If “possessor of a TV dream job” were a final “Jeopardy!” answer, the question would be: “Who gets to succeed Alex Trebek as host?’
The legions of fans for the popular game show will soon get a clearer picture of who that is in the coming months. Sony Pictures Television, which produces “Jeopardy!,” has embarked on a formal search for Trebek’s replacement, according to several people who are familiar with the plans but were not authorized to discuss them publicly.
A representative for Sony declined to comment on the status of the search. Barry Nugent, a consultant and former head of talent development of the Game Show Network, is leading the process to fill the highly coveted position, the results of which will be scrutinized by the show’s loyal audience and the TV industry.
Sony is not only hiring a host but the face of a beloved pop-culture franchise.
“The host of ‘Jeopardy!’ is one of the leading representatives of broadcast television,” said Ted Harbert, a longtime TV executive at ABC and NBC. “The next host will be maintaining the legacy of a national institution.”
The show, created by Merv Griffin, dates to 1964 when it debuted on NBC.
While the audience levels for broadcast and cable TV networks have steadily diminished in the age of streaming, “Jeopardy!” has sustained its popularity, drawