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Why The 'Jeopardy!' Host Search Drama Outraged Fans

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, the story has had everything - a beloved patriarch felled by illness, a quest for his throne, whispers of backroom intrigue and murky sexual dynamics. We are not talking about a Shakespearean drama. No...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This is "Jeopardy!"

MARTIN: Just nine days after "Jeopardy!" announced that its executive producer, Mike Richards, would take over as host of TV's most popular trivia show after the death of longtime host Alex Trebek last fall, yesterday, Richards announced that he was stepping down from the role. He will, however, stay on as executive producer. The about face came after the sports and pop culture website the Ringer reported on offensive comments by Richards on his podcast and troubling behavior toward female staffers, both dating back several years. But Sony's original selection of Richards baffled longtime fans of the show, who wondered how the man in charge of hiring the next host ended up hiring himself, especially after a parade of better known and well-liked celebrities were willing to step in. Claire

McNear has been chronicling this entire saga. It was her reporting on Richards' past comments that set the scene for Friday's reversal. She's a staff writer for The Ringer and author of the book "Answers In The Form Of Questions: A Definitive History An Insider's Guide to Jeopardy!" And Claire McNear is with us now. Claire, thanks so much for joining us.

CLAIRE MCNEAR: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: As we said, you know, Friday's news that Mike Richards was stepping down as host came after your reporting on these past comments. In a statement, he said, quote, "over the last several days, it's 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." What's your reaction?

MCNEAR: I mean, to your earlier point, it is kind of amazing that there is "Jeopardy!" drama right now. I mean, it's a show that I have watched most of my life. It's a show that I've reported on, wrote a book about. But it's you know, it's - even being engrained in the minutia of the "Jeopardy!" world, it's still sort of shocking to see all this high-stakes, high-drama controversy around a show like Jeopardy that, for decades, was just this kind of humdrum, you know, nightly thing that was just the same year in and year out.

MARTIN: So tell us a little bit more about the comments for people who haven't followed every dibble and jot of this drama. Hard to believe anybody hasn't because it's been so much top of the mind for people who are interested in pop culture. But what did he say? What did you report that you think may have laid the groundwork for this resignation?

MCNEAR: Yeah, well, there were a few different things I was looking at in my story. And one was the actual process and how involved he was in the process that resulted in him being named host. But the second part was I discovered a podcast called "The Random Show" that he hosted while he was the executive producer at "The Price Is Right." And he hosted "The Random Show" for about a year and a half. And it was pitched as this behind-the-scenes look at the show. And they would have on other cast and crew members and, you know, various guests. And they'd call up big winners to talk about that.

But really, what emerges through these episodes over, you know, this year-and-a-half run of the show is a lot of really troubling language and comments by Richards. He uses a lot of sexist language, uses a lot of ableist language. He uses classist language. There are some really, really troubling things there. He chides a colleague for, you know, receiving unemployment insurance benefits, for giving a dollar to an unhoused woman and, you know, just a whole lot of things that, you know, raised eyebrows, to put it lightly.

MARTIN: Well, you were telling us, as you were just saying, that there were actually, like, two parts to this. I mean, on the one hand, when the news came out that Richards had been hired as the host, there was this general sense among fans of, No. 1, who is this guy? And No. 2, did he really hire himself? And then the other part of it, as we've just been talking about, are these comments that come out that kind of speak to a less-than-healthy work environment created by him. So I'm wondering if your reporting indicates at this point which of those factors was the predominant factor. Like, what do you think was the tipping point, any sense of that?

MCNEAR: Well, certainly, I mean, the podcast was news. And I think leading into this, in my previous reporting on Richards, I mean, there had been a lot of suspicion of him. And there had been a lot of kind of distrust of him as the executive producer, him as the host and also him as somebody choosing the next host. Sources within Sony have said that Richards actually removed himself from the deciding body, the kind of, you know, search committee for the permanent host after he himself became a candidate. But what's become abundantly clear over the last couple of weeks is that as the show's executive producer, he had an enormous amount of influence over the process and over the other guest hosts.

I mean, he was the person, as EP, who was training the guest host. He was the one literally in their ear giving them guidance as they were up at the lectern. And these were other guest hosts who may not have realized that they were competing with him for the job. And what's come out that's, I think, particularly damning is that he and he alone chose which of the episodes got sent on to focus groups.

So Sony has talked a lot about how much the studio is relying on analytics and data to make the host decision and look at it, you know, very, very strategically and analytically. But a lot of that data and those analytics are, you know, fairly suspect now.

MARTIN: You think they've squandered the goodwill that was built up over that process? Because I think a lot of people enjoyed that process of watching different people try out, different people who had different constituencies. I mean, you know, a famous NFL quarterback, I mean, LeVar Burton, you know, from "Reading Rainbow" and TV journalists that people, you know what I mean? It just - I think a lot of people had fun watching it. I just wonder, do you think that they squandered some goodwill?

MCNEAR: Yeah, I mean, I think in a couple ways, yes, but possibly in a way that is fixable. It goes back to this kind of suspicion among a lot of fans over how honest and fair that process was, because as fun as it was to watch all these guest hosts just come through and bring something different and court a different fan base, and I think a lot of people, yeah, really enjoyed that, there's now this feeling of maybe it was all a sham. And I think a lot of fans feel very betrayed by that.

However, so much of the core DNA of "Jeopardy!" is exactly the same. I mean, they have the same writers room, and many of those people have been there for decades. They have many of the same producers and, you know, crew members who've been there for years and years and years. So that is still there. And I think there has been this kind of, you know, black eye for "Jeopardy!" for lack of a better way to put it.

I, at least, as a person who loves this show, am hopeful that with the show itself still being intact and still being, you know, this contest of 61 clues every every weeknight and, you know, three contestants, many of whom have tried to get on the show for years, I think that's all still there. And that part of it is the bigger part of "Jeopardy!" I mean, you know, Trebek would always say that the contestants were the star of the show, not him. But it's also the game is the star of the show. And the contestants and the game haven't changed. So I tend to believe that it still has so much of the magic that is really what people love about "Jeopardy!"

MARTIN: Well, I can't wait to see what happens next. That was Claire McNear. She's a staff writer for The Ringer and author of the book "Answers In The Form Of Questions: A Definitive History, An Insider's Guide To Jeopardy!" Claire McNear, thank you so much.

MCNEAR: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.