“I'll take ‘The Host With The Most” for $500.”
And the answer is:
“Alex Trebek's replacement.”
And the answer is:
“What is we still don't know.'”
Somehow nine months after the passing of Trebek – easily the longest stunt in TV history – the most popular game show in America is still without a permanent host.
It started as a pretty cool idea, because after all, you don't just replace an iconic host like Trebek the next day. In fact, many Jeopardy fans felt Trebek was irreplaceable. So, the idea was to create a process, a stunt. Book a bunch of celebrity guest hosts, gauge audience reactions from the ratings, social media, and audience research, and then make a decision.
Not a bad stunt, right? Except that it has now officially turned into a debacle for the Jeopardy team, mostly due to bad planning and poor stunt architecture.
It's possible the show's producers knew way back in the beginning the identity of their final choice to take over for Trebek – Mike Richards. But rather than appoint an unknown for Trebek's gig, they milked the vacancy for all the ratings, buzz, and profits a true search would generate. Or it's also possible they didn't know the outcome, but reasoned Trebek's replacement would emerge among the many wannabes, becoming obvious as fans voted.
I wrote a blog about this “In search of a new ‘Jeopardy' host” saga back in early February – about 90 days after Trebek's death. At the time, I conjectured that given how many major celebrities were already queued for a guest shot on Jeopardy, the stunt could go on for a long time.
But seven months?
At first, the stunt seemed smart. Trebek had a well-deserved legacy of guiding the Jeopardy mother ship, and bringing his own unique personality to the mix. But that said, the gig is not a heavy lift, it pays well, and there's plenty of job security for the right host, as Trebek proved. Talk about job security – Trebek owned the role for 37 years. Hosting Jeopardy is a plum job, one of the few appointment-setting shows left on broadcast television. Sure, you can DVR it, but most people catch it in real time.
That explains why so many big names gave it a try, including former all-time champ, Ken Jennings, the NFL's Aaron Rodgers, journalist/hosts Robin Roberts, George Stephanopoulos, and Anderson Cooper. During these last seven months, an astonishing 16 guest hosts stood behind Trebek's lectern, reading all those answers, and interviewing contestants.
And in the end, it was veteran game show executive Richards who somehow bested all the better-known competitors. Mayim Bialik seemed to get the consolation prize, hosting prime time specials. Her choice seemed like a way to give a female host a secondary prize in an historical male dominated role. Richards turned out to be popular for an unknown, but some felt he might have been the heir apparent all along.
There was no shortage of drama. A groundswell of support formed for LeVar Burton – who didn't get his guest host opportunity until July – generated lots of “socializing” online. And the question of whether a woman could be chosen clearly got people talking. Many also liked the idea of all-time Jeopardy champ, Ken Jennings, grabbing the big prize as Trebeck's replacement.
But the drama ended earlier this month when Richards was finally given the role, with Bialik playing backup.
And that's when all hell broke loose and the stunt fell apart. As you more than likely have heard by now, a simple search of Richards' media activities – especially podcasts, which endure forever – revealed a series of offensive statements about women and Jews. The Randumb Show was actually a podcast hosted by Richards, so it wasn't a matter of being victimized during a “gotcha” moment by a nasty host.
That's when things sped up. After seven months of searching, Richards was forced to step down after holding Trebek's gig for one day. He will continue as Executive Producer of the still hostless Jeopardy.
But did the stunt work? It obviously kept the show and intrigue going throughout 2021 – not a bad accomplishment. But were fans engaged?
I ran a simple Google Trends report on Jeopardy – a handy tool that plots web searches over time. And for contrast, I compared what's been going on at Jeopardy with activity over at its sister show, Wheel of Fortune, where it's basically the same show, night after night:
Activity peaked last November when Trebek passed away. You can see interest in how it subsided, but pick up again in January when the parade of guest hosts took over. Some created genuine peaks of interest. Still, there were times when Wheel came very close to matching Jeopardy‘s level of interest, despite absolutely nothing going on with Pat Sajak, Vanna White, or the show itself.
By June, the momentum for Jeopardy began to cool. Now some of this may have been due, of course, to the COVID comeback, in full bloom at that time, or summer vacations. But the through-line measured by search activity reveals the air was out of the balloon.
That's when the search mercifully ended last week, Richards was finally named the heir to the Trebek throne, and the taping of new shows began.
Until the whole thing blew up, of course.
Radio has had its share of stunts – brilliant ones and disasters. After thinking about this bizarre chapter where one of the most successful franchises in TV history has been gutted by a stunt gone bad, I've listed seven helpful stunt tips – what to do, and as importantly, what not to do when planning a stunt.
- Make sure people care – For the Jeopardy team, that was an easy box to check. Trebek was a revered host, a treasure. Fans of the show were invested in his replacement. But there was a lot on the line, and there's only so long they will buy into a show's cause.
- Don't stunt too long – People may, in fact, care about the stunt and its outcome, but for seven months? Even with fascinating guest hosts, Jeopardy took too long to resolve the stunt.
- Give fans a voice – Clearly, the show's P1s had opinions. The campaign to get Burton named (obviously futile) is still simmering on social media. But at no point did fans have the chance to vote on their favorite. Like MLB's “All-Star Game,” they wouldn't have to necessarily get the final say. But by including millions of fans in the mix, the Jeopardy team could have generated gobs of revenue, not to mention aggregating one of the greatest email databases ever.
- Know how it will end – This is one of the first rules of stunting. These contrivances need a beginning, a middle, and an end. And that last part – the conclusion – needs to satisfy as many stakeholders – the producers, the fans, the sponsors, and the ratings – as possible. Apparently, the Jeopardy team didn't have that last part down, or they didn't…
- Do the homework – With so much on the line, an immensely popular show, a long stunt, and a passionate fan base, prep needed to be done on the eventual winner – in this case, Richards. It was one thing for the eventual decider (Richards) to pick himself. But when no one bothered to vet him, it's a dumpster fire of a stunt. BTW, he had a history of questionable dealings with women while overseeing The Price Is Right, so there were good reasons to content check Richards's podcast.
- Visualize what could possibly go wrong – And then address it. At their essence, this is what program directors (and executive producers) are paid to do: imagine where things could go off the rails. One of my gifts as PD was reviewing every scenario – contests, stunts, events – to make sure they didn't get anyone in trouble or hurt, or jeopardize (sorry) the station license.
- Clean it up…fast – No matter your skill set and smarts, you can't control everything. There are acts of God – like weather or illness or outside events – that can scuttle and overshadow stunts and events. So when things turn upside-down, you've got to move swiftly but wisely, and make things right for everyone involved. The days keep running on, and the best Richards and his team can do is to make Mayim Bialik the “interim” host of the show. Seriously? This is the moment. Give the job to her permanently. Or see if LeVar Burton will still take it. And consider this: Mike Richards is still the EP of Jeopardy.
As always, we can learn from the examples – good, bad, and train wrecks – of others. And sadly, a show with an amazing history and a beloved host, is being dragged through the mud.
— kimmie c (@kimbasplace) August 24, 2021
At the end of all this, will anyone really care?
Stay tuned, I guess.
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