As JEOPARDY! winds down the 38th season of its current incarnation this week, one that began with controversy and the abrupt firing of host/producer Mike Richards after one tape day, news on the fate of its permanent emcee choice finally broke.
All season long, both Ken Jennings and Mayim Bialik have emceed the show in multiweek blocks, both having emerged as finalists from a string of de facto auditions that took up the 2021 portion of the prior season after longtime host Alex Trebek’s death in late 2020. Jennings, who still holds the show’s all-time record for consecutive wins and winnings as a contestant, had been the seeming heir apparent, initially getting a six-week stint as “guest host” during the episodes that immediately following the last to feature Trebek.
But Sony management, including some newer voices making themselves more prominent after longtime producer Harry Friedman’s departure, were adamant that they should consider a variety of options, including more prominent television personalities than Jennings, whose resume was essentially limited to JEOPARDY! and other less visible game shows. Included among those options was Richards, who had briefly emceed a short-lived revival of Sony stablemate PYRAMID and had a fiscal leg up since he was already attached to the show. After he emerged as the “winner” from the season-long competition, there was quite a bit of consternation from the camps of the various contenders, who all but accused Richards of rigging the competition in his favor, putting forth far better episodes featuring him in audience testing than those of the others.
At the time, there was quite of a lot of finger-pointing and accusations fired off, and I can share that privately I was privy to many different versions of the story. Since I’m not a part of the team myself these days, I can’t give you de facto insider information, But I do know many of those involved, including Richards, and I WILL go on record that whatever Mike may or may not have done was ultimately in line with the uncertainty and behind-the-scenes finagling that was going on, all in the name at maximizing JEOPARDY!’s enormous financial value to Sony. The revelations attached to Richards’ past ultimately made all of this a moot point. Overreaction or not, Mike ultimately lost both jobs, and for now he’s laying low. I have little doubt he’ll resurface eventually; good G-d, if Chris Cuomo can get a second life, Mike should have several remaining.
But all that’s now in the past. The present season has arguably been the show’s greatest triumph yet, one that reinforces the belief that both Friedman and creator Merv Griffin shared that it’s the SHOW, far more than the host, that’s the appeal. According to Sony, its weekly audience is now at 27 million viewers, making it the most-watched entertainment program on broadcast television. (Yes, that factors in five different original episodes a week, and the fact that the preponderance of those viewers do not watch several times a week; that said, thats the way streaming viewership is credited these days, so there’s nothing inaccurate about that).
And the hard reality of the NUMBERS, not the qualitative debate, is that that average viewership rarely wavered significantly for factors other than seasonality. I have also directly heard from enough reliable sources that ongoing qualitative testing of both Jennings and Bialik revealed pockets of support for each–an educated guess is that Bialik is preferred more by women, relatively younger viewerrs and general TV fans, and Jennings is the preference of game show fans, men, and viewers closer to my age.
What is indisputable is that this season has been blessed with runs of several strong and media-savvy champions, including Matt Amodio, Amy Schneider and Mattea Roach, and a host of innovations instituted by new czar Michael Davies, including a daily “box score” that recaps the game like a sports event. Expanding upon that, effective next Monday the website will offer a “condensed game”, a three-minute highlight reel much like what one can see on a sports league site. Davies will also be one of several producers who will helm a weekly “Inside Jeopardy!” podcast that will further educate the passionate fan about the nuances of the show. And let’s not forget there are several milestones ahead. Including the previously produced versions of the show, 2022 is the show’s 50th production year. 2023-24 will see the show’s 40th season of its current incarnation and its 60th year since the first version premiered in 1964.
So all that said, the choice of host, for as headline-making as it may be, ultimately has proven to be much ado about nothing, When you have this much going for you, why bother making a choice?
So that’s indeed what happened–yep, we buried the lead (though, come on, we DID give it away in the headline!!). Both Jennings and Bialik will continue as hosts, splitting the season down the middle, with Ken hosting the daily version until January, then handing off to Mayim after she finishes the majority of her work on her CALL ME KAT sitcom. Mayim will helm a primetime CELEBRITY JEOPARDY that will air weekly on Sunday nights on ABC in the fall, so she will still have a presence. With several other tournaments planned for later in the year, one could see both hosts having a year-long presence.
Still, if Season 38 has any lasting legacy, it’s the reinforcement that so long as the host isn’t a distraction, the show is the hook. Arguably, it took more than one person to replace Trebek, and Davies is blessed with having the option to NOT make a decision.
Except in this case:
Keep him away, please.
Until next time…