It’s always amusing to see how and where social media posts take off. I’ve posted three this week: domestic extremists in the military, the Hemingway documentary on PBS, and Jeopardy! guest hosts. I really thought the first post was going to get the most drama and comment.
Wrong. My friends are most opinionated about who is doing the best job guest-hosting Jeopardy! after the passing of 35-year host Alex Trebek. Starting in 1984, Trebek and Jeopardy! fused together into an entertainment icon that American television viewers still rely on five nights a week. Jeopardy! has survived every media upheaval of the last four decades: cable programming expansion, reality television, the DVR, and digital streaming. With every programming option available, millions of viewers still choose Jeopardy! in 2021.
The appeal of Jeopardy! in 2021 comes from its familiarity, its relevance, its accessibility and its tension. The format is reassuringly the same as it was when I was a sophomore in high school. The material is as current as this week’s contestants (typically, a week’s worth of shows is taped in a single day). Everyone watching can play along. The eventual outcome is never known until the final seconds of Final Jeopardy! when the final contestant’s question and wager is revealed.
This perfect entertainment combination levers on the fulcrum of the show’s host. The host must manage the tempo of the taping’s 22 minutes flawlessly, pronounce difficult words correctly, read oddly phrased clues in the right cadence, and engage personably with each contestant. Alex Trebek was a master host. He maneuvered all the moving parts, made contestants feel welcome and confident, and kept the studio and home audiences engaged.
In 2019, a new level of tension came to the Jeopardy! audience: Alex Trebek announced he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In addition to watching the show, we also watched Alex more closely. Is he okay? He didn’t give us any clues. We relaxed. This was a good thing as solid home entertainment night after night would become more cherished to us in 2020 as the country locked down in the pandemic.
But not even Alex Trebek can outlast pancreatic cancer. He continued a taping schedule for Jeopardy! as long as possible, and his last episode aired January 8, two months after his death in November, 2020. My entire family cried through his last episode with respect for a man who not only worked until he was 80, but also worked in excruciating pain and exhaustion to give us 22 minutes of quality entertainment five nights a week.
How do you replace Alex Trebek? Jeopardy! is the Big Time for game show revenue: estimates place Jeopardy! bringing in around $70 million annually in ad revenue and licensing fees for production house Sony Pictures Entertainment. Cancellation is hardly on the table. A host is needed now, and the right host. And this entrenched and dedicated audience has some opinions.
The guest host rotation we are seeing right now is pretty brilliant from a production standpoint. The production team has selected a wide range of personalities to appeal to a lot of demographics. The show keeps going and the number of viewers tuning in essentially gives each host a score; ratings are in already for Dr. Oz (he didn’t do well). The producers get solid data to hire their permanent replacement. Because of the pandemic, the guest host rotation was delayed, two members of the production team, greatest-of-all-time contestant Ken Jennings and executive producer Mike Richards, took hosting stints to keep the show in production.
Ken Jennings was an obvious choice and I think a poor one for one main reason. The host needs to have some distance from the contestants, and not be a former contestant. With Jennings hosting, contestants were either intimidated by his unbeatable record on the show or obsessed with topping it. Either way, the focus of the show shifted too far to the host and away from the game.
Mike Richards is in the game show business for a reason—he’s really good at it. As he is also executive producer of Wheel of Fortune, I doubt he needs the money from a hosting gig.
LeVar Burton is a popular candidate among former contestants and is actively interested in the permanent slot. I like Burton a lot for the role. He’s already been a longtime host of an educational television program (Reading Rainbow), he has a great voice, and he is the right kind of low-key, likable personality that can fit within the show without taking it over.
The guest hosts have provided surprises so far. I thought Katie Couric would wipe the floor with the other guest hosts. I give her a B+. The real standout is former Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. I wish his pronunciation was crisper but he brings a quiet charisma to the soundstage that Couric didn’t.
The rest of the 2020-21 season will be filled out with guest hosts: Anderson Cooper, Savannah Guthrie, Mayim Bialik, Bill Whitaker, and Sanjay Gupta. The beauty of Jeopardy! is that the next 5-time (or more) champion can emerge under any of these hosts, keeping us tuning in, screaming for a True Daily Double, and cringing when someone bets “wrong” in Final Jeopardy!
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive, former Navy officer and 2004 third place Jeopardy! contestant. 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, and you can find her Jeopardy! game here .