Naked self-interest isn’t just limited to politics. When leaders of any organization—public, private, or government—put themselves ahead of the mission, the mission is imperiled.
Even if the mission is a game show.
Yes, dear reader, we’re going back to Jeopardy!.
After the death of Alex Trebek in 2020, many assumed the hosting duties would go to the other face of Jeopardy!, Ken Jennings. Jennings hosted for a few weeks before executive producer Mike Richards stepped in “to keep the show going” before a series of guest hosts. It was weird. Producers don’t step in front of the camera.
Beginning in March, we watched six months of guest hosts of varying skill and seriousness. Two stood out for their preparation and open lobbying for the permanent role: Aaron Rodgers (the sentimental favorite of every female viewer over 45) and LeVar Burton (the fan, contestant and sentimental favorite, period). Burton was strangely given a last-minute slot to run during the Summer Olympics, ensuring lowest viewership.
Also, Joe Buck was not nearly as bad as everyone thought he would be.
Ultimately, the winner was… the executive producer? On August 11, Sony Pictures Entertainment announced that executive producer Mike Richards would assume hosting duties for the nightly broadcast and Mayim Bialik would host special tournaments. Richards had only been executive producer for 15 months.
And it of course went downhill from there. To any casual observer it looked rigged. To diehard Jeopardy! fans it looked worse. To former Jeopardy! contestants it was an outrage. Jeopardy! contestants aren’t just bright folks who are fast on the signal button. Jeopardy! contestants are tribal, loyal, a bit compulsive and when it comes to the show and the legacy of Alex Trebek, protective in a Mossad-like way.
Executive-producer-turned-host Mike Richards would complete just one day of taping, that is, five shows, before his story blew up. Reporting across the entertainment industry revealed embarrassing racist and sexist comments on his comedy podcasts. By August 20, he had resigned as host. By August 31, Richards was also out as executive producer of both Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune.
Reputations take decades to build and one misstep can implode them in a day. Richards’ selection as host looked shady, and journalists started digging. In addition to the crass comments from his internet radio show, Richards also showed a pattern of being insensitive and inappropriate to female staff during his tenure on the production team on The Price is Right, even being named in a lawsuit. Oh, and he also angled for the host job there, losing out to Drew Carey.
As the news articles piled up pointing out Richards’ history, Sony executives had to pay attention to their own botched process: Why did Richards insert himself into Ken Jennings’ highly rated guest hosting gig ahead of the March-August lineup? How much control did he have over what host was scheduled when? Why was fan favorite and experienced host LeVar Burton ignored for so long and dumped in for a short stint during the Olympics when ratings were guaranteed to be low?
Jeopardy! is a highly profitable product for Sony Pictures Entertainment. The process of casting the next host needed to be watertight, not just from a reputation standpoint, but a revenue one as well. Host chemistry and charisma, combined with audience analytics should be the drivers here, not executive producer ambition. So Sony has two messes to clean up now: national reporting about how its production team botched the host replacement process; and the time and resources wasted in the attempt to hire a new permanent host.
Sony’s fallback plan is for Bialik to host through November, and Jennings to pick up hosting through the calendar year. Bialik has other obligations, like a starring role in a primetime sitcom; Jennings is not a natural host. Sony has bought itself 90 days to come up with a permanent solution.
I’ve been writing about inept government organizations and venal politicians of late, but private entities are not exempt from bad management at the hands of unprincipled executives. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a for-profit, not-for-profit, government or political job: If leadership is incompetent, or worse, malign, you’re going to have a hard time getting anything meaningful accomplished.
As part of the former Jeopardy! contestant tribe, I’m saddened to see this blow to the House That Alex Built. What should have been a fun and engaging process for viewers to see who would become the next host first fell flat, then just got awkward. Bialik and Jennings have a huge void to fill and Richards’ machinations widened it further.
It’s amusing to get emails from readers that pretty much let me know they sort of like my columns despite the fact that I “work in public relations.” Well, Sony Pictures Entertainment just undid more than three decades’ worth of gorgeous PR in less than three weeks over Richards’ elevation and firing.
Reputation management is no small thing for large organizations in the public eye and recovering from this blow will not be about spin and subterfuge. Regaining public interest and loyalty will require authentic and familiar faces—Bialik and Jennings are fine placeholders—and a permanent host that represents in an engaging and non-smarmy way the next generation of a powerful brand.
How Sony recovers from this crisis will be evident every weeknight after the evening news. I’ll be watching for a while longer, at least.
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive, former Navy officer, and third-place Jeopardy! contestant. She appears regularly as a panelist on NM PBS and is a frequent guest on News Radio KKOB. She lives amicably with her Democratic husband and Republican mother north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.