In early 2021, Jeopardy! left its loyal viewers with some big questions, namely who will permanently replace the late, beloved Alex Trebek, who had hosted since 1984. And it's closing out the year much the same way.
Claire McNear, the author of Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider's Guide to Jeopardy!, tells Yahoo Entertainment that the fact that the long-running show is usually so steady had made the events all the more unexpected.
"For so many years, Jeopardy! was something that didn't change: It had the same setup, same host, same announcer, same set and same executive producer, year after year. There were small changes, of course, but they were always at the margins," says McNear, who also covers Jeopardy! for The Ringer. "Then we get to the last year and a half, when there's been so much change, most notably with the death of Alex Trebek, which set up the guest host rotation and the much publicized search for his successor. To go from a show that was essentially unchanged for nearly 40 years to one that has changed quite a bit and is still changing even now, as the host search continues, has been shocking for a lot of fans."
To go from a show that was essentially unchanged for nearly 40 years to one that has changed quite a bit and is still changing even now, as the host search continues, has been shocking for a lot of fans.Claire McNear, author of "Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider's Guide to 'Jeopardy!'"
Shocking is a good word for it. While the actual game has continued on as normal — in fact the final episodes Trebek had taped before his death aired in January — the show faced serious controversy as a parade of high-profile guest hosts, including champion Ken Jennings, actress Mayim Bialik, NFL star Aaron Rodgers, Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts, Star Trek alum LeVar Burton and many others streamed onto the Sony lot in Culver City, Calif., where it's taped. But the unexpected truly happened once the show decided that one of the lesser known guest hosts, Mike Richards, the show's executive producer, would permanently take on the role. Afterward, McNear herself reported on some offensive comments — she has described them as "ugly slurs and stereotypes" — that Richards made on a podcast before he joined Jeopardy!, as well as allegations made against him, including those in lawsuits, from when he was an executive producer at The Price Is Right. Those were in addition to the questions about the host selection process, of which there were many.
And then came the PR crisis, as Richards was fired first from the hosting gig, then from the executive producer job, too, leaving the show to end the year right back where it started: without that steady presence. Jennings and Bialik, the latter who'd previously been tapped to host the show's primetime specials, were named as hosts through the end of the year and, just this week, through the season, which runs through July 29, 2022.
"We are delighted to let you know that Mayim Bialik and Ken Jennings will continue to share hosting duties through the end of Jeopardy! Season 38, and Michael Davies will remain as executive producer," the show announced Dec. 9. "We're so pleased to have such an excellent and experienced team in front of and behind the camera as we head into 2022!"
Over the past year or so, Andy Saunders, who logs every clue and answer on The Jeopardy! Fan website, even found himself checking TMZ for reports on the show. And that's not something that happens very often.
"It seems to me that a lot of people are tiring a little bit of the drama and kind of just want the show to … move forward. And I think that will happen eventually," says Saunders, adding that none of what's gone on has affected his enjoyment of the show. "I just think that, you know, because the position of the host of Jeopardy! is pretty much one of the most prestigious in show business, at least in American show business, people ... are gonna want to follow that. And I think once this all… dies down and a permanent host gets named, I think the show will return to what it was."
If it were left up to Saunders, he would choose former champ Buzzy Cohen, who's won and hosted the famed Tournament of Champions, although he suspects that's unlikely.
McNear agrees that the show still has a lot going for it.
"That fundamental Jeopardy! DNA is still there," she says. "They have the same writers and researchers, and there's clearly still an emphasis on the brainy, punny trivia that has always defined the show. I don't think that's going anywhere, no matter who ends up as host or executive producer long term."
And, overall, the ratings have remained pretty solid. The season began slightly higher than it did last season, with 8.4 million viewers versus 8.2 million, according to the Nielson ratings. Although the numbers sometimes dipped, like when Burton hosted as the Olympics were dominating TV, pulling in about 4.4 million viewers per episode, they rose with the winning streaks of contestants such as Matt Amodio, who won 38 games in a row between July and October. He racked up more than $1.5 million in winnings — the third highest amount in the show's history. And his run interested viewers enough that, by mid-October, Jeopardy! topped the list of most-watched syndicated shows for the first time since April, narrowly beating Family Feud.
As Saunders notes, a succession of outstanding contestants, also including Amy Schneider, who made headlines for being the first transgender contestant to qualify for the Tournament of Champions, has helped keep fans interested in what's happening on Jeopardy! broadcasts, no matter what's going on with the hosting situation.
"It's very unusual for the show to have had this many strong players in a row," he explains. "Matt Amodio and then Jonathan Fisher and Tyler Rhode, Andrew He and now Amy Schneider. All of those players have just been so strong, and they've just come along in the past six months, and that's really rare for the show to have so many great champions in such a short amount of time."
Cue the Jeopardy! music as to what will happen next.