Questions and Answers On Truths, Near-Truths and McNear Truths

This was supposed to have been a “best of” musing that harkened back to the summer day when Sony announced that Pat Sajak, who has been known to have harbored more than a few unpopular views in his personal life, was stepping down after more than four decades as host of WHEEL OF FORTUNE. It took less than a month for Sony to decide to bite the financial bullet and take the safe route to bring in Ryan Seacrest as host, a little longer to decide to consent to incumbent co-host Vanna White’s demands for a commensurate raise to maintain continuity.

Perhaps this relatively quick process was because they may have learned something from the self-inflicted complications of what they endured from what was the drawn-out process of selecting the successor to their somewhat more profitable and higher-rated companion show, JEOPARDY!, after the passing of longtime emcee Alex Trebek.

Or perhaps they just didn’t want to give Claire McNear another pulpit to preach from.

McNear, for the uninitated, is described as a sports and culture reporter for THE RINGER, the brainchild of Bill Simmons, a one-time ESPN and HBO talent who grew tired of the corporate world that picked apart and often attempted to overrule the strong, informed opinions he and others who contributed to his GRANTLAND site championed, effectively taking that purpose independent, and building a hugely profitable and popular site that is now supported and buttressed by Spotify.

Full disclosure: I’m as evangelical a supporter of Simmons and his contributors as almost anyone, because they more often than not have the facts and information at their disposal to win nearly any argument about sports and culture most of us could muster up. And, honestly, it’s one thing when the stakes are whether or not Simmons’ unbridled bias for his hometown Boston teams is justified,  whether or not Joanna Robinson knows more about GAME OF THRONES nuances than anyone on Earth, possibly including its creators, or whether Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald are being slipped anything under the table to promote and laud virtually everything that FX and John Landgraf have said or done. I enjoy such passionate discourse and highly respect their viewpoints, whether they’re shared in print or on their dozens of exceptionally entertaining podcasts.

But Ms. McNear, who immersed herself into the subculture and rabbit hole world of JEOPARDY! fandom when she authored a 2020 book ANSWERS IN THE FORM OF QUESTIONS: A DEFINITIVE HISTORY AND INSIDER’S GUIDE TO JEOPARDY!, has taken that passion and a good deal of what appears to be her own biases to a new level of judgmental journalism that, sorry to say, threw a monkey wrench into my holiday plans.

Her book, now somewhat outdated and readily available in a Kindle edition even I can afford, is a breezy, deep dive into niggly statistics and obsessive details about buzzer speed and Forrest Bounces, and she indeed has spent quite a bit of time with many of the show’s most successful contestants, notably on site during the late 2019 weeks around the taping of the show’s GREATEST OF ALL TIME tournament that served as the high point of and, sadly, one of the codas to the careers of Trebek, who lost his battle with pancreatic cancer days before her book was released, and longtime showrunner Harry Friedman, who had by then announced his retirement after a quarter-century of leading both JEOPARDY! and WHEEL. Despite her claims to the contrary, it’s quite clear that McNear is a fan and as capable of handling herself in that world as any self-professed “normy”.

But Trebek’s death, and the ensuing quixotic and politically charged process that ensued as a pandemic-compromised Sony, with numerous other executive positions including Friedman’s in transition, gave McNear a new opportunity to stay connected to the show. And as she related to THE NEW YORK TIMES’ Julia Jacobs in 2021, she developed some extremely strong views about what role she should play in the process:

As I had started to write about “Jeopardy!” more and watch it more seriously, I learned more about the world. I met the fans; I met the people who make the show. And I kept hearing things from people close to the show: that the host-search process might not have been as aboveboard as the way that it was being described publicly, and a number of staff members had fairly grave concerns about him. I wanted to know more about his past and his genesis as a television personality because he had been really open about the fact that, in addition to producing, he wanted to host.

As many of you reading this know, McNear then spent the next nine months utilizing the same sort of rabbit-hole digging that many of her RINGER counterparts reference as “half-assed internet research” to dig up all she could on newly installed showrunner Mike Richards, who had emerged from the selection process as the choice to succeed Trebek. Indeed, the coda chapter to her book references many of the names and the procedures that were dictated by upper Sony management to draw out the replacement search process.

Given her attention to detail, I would suspect she was aware that Richards’ aspirations were encouraged by many of those in upper management, now newly emboldened to make a mark on a show that delivers a reported $80 million a year to Sony’s bottom line, far more than even many SPIDER-MAN movies have been contributing of late. That the thought of employing Richards as both host and executive producer, not unprecedented in TV (indeed, JEOPARDY! creator Merv Griffin did just that with his eponymous syndicated talk show), was seen as a way to optimize those profits.

