The procession of guest hosts fronting Jeopardy! has rejuvenated interest in the beloved game show, and turned the notion of predicting Alex Trebek’s successor into a parlor game. The hosts have included former Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings, news anchor Katie Couric, Dr. Mehmet Oz, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, 60 Minutes correspondent Bill Whitaker and NFL star Aaron Rodgers, with Good Morning America host Robin Roberts, actor LeVar Burton and sportscaster Joe Buck among those awaiting their turn.
All told, there will be 16 guest hosts, and the full-time steward presumably will be selected from that group.
Who will it be?
Jennings looks to many like the frontrunner. He enjoyed a six-week guest host stint early in 2021, and garnered hefty ratings, owing to both viewer curiosity about seeing another person in Trebek’s spot, and the Jeopardy! audience’s familiarity with Jennings, who won a shocking 74 Jeopardy! games in a row in 2004.
“The audience knows him, they’re accustomed to him,” said media consultant Bill Carroll. “Basically, they like him.”
Jennings had a close relationship with Trebek, and appears in the Jeopardy! credits as a consulting producer. He’s also the voice one hears in the audio version of Trebek’s The Answer Is...Reflections on My Life book.
“He did really well--people on the whole were really pleased,” said Claire McNear, author of Jeopardy! book Answers in the Form of Questions. “He was smart and he was funny.”
With Jennings at the podium, Jeopardy! averaged a 6.0 rating across his six weeks. Executive producer Mike Richards was just behind when he hosted at 5.9. Couric averaged a 5.5, Oz a 5.0 and Rodgers a 5.5.
Richards is executive producer of Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, coming on board in 2020 after exec producing The Price Is Right and Let’s Make a Deal. He has hosting experience, fronting The CW’s Beauty and the Geek early in his career.
“Richards has as good a sense as anybody as to what the skill points [of host] are, what the audience might accept, what they might not accept,” said Carroll.
Trebek died in November, in his 37th season as host.
Sony Pictures Television produces Jeopardy! and CBS distributes it. McNear calls Jeopardy! “a huge piece of the Sony machinery. Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune mint money for Sony.”
Who is named full-time host therefore has giant financial implications for the parent. Sony is, to a degree, crowdsourcing the selection. The final decision lies with the owner, but the audience has a big say in how the applicants rank. “The closest thing I thought of was American Idol,” said Linda Ong, CEO and founder of cultural consultancy Cultique. “We can live critique from our living rooms.”
The “open auditions,” she added, “say a lot about the power of the fan in having a voice.”
Fans weigh in on social media. Aaron Rodgers, for one, won plugs for his performance (“People loved him,” said McNear, who called Rodgers “a surprise success”), while Dr. Oz took some heat.
“Jeopardy! is an example of a television legacy that has a very vocal online fanbase and an extremely offline core audience of older viewers, which has made the search for a new host a fascinating tightrope walk,” said Myles McNutt, Old Dominion University associate professor of communications. “The various guest hosts are all touching on different segments of the audience, and while the Twitter response is the loudest, it probably doesn’t reflect the viewers most valuable to Sony and their station partners.”
It is a tough decision for Sony. Viewers want the new host to remind them of Trebek, but don’t want to see someone imitating him. “They want to find someone who treats the game with reverence, but also has fun with it,” said McNear.
Jeopardy!’s role in pop culture has risen in the last year or so, Ong believes, as viewers seek out the show’s “bubble of certainty” amidst so much upheaval in the news and in society.
That adds some extra heft to Sony’s decision. “It comes down to what kind of person we as America trust as being the keeper of this game, the keeper of order,” Ong said. “That’s a tall order.”
Sony wants someone who will commit fully, and long term. “It’s got to be someone who is willing to, as Alex did, be completely defined by Jeopardy!,” said Ong. “It is their identity, not a side hustle.”
McNear said the final decision should come from Sony around when the season concludes in mid August.
Until then, the parlor game continues. “Anyone who says they know,” said Carroll, “is throwing darts at a dartboard.”
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