The Five Spot: Harry Friedman

Bonus Five

What are you bingewatching?
The Good Fight, Schitt’s Creek
What was your last great meal and where? Osteria Santo Spirito in Florence, Italy
What places are on your travel bucket list? Seville and Barcelona
What books are on your nightstand?Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
What’s your all-time favorite TV show? Threeway tie: The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad

It’s a little ironic that Harry Friedman is choosing this moment (next year, really) to retire. Both of the shows he executive produces — Sony Pictures Television’s Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! — remain at the top of their games (pun intended) and last spring, Jeopardy! spent several weeks as TV’s top-rated show due to the sensational performance of professional gambler James Holzhauer.

Around that same time, sad news broke: Jeopardy!’s host, Alex Trebek, revealed he had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Trebek recently has had to resume chemotherapy but remains back at work taping season 36 of the iconic game show.

Still, Friedman felt the time was right to announce that this spring he will depart both of the shows he has carefully shepherded for so long. In the following conversation with B&C contributor Paige Albiniak, Friedman explains why he’s stepping away and also reveals how he felt about Holzhauer’s run and the incredible fan reaction to Trebek’s diagnosis.

Both of your shows are still operating in top form, and Jeopardy! has generated its most excitement and highest ratings in recent years. Why did you decide now was the time to announce your retirement? Twenty-five years is a hell of a good run. I’m going to find out what it’s like to have very little if any responsibility. In all seriousness, I wanted to have a well thought-out transition. After the first of the year, Michael [Richards, who was named new executive producer of both shows] will start spending more time here.

What was your takeaway from James Holzhauer’s epic run in the spring? I think it really fulfilled the promise of what was possible, of what we envisioned when we dropped the five-win limit, just before Ken Jennings [won 74 games in a row] in 2004.

Some people have said Holzhauer broke the game. Do you agree? No, Holzhauer didn’t break the game. He played it in a way that has never been played before. He’s a professional sports gambler, so he has a gambler’s mentality. He also has an incredibly deep and broad base of knowledge and very fast signaling-button skills.

When did you know that this was a player to be reckoned with? Probably early on when he broke the one-day earnings record. I thought the [way he played] was very smart. If you can play that way and be right as often as he was, you can play like that, starting out at the big-money levels. We discourage that type of play because it’s hard. We think it’s better to start with the smaller amounts and move through the categories. The risk in playing the way James did was that in going for $1,000 off the bat, if you are wrong, you are immediately in the red.

What did you think when he lost to Chicago librarian Emma Boettcher? He didn’t lose; she won. As I recall, she found the Daily Doubles and wagered appropriately. She was leading going into Final Jeopardy!

What do you think having contestants like James and Emma did for the show? It reminded a lot of people what a great show we have and it brought a lot of new viewers to the set. We’re still appointment television for a lot of people. Both shows have pretty high levels of co-viewing, which we love. It does truly bring families together.

What’s been the reaction to Alex Trebek’s cancer diagnosis on set? Alex has been so touched by the fan reaction. On our Jeopardy! stage we have a Hall of Fame area set aside for the cards, letters and gifts people have sent in, like T-shirts, hats and a lot of kids’ drawings. It’s been really, really, really sweet. The outpouring of love and affection has been remarkable. Alex’s doctors have said it has been a real tonic for Alex and contributed to his recovery.

Why do you think Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! have had the long run that they have had? I think they are comfortable and reliable and those are two attributes that you don’t find in shows anymore. It’s not just the frequency that makes them reliable — it’s that you know what you are going to get and yet it’s going to be fun and interesting and you can play along. A lot of TV shows would love to have the viewership that we do. On a lot of stations, we are the top-rated shows from sign-on to sign-off, period. It’s a big deal, especially in major markets.

Our talent has played a huge role in our success. You have to have something special going for you to be welcomed into people’s homes every night for a collective 15,000 hours. Pat [Sajak] and Vanna [White] are the same off screen as they are on. They are all pretty terrific people.

What are you most looking forward to about retirement? Getting my backhand to go from mediocre to just so-so. And it sounds cliché, but spending more time with the family — my grandkids are just so damn much fun.