Opinions, Column

How Jeopardy! Failed Alex Trebek

December 2020 marked the end of one of the most unpredictable years to date. Just a month before marked the end of an iconic era of the beloved game show Jeopardy! Alex Trebek ended a difficult battle of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer that November, sparking both feelings of heartache and anxiety from the Jeopardy! community. Millions of people worldwide who grew up with Trebek on the TV every weekday night from 7 to 7:30 p.m. EST faced uncertainty for the show’s future. 

When my third grade teacher hyped up the famous Jeopardy! battle against Ken Jennings and the computer system Watson it was the first time my mind registered the sheer advancement of modern technology. The following decade was defined by casual watching and utter amazement at the knowledge of the contestants on the show. Eventually that amazement grew into a comforting habit. Austin Rogers, who went onto a 12-game streak on the show in 2017, casually earning $411,000 with goofy moves and quips galore, sealed the deal for my love for the show. 

When the news came of Trebek’s death, I cried for days. It felt as if I had lost my own grandfather. But more importantly, I was nervous that the sanctity of the show would be ruined by money-hungry producers who would select someone completely wrong for the role of host. Trebek left quite a legacy on the Jeopardy! stage. The love, care, and attention Trebek put into the show is what made it not just successful, but also unique and comforting. 

Jeopardy! ratings steadily increased the past four decades, and for these 10.4 million viewers, the question of who would fill Trebek’s shoes was extremely important. This same question also stared Sony Pictures Studios in the face. The executive producer at the time, Mike Richards, had a lot at stake. The next host needed to be able to capture the same aura and charm that Trebek brought to the show without impeding the game play. When the list of potential candidates eventually came out all that was missing was a stamp of approval from the people who mattered most: the viewers. 

The first episode to air after Trebek’s death was far more emotional than any other episode before. Fans were greeted by Richards, who asked us all to enjoy the show as it was originally filmed, because that’s what Trebek would have wanted. Trebek always placed the game, and the love people had for it, before himself. Since the season was filmed before Trebek’s death, it was hard to see Trebek talking and interacting with the contestants while constantly reminding ourselves that after the end of this season, we will never see him again. Needless to say, the written Jeopardy! questions were constantly blurred up by tears.  

The list of temporary hosts that followed was extensive: Jennings, Richards, Katie Couric,  Mehmet Oz, Aaron Rodgers, Anderson Cooper, Bill Whitaker, Buzzy Cohen, Mayim Bialik, Savannah Guthrie, Sanjay Gupta, George Stephanopoulos, Robin Roberts, LeVar Burton, David Faber, and Joe Buck. This list was extensive and mostly composed of well-known celebrities or people with experience on air. 

In the coming six months, fans of the show critiqued the variety of hosts on several factors: onscreen charm, pacing of clues, delivery of inter-question comments, interaction with contestants, etc. Particularly notable was the conversation occurring on Twitter and Reddit. While the subreddit r/Jeopardy discussed the hosts in weekly forums, the overall consensus of the fanbase was that Jennings ought to host the show. Jennings was a crowd favorite and had grown close with Trebek after his 74-game winning streak as a contestant. It made sense that the man who would come to voice Trebek’s memoir, The Answer Is…, should also replace him in his role as host. It almost seemed that it was Trebek’s way of gently suggesting that his successor be Jennings. 

So it came as a slap in the face to the entire Jeopardy! community when Richards announced that the hosts had been selected—himself for the syndicated, or daily, version of Jeopardy! and Bialik for the prime-time specials.

 Bialik may be more popular overall as a result of her role in the Big Bang Theory, but fans critiqued her rather “performative” demeanor that took people “a bit out of the game,” as one Redditor reflected. It seemed as though Bialik was irrelevant to the show beforehand and does not embody the qualities needed for the show now. The only logical reason for hiring Bialik against the wishes of the fan base would be the potential of her bringing her own fan base to Jeopardy! She was not selected for the fans, but for the potential future fans. 

Richards faced even more controversy to the point of being begged by fans to step down. Perhaps being the messenger of bad news had a role in it, but other factors were largely responsible as well. First, he has gotten himself in some troubling situations several times, including anti-semetic remarks investigated by the Anti-Defamation League and lawsuits filed against him for work on other shows. Second, he was clearly involved in the selection process, as he was executive producer of the show at the time, and it seemed unfair for him to pick himself. Fans spoke out until finally he stepped down as host in August 2021 and eventually as executive producer two weeks later. 

Then came Jennings to the rescue, continuing to host the syndicated version of the show in between his role on “The Chase,” a Jeopardy!-esque trivia game show. Now it seems that despite the bitterness fans feel toward Bialik, things have settled down. 

A spark of hope returned with Amy Schneider— the 40 game–winning contestant who appeared on the latest season. After her run on the show Schneider announced during an interview with CNN how much she loves the show and was glad to see it making headlines for the right reasons after a scandalous few months. And more importantly, she said she believes that the rightful host is Jennings. 

Jennings is set to remain host of the daily show until July 2022, but this deadline is quickly approaching. Two whole years after his passing, the company still cannot find a permanent replacement for Trebek and refuses to listen to those who care for the show, the game, and his legacy. Amid the uncertainty of the show over the past two years, it feels clear that this is not how Trebek would have wanted it to go. I can imagine him joking that if he knew about all the controversy that would happen after his death, he simply would have chosen to not go. 

From the beginning, Jeopardy! was about the game and honoring the contestants. Trebek made that clear throughout his life and especially in his memoir. By going through the arduous process of selecting hosts based on the best interest of the show’s revenue, Sony has lost sight of the fans who have supported the show daily—resulting in its initial success. Subsequently, this process has made the already difficult challenge of coping with the loss of a beloved person much more difficult by instigating drama that could have easily been avoided by a ready and able Jennings. While it should never have been solely up to the viewers as to who the new host should be, it should have been up to Trebek to select someone who would honor the past 40 years worth of love fans have felt from every second of the show. 

Featured Graphic by Liz Schwab/ Heights Editor

March 15, 2022