Mike Richards stepped down Friday as host of “Jeopardy!” following reports of a number of inappropriate comments he made on a podcast several years ago, bringing more turmoil to the iconic TV game show.
Richards, the executive producer of the quiz classic, announced the change in a memo shared by the show’s production company, Sony Pictures Television. He will remain in his production role.
Sony’s high-profile plan was for Richards to become the permanent host to replace Alex Trebek, who died in November.
The abrupt about-face came a little more than a week after his selection and one day after “Jeopardy!” had resumed production for the upcoming TV season, with Richards at the helm and Trebek’s family on hand to witness the changing of the guard.
Now, the search for a permanent host will continue as Sony tries to find a worthy successor and move beyond the controversies that have tarnished a broadcasting institution beloved by generations of viewers.
“It pains me that these past incidents and comments have cast such a shadow on Jeopardy! as we look to start a new chapter,” Richards said in the memo.
“As I mentioned last week, I was deeply honored to be asked to host the syndicated show and was thrilled by the opportunity to expand my role. However, over the last several days it has become clear that moving forward as host would be too much of a distraction for our fans and not the right move for the show. As such, I will be stepping down as host effective immediately. As a result, we will be canceling production today.”
Sony executives said Friday that while Richards had been vetted, they were unaware of the podcast that Richards hosted in 2013 and 2014 in which he used offensive language and made crass remarks in an attempt at comedy. According to a report in the Ringer, Richards made comments disparaging Jews, little people and women in a podcast, “The Randumb Show.”
The report in the Ringer led to a public outcry, including a rebuke from the Anti-Defamation League, which called for an investigation. Sony executives and Richards jointly concluded that it would be untenable for him to continue in the lead role, according to two people familiar with the process who were not authorized to comment.
Richards had spent most of his career behind the scenes as a game show producer and did not have a high public profile before his “Jeopardy!” fill-in stint earlier this year. He apologized for “the unwanted negative attention that has come to ‘Jeopardy!’ over the last few weeks and for the confusion and delays this is now causing. I know I have a lot of work to do to regain your trust and confidence.”
The five episodes shot Thursday will air as planned, one of the knowledgeable people said.
The program will go back to using guest hosts for the time being as Sony Pictures Television resumes its search for a permanent host for the daily syndicated edition of the program. Actor Mayim Bialik was hired to host a series of prime time “Jeopardy!” specials and spinoffs, and is likely now a serious contender for the full-time job.
Insiders expect some fan favorites, including former “Jeopardy” champions Ken Jennings and Buzzy Cohen, will take additional turns.
In a statement, Sony stated its support for Richards in the executive producer role.
“Mike has been with us for the last two years and has led the ‘Jeopardy!’ team through the most challenging time the show has ever experienced,” the company said in a statement. “It is our hope that as [executive producer] he will continue to do so with professionalism and respect.”
The imbroglio raises questions over how rigorously the company vetted Richards.
He had been able to skate past resurfaced reports on discrimination lawsuits filed by women who worked on the Fremantle-produced “The Price Is Right,” where he was executive producer from 2008 to 2018. The program airs on CBS. Sony was aware of those lawsuits but chalked them up to dissatisfied former talent.
Richards was given the “Jeopardy!” job nine days ago, after overseeing a search with many better known guest hosts. Richards also did a stint, raising criticism that he was positioning himself for the full-time role.
Now Sony must try to win back support, particularly among the show’s loyal fan base.
With Richards stepping away, the jockeying among potential Trebek replacements will begin anew. Actor LeVar Burton, who has actively lobbied for the job, started the day with an understated tweet.
Burton, who was a fan favorite, was given a week-long tryout, which earned mixed reviews on social media.
Other guest hosts included Jennings, “Today” co-host Savannah Guthrie, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, “60 Minutes” correspondent Bill Whitaker, “Good Morning America” co-host Robin Roberts, CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and veteran TV journalist Katie Couric.
Just minutes after the Richards news was out, agents were on the phone with Sony executives to push more possible candidates.
Bialik would be a logical solution, but she is committed to a Fox sitcom, “Call Me Kat,” which has been renewed for a second season.
Overall, the process of replacing Trebek has become a textbook example of how not to handle a popular long-running TV franchise.
Sony’s stumbles come despite longstanding efforts to craft a seamless transition plan for the studio’s biggest TV franchise long before Trebek became ill.
According to former Sony executives who were not authorized to comment, previous executive producer Harry Friedman had carefully guarded the franchise and had contingency plans for when Trebek would retire. During Friedman’s tenure, a list of potential hosts, including Cooper and Jennings, was created.
Sony Pictures Television long recognized a switch at “Jeopardy!” would be a momentous move. The studio launched “Jeopardy Sports” on its then-streaming service, Crackle, to expand the franchise to younger viewers and to test the appeal of popular sportscaster Dan Patrick.
After Friedman retired in May 2020, Richards stepped in to replace him. He was running the Emmy-winning show when Trebek’s health deteriorated last fall.
Trebek, who died of pancreatic cancer, completed all the episodes that Sony shot to fill the month of December before his death.
In April, after his turn as a guest host, Richards threw his hat in the ring. Sony then removed Richards from otherwise contributing to the search process, said one executive who was not authorized to comment.
The selection saga becomes a major blemish on the tenure of Sony Pictures Chairman Tony Vinciquerra, who led the host selection team. He has been overseeing the Culver City studio since 2017.
Studio executives saw the rotation of guest hosts as a huge positive: It gave viewers time to grieve the passing of Trebek, and allowed audiences to become accustomed to a new face.
Sony executives have said the revolving host format helped boost ratings and provided a platform to raise money — more than $3 million — for various charities.
Sony executives selected Richards after intense lobbying by various guest host candidates, including Rodgers. Richards was viewed by some as a clean-cut, affable white man to appeal to the largely older crowd that tunes in nightly for “Jeopardy!.”
“We wanted someone who would blend into the background,” said one executive who was involved in the search. “With ‘Jeopardy!’ the star of the show is the game, the competition and the contestants. We really just wanted an orchestra leader.”
Richards also likely cost considerably less than a well-known host, who might have commanded an annual salary above $10 million.
But the choice failed to read the cultural moment. Observers questioned the wisdom of pressing forward with Richards’ selection given Hollywood’s heightened awareness of its historic lack of diversity, and after a flap ensued over Richards’ alleged mistreatment of models on “The Price Is Right.”
One person familiar with the matter called Sony’s decision-making “mind-boggling.”
The selection of Richards “smacked of such insider-ism,” said David Scardino, a longtime television analyst. “Talk about unfair competition.”
Some casual viewers felt that Richards, as the show’s executive producer, appeared to have the inside track, akin to Dick Cheney leading the search to find a running mate for George W. Bush in 2000.
Some critics noted that Sony was likely not helped by losing such respected TV executives as Mike Hopkins, who is now leading Amazon’s entertainment division, and Chris Parnell, who left Sony TV for Apple last year.
“But ‘Jeopardy’ has been around for many, many years and, while Trebek was a major part of its success, that show has staying power,” Scardino said. “Ultimately, I think the show will be fine.”