Jeopardy, a Place Where Facts Used to Matter

The mistakes the show made in its attempts to replace Alex Trebek have doubled, for fans, as betrayals.

Jeopardy board
In elevating its own executive producer, Mike Richards, to host the show, "Jeopardy" made a big wager—and lost. (Getty; The Atlantic)

Every once in a while, after a commercial break on Jeopardy, Alex Trebek would make an announcement: The judges, he’d say, had done more research. Having consulted an atlas, an encyclopedia, or Google, they’d realized that their initial assessment of a contestant’s answer had been wrong. They would now make things right. In an instant, the dollar-based score on the affected contestant’s podium would change. And then the show, its error thus corrected, would go on.

Moments like that are part of the nerdy magic of Jeopardy—an element of why the series works, for many of its fans, not just as a quiz show but as a ritual. The show cares, obsessively, about the facts of the world. It humbles itself, and its contestants, before their demands. It turns them into sources of communion. On Jeopardy, the old adage is lived every day: Comment is free, but facts are sacred.

But not all of the world’s facts have mattered to the show, apparently. Over the past several months, following Trebek’s death late last year, Jeopardy has been waging a public search for the host’s successor. Last week, Sony Pictures Television, which produces Jeopardy, announced the conclusion of that effort: Mike Richards, the show’s executive producer, would be its new host. Yesterday, though, that decision was reversed. Richards announced his resignation from the position. He will remain as Jeopardy’s executive producer, Sony has said.

The whiplash might seem to be fitting for a show that has been, over the years, so willing to reverse its own rulings. The difference here is that the change was the result not of the show’s respect for facts, but of its disregard for them. Richards’s recusal follows the publication of a scathing investigation from The Ringer, which did the basic due diligence that Jeopardy itself had seemingly failed to do. The story reported on remarks Richards had made on his podcast, The Randumb Show, from 2013 to 2014—a pattern of casual comments that revealed, in turn, a pattern of casual derision of other people. He joked about women’s appearances, particularly their weight. He made fun of unhoused people. “Ix-nay on the ose-nay,” he quipped at one point, in response to a comment about large noses. “She’s not an ew-Jay.”

The reporting was a further indictment of Richards, who apologized for his words, saying, in part, “Looking back now, there is no excuse, of course, for the comments I made on this podcast and I am deeply sorry.” But the reporting was an indictment, too, of the process that had elevated Richards above so many other potential new hosts. That system took the thing that makes Jeopardy, for so many people, so important and beloved—its abiding conviction that facts are sacred—and betrayed it.

The procedure had the sheen of studiousness to it. Sony, in its public messaging on the matter, made great fanfare of the idea that it would be using research and analytics in its effort to find Trebek’s successor. Part of that process was the one that has played out over the past several months. For stretches that have typically lasted two weeks, people from varied areas of the media, sports and journalism and sitcoms, have served as guest hosts—among them LeVar Burton, Aaron Rodgers, Robin Roberts, Savannah Guthrie, and Mayim Bialik. (Bialik was ultimately named as a host for Jeopardy’s prime-time tournaments, special episodes that will include a college tournament set to air next year, along with other spin-offs.)

The generous view of that approach was that it made for an exceptionally public audition—an illusion of transparency for a show premised on the notion that facts belong to everyone. And the guest-hosted episodes were often delightful: Many of the hosts seemed not just happy, but giddy, to be there. They talked about what the show had meant to them, as viewers and fans. But the transparency, it seems, went only so far. The less obvious element of the guest-host process, as The Ringer’s Claire McNear reported this week, was that Richards, as Jeopardy’s executive producer, was in a position to influence it—even as he had officially recused himself from it once he, too, was under consideration to replace Trebek.

Again and again, in McNear’s reporting, the system that was presented as an embodiment of Jeopardy’s values—facts, fairness, a meritocracy in miniature—is revealed to be the opposite. Ken Jennings, Jeopardy’s most famous former contestant and a regular on the show’s various tournaments, was a favorite to replace Trebek. (Trebek had left his cuff links as a gift for Jennings in his dressing room.) But Richards reportedly used a minor scheduling conflict to limit Jennings’s participation in the contest. Another candidate, LeVar Burton—the beloved former host of Reading Rainbow and a fan favorite—was given just a week’s worth of episodes, filmed in the space of a single tape day, compared with the two weeks afforded to most of the other candidates. And those episodes aired during the Summer Olympics, leading some NBC affiliate stations to preempt them—and leading, in turn, to lower ratings for Burton’s short run than other guest hosts earned.

Burton had his audition; did he have the same audition as the other potential new hosts? No. And the wide net that the guest-host process seemed to cast was narrow in other ways as well. Trebek, in a July 2018 interview, had named Laura Coates, the CNN legal analyst, as one of his potential replacements; she had professed enthusiasm at the prospect. (Coates and her family are Jeopardy fans.) But Coates was not one of the many people who guest-hosted the show.

And so Jeopardy, which will interrupt its own proceedings to correct a fact, failed to do basic research about the most elemental question before it. When it came to Richards, reporters did the work Sony itself should have done. The remaining second-string host, Bialik, has supported COVID-19 vaccines but also has a well-known history of vaccine skepticism. On the show, she will arbitrate scientific facts while having publicly doubted the workings of science. For another series, those disconnects might read as errors in casting. For Jeopardy, they read as betrayals of confidence. The show, this deeply nerdy little trivia game, is also a suggestion of the country’s fondest myths. In its world, one’s race, one’s gender, one’s class, one’s age, one’s appearance, one’s sexual orientation, one’s sense of personal style—these are all effectively irrelevant. All that matters, on Jeopardy’s stage, is what you know, and how willing you are to share that knowledge. Facts are stubborn things. Jeopardy understood that, until it didn’t.