’t speak to the allegations of his behavior at PRICE because I never worked for Fremantle.  What I do know is that he was never convicted of the charges that were filed, and he left Fremantle for Sony on his own timetable.  And Sony had every opportunity to perform due diligence on what was clearly a significant hire, one that Richards was fully qualified for based on his track record at successfully producing two franchise series simultaneously and achieving cost savings in the process–the exact task he was brought it for which Harry Friedman did so brilliantly for decades with WHEEL and JEOPARDY.

And I do know many of those who were among the scant few that actually listened to those obscure podcasts; some of them were among his support team at Sony.  Yes, a couple could be considered representaives of “margianailzed communities”.  I knew those podcasts existed; I was among the few who had heard a couple of them.  None of them voiced any concerns even privately, and I strongly suspect had far more tolerance than did Claire McNear.

But good news now abounds.  Richards, per Telling, is pursuing new work, and believes it’s time for him to employ the same tools that others involved have already done–convey through media the impact that agenda journalism and polarized opinions have on actual lives:

Since leaving the show as both host and executive producer, Richards says he’s mostly spent time with his family. “I did spend a lot of time reflecting on everything that had happened,” he shares. “I mean, it was quite a firestorm that engulfed my family.”

As for why he’s speaking out about it now, two years after it happened, he says he’s come to terms with being canceled — and is hoping for more open discourse moving forward.  “Why I am talking now is that I feel like I can be a force for good as far as having open, honest conversations,” he says. “We can all disagree about a lot of things. We can disagree about politics, we can disagree about who hosts Jeopardy!. We can disagree about liking a final Jeopardy! clue. And we should. But I felt like there was a this rush to judgment, and a lot of people got joy in saying, ‘I got you.'”

And it’s high time Richards gets a chance to experience the same sort of happy endings just about everyone else embroiled in this have had.  PRICE is thriving; the executives and talent he trained are capably running the show that is still tops in daytime in season 52.  The Sony executive who actually was responsible for the host selection process and both Richards’ hiring and firing was just promoted.  Claire McNear is still gainfully employed and ready to take on anything the RINGER-verse might throw her way.

Maybe since she’s such a JEOPARDY! fangirl she should pick up the scent of the uberfans who are now castigating another Michael–current executive producer Davies–who has somehow chosen to continue the current season’s nonstop array of tournaments–a necessary evil in the wake of the summer’s strikes now thankfully a distant memory–even past the Tournament of Champions that was delayed for months and will continue into next month with the so-called JIT–the Jeopardy! Invitational Tournament that brings back former favorites even dating back to the legendary Chuck Forrest.  The name Lucas Partridge continues to be intoned by some particularly distressed online trolls; he was the last “regular” JEOPARDY! champion whose third win occurred more than seven months ago.

But JEOPARDY!’s ratings, both in syndication and prime time, are as strong as ever as it heads into its 60th overall year, and yes, even the most disgruntled fans still watch.  They even watch as Davies continues to borrow from his personal world of sport (he’s British; that’s how they say it) fandom and introduce elements of football tables, college basketball brackets and box scores into the show’s narrative.  Davies is doing great, thank you, and unlike some of his fellow Sony executives he is a bit less influenced by online discourse in setting a path that yields results.

Every Mike should be allowed to be like Mike.  Especially when all they’re trying to do is live their lives–just like their detractors.

Until next time…

 

 

 

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