I would suspect she would have asked questions about the focus groups she had clearly heard about from her “sources”. Perhaps some of the “whys” that, contrary to the online campaigns for the likes of Levar Burton and Sony’s obsession with celebrity clickbait choices like Aaron Rodgers and Mehmet Oz, Richards and Mayim Bialik tested as well as they did. In Bialik’s case, there was little separation noted between her as a personality and her longtime BIG BANG THEORY role as Amy Farrah Fowler. In Richards’ case, strictly as an emcee, he was adequate and polished. As someone who employed him as host of GSN’s PYRAMID, a show he dreamed of hosting as he personally idolized its longtime host Dick Clark (who ironically had just passed away shortly before Richards’ short-lived version was produced), I dare say I know his strengths and weaknesses as well as many who tested him for Sony.

Did Richards perhaps stack the deck in his favor as many of those McNear spoke to insist? That’s debatable. Was that an order than came from him or the directive of those who conducted the research? Also unclear. And, categorically, those vaunted focus groups were only part of the equation.

What McNear did do was listen in vivid detail to 41 obscure podcast episodes where, as she told Jacobs, It became extremely clear to me very quickly that those things were kind of dotted throughout the episode: He uses sexist language; he uses ableist language; he uses ugly slurs and stereotypes. There’s a lot of stuff that we did not transcribe in the story that is in there and paints this broader picture of what “The Price Is Right” was like as a workplace. And he was the co-executive producer at the time — he was the boss, and he was mostly just talking to his employees.

So McNear and THE RINGER elected to make her a champion of cancel culture and published a lengthy and highly promoted piece that eventually succeeded in taking out Richards both as host and producer.

And that’s the last we heard from the self-annointed queen of the JEOPARDY! verse until this week, when she once again, with THE RINGER’s help, dropped another tome about how and why she understands Bialik was released from her co-hosting duties, news that Bialik herself broke on social media just before most people were leaving on holiday that Sony allegedly informed her of that week.

Shame on Sony for allowing talent to break such news ahead of their own release. Especially when someone like McNear is out there who very clearly has a point of view on who she prefers to see as host.

As the intro to her work this week professed when she related how Bialik saw herself as a savior in the wake of the tumult that McNear’s reporting inflamed:

Production screeched to a halt with the season premiere mere weeks away. Already, a full day of taping had been canceled at the last minute, with more tapings the following week likely to meet the same fate. Sony needed episodes in the can and, just as important, something to quiet the worst press cycle in Jeopardy!’s history.

The answer appeared obvious: Mayim Bialik. The actor, after all, had just been announced as Richards’s backup—the host of occasional prime-time specials on ABC and yet-to-be-announced spinoffs, while Richards would take the more prominent role as the host of the daily syndicated edition. So when Bialik, waiting in the hospital while her boyfriend was having hip replacement surgery, told her agent to reach out to Sony, the studio was only too eager to put a deal together to get Bialik to host the daily show as soon as possible.

“From the hospital waiting room, I said to my agent, ‘Please ask how we can help,’” Bialik recalled to Glamour later. “That’s literally what I said. I don’t want to seem opportunistic, but I’m part of this family now.”

Somehow buried below this was the reality check that Ken Jennings had been the incumbent favorite to succeed Trebek, and had stepped up for six consecutive weeks of hosting in the wake of his death—with the full approval of the entire Sony management team, including those above Richards. Ratings were more than decent and, no, it wasn’t completely related to the time of year or the degree of competition as many in the Burton camp continued to insist. Jennings, as the record-setting former champion, is as well-received by the JEOPARDY! community that McNear purportedly ingratiated herself into as anyone.

Not that McNear seems to have accepted all of that. Witness these commentaries within her “narrative”:

According to a source close to production, Bialik was ultimately outshined in the role by Ken Jennings, the storied Jeopardy! contestant who was initially brought in to cohost only as a stopgap measure, filling in while Bialik was busy filming the Fox sitcom Call Me Kat.

When Bialik was named a host of Jeopardy!, the selection fit a certain obvious logic. The actor was widely known for her roles on the sitcoms Blossom and The Big Bang Theory, and she had drawn praise for a two-week stint guest hosting the quiz show after Trebek’s 2020 death. She also holds a PhD in neuroscience, brainy laurels that fit well with Jeopardy!’s brand. After Richards stepped down, first as host and then as executive producer, on the heels of reporting by The Ringer and other outlets that sparked concerns about his past and the integrity of the host search, she seemed like a natural choice to fill the void and bring stability.

If you come away from that believing McNear may not have had a personal preference, then I invite you to explain your logic behind that.

To McNear’s credit, she then does detail the fact that it was Bialik’s own strong viewpoints that may have been her undoing. Most notably, her solidarity support of the WGA where she refused to cross picket lines toward the end of the 2022-23 production season. As she accurately detailed:

Sources close to the show say this stand was not exactly what it seemed. Jeopardy! and other game shows are guided by a distinct set of union provisions known as the Network Television Code, meaning that while Jeopardy!’s writers are members of the WGA and thus were part of the strike—many were prominent figures on picket lines in Los Angeles and New York—the rest of the staff and crew were not. SAG-AFTRA—which began its own strike in July and of which Bialik and Jennings are both members—explicitly advises non-striking members to continue to work per the terms of their contracts; to do otherwise can weaken the union’s negotiating power because it indicates that members might not follow the letter of the contract.

There was also a semi-recent precedent at Jeopardy!: During the 2007-08 writers strike, Trebek hosted throughout the work stoppage. Both then and during this year’s strike, the quiz show used only clues written before the writers decamped.

On December 18, Puck’s Matthew Belloni reported that Bialik’s decision to step back from hosting during the writers strike left Jeopardy! executive producer Michael Davies and Sony executive vice president of game shows Suzanne Prete “furious.” The WGA strike concluded in September, with SAG-AFTRA following in November, and Bialik still did not return to the show.

Damn straight. Especially since Jennings has stepped up his game and, once again, ratings of his shows have been as strong as Bialik’s. So why should Sony continue to carry an extra salary?

McNear also details how Bialik has been outspoken on social media about numerous controversial topics. She also reminds that Jennings was outed just before he began his first interim stint for several insensitive tweets dredged up from long ago, which he immediately and pubilcly apologized for.

Jennings continued to work. Bialik was actually encouraged to work. Pat Sajak has been associated with a number of folks who have some extremely controversial views of their own. He’s leaving on his own terms.

I’m honestly curious, Ms. McNear. Why do you so passionately believe Mike Richards wasn’t entitled to the same opportunity after he apologized to his Sony staff, most of whom weren’t those he worked with at Fremantle when he allegedly fostered the toxic work environment that Fremantle chose not to deal with?

Not that it would matter to you, while, as you yourself related to Jacobs, were curling up in Washington with your fiance watching cable for the first time in years realizing you could tape (DVR?) the show every night, your cause celebre lumped Richards in with the same class of behavior as executives who physically and emotionally abused their underlings?

Can you look Richards’ wife and children in the eye and say “What your daddy did is so reprehensible he shouldn’t be allowed to earn a living”?

Not that any of us have to run a benefit for him anytime soon. But tell me, Ms. McNear, if your “obvious choice” to succeed Trebek was allowed a mulligan, why wasn’t Richards?

I don’t support what Richards said years ago one bit. And, I strongly suspect at this point, neither would he.

I just don’t get, and never will, what your generation seems to think is a worthy of a victory lap when you somehow think that completely ruining someone else’s opportunity to earn a living, particularly if they’re what is perceived to be part of an entitled and protected segment of humanity, is justified.

And much as I admire the attitude of THE RINGER-verse, most of your intrepid colleagues at least seem to understand and respect the complications and realities of how business decisions are made. But unless you’ve actually been a corporate executive, I’m not sure you can truly know what matters most. And, more than ever, sorry to say, numbers mean far more than words. Especially when they’re JUST WORDS.

And I can’t help but wonder: Are you a fan (or perhaps a personal friend) of Bialik? Or are you someone who relates strongly to the fictional character Amy Farrah Fowler?

That’s something I wish more focus group participants had been asked. Although it might have given you a somewhat smaller soapbox to preach from had those results been determined and factored in.

I’m sure you know (or at least are resourceful enough to Google) that Mayim in Hebrew translates to “water”.

That’s what all of this should be at the point. As in under the bridge.

Jennings was the original choice. Sony management chose to disrupt that. Bialik got her chance. A year’s worth of quantitative data supports she was a non-factor. After three long years we’re back to where experienced minds thought we should have been in the first place.

Now can we all please move on to 2024 and maybe you can start to, as your RINGER biography purports, focus on Malort and seasickness again?

Until next time…

 

 

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