There is so much happening in our world right now that it is easy to overlook – or just miss altogether – some of the human stories that inspire us.
One of them is taking place tonight. And it's more than a story – it's a marvelous saga that has endured for 37 years.
The last episode of Jeopardy! hosted by Alex Trebek airs tonight, ending an amazing run. (By Trebek's choice, he was the show's “host” – not its “star.”)
Now, some of you may be saying, “Wait – didn't Trebek die last November?”
And you would be right. The producers of the show and Trebek himself planned for this moment, focused on their long-time routine of taping new episodes two months in advance.
According to LifeHacker, the last “original” show hosted by Trebek was originally set to air Christmas Day. But apparently, scheduling preemptions scuttled that plan. Instead, Jeopardy! went into reruns on December 21 through January 1. The last of these “new” episodes with Trebek airs tonight.
A lot of careful planning went into this aloha moment for Trebek, stricken with stage 4 pancreatic cancer back in 2019. As sad as that diagnosis was for all involved – especially the venerable host – it gave the Jeopardy! team a window in which to plan for the inevitable end.
And plan they did.
Aside from smart, strategic scheduling (which we can assume led to record-setting ad rates for these final shows), Jeopardy Productions was able to reap the benefits of Trebek's presence a full three months to the day after the host passed away.
Perhaps these are unusual circumstances – a host, an executive producer, and a production team all on the same page. In contrast, so many radio stories featuring heritage talent don't have happy endings.
Most often than not, these departures – voluntary retirements and terminations – aren't especially well-planned – or planned at all. Aside from the obvious lack of financial benefits of clumsily saying good-bye, a beloved host could participate in a great “victory lap.” In too many cases, however, it's the loyal audience often ending up getting dazed and confused.
In fact, too often, hardcore fans end up at best puzzled, and at worst, disillusioned with management or ownership about how such a departure could happen. Consequently, “urban legend” stories pop up like weeds as a result of a poor communications strategy. Most of these stories involve rumors and even conspiracy theories, almost all of which are inaccurate or downright false.
The story in LifeHacker was written by Dr. Elizabeth Yuko, a bioethicist and adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University. Its title – “How to Watch the Last New Episodes of ‘Jeopardy!' Hosted by Alex Trebek” – is something that radio programmers, managers, and owners would love to read about the loss of one of their heritage personalities. It is a fan-centric story that honors the host, the show, and the audience. But as most of us know from our experiences in radio, it doesn't usually work out that way.
Dr. Yuko's story lists several activities Jeopardy! fans might participate in to commemorate Trebek's historic run, including playing a game online with family or friends or becoming involved with The Compassion Project, an education initiative supported by Alex and Jean Trebek. She also provides links for watching Trebek cameos on other TV shows, as well as a site that archives old episodes.
Sadly for fans, it seldom works this way in radio. Management often tries to protect the brand, denying departing personalities a final week's worth of shows – or even a “last show” at all. The thinking is that with an open mic, much damage can be done.
But it is often a lost opportunity when a morning host or night jock “disappears” from the station with no explanation – or worse, a company statement full of legalese so obviously stilted and contrived that it provides no solace for anyone involved. If anything, it just pisses people off.
As a programmer, I never had to administer over a high profile talent departure. But as a consultant, I've been in the room where it happens many, many times. Sometimes I have the opportunity to affect the course of the decision; many other times, the call has already been made, and it's usually more about cleaning up the mess that inevitably happens when a popular personality is unartfully jettisoned from the building.
At the end of the day, it should be about the fans. But typically, they're the least represented. If we were able to put on our X-ray glasses, and look behind the scenes at Jeopardy Productions these past 20-odd months, we'd likely see executive producer Harry Friedman and his team – along with Trebek himself – planning and plotting these last weeks….and even the last days of the host's presence on the show.
Three years ago last month, I was fortunate to attend a special dinner at the NAB in Las Vegas honoring Friedman for his decades with both Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. Trebek, along with Pat Sajak and Vanna White, was in attendance, each honoring the talented executive behind their shows.
The dinner took place at the Wynn, and we were staying at the Encore. During the post-dinner stroll, I found myself walking next to Trebek and his wife.
Trebek overheard my conversation about the award ceremony, and we started a friendly back-and-forth trivia exchange about Tiny Tim (of all people). As you would expect, he was engaged, witty, devilishly funny, and marvelously playing the part of Alex Trebek, who I suspect was the same guy on and off the set.
I have long been a believer in “the empty chair” philosophy, whether you work in content, sales/marketing, or management. That means including fans in every meeting at the station with a symbolic unoccupied seat representing the audience.
As the discussions roil on – and the “should we,” “would we,” “could we” debates rage on – looking over at the chair reserved for a fan of the station and the show makes a difference in the decisions ultimately made as well as the way they are implemented.
When you respect the fans, it helps guide those tough, often squirmy calls that have to be made. And when it comes to escorting heritage talent out the door – whoever's decision it was and however the call was made – there's often a way to handle it that benefits all involved that is smart, thoughtful, and yes, even profitable.
The next big decision for Harry Friedman and Jeopardy! is who will be the next host of the show. (Note I didn't say “Who will replace Alex Trebek?”). Because he and his team will no doubt be consulting the “empty chair” in their strategy room, they'll inevitably make a good call.
(And isn't that the point?)
Thanks to Dave Beasing for the topic, the angle, and the wisdom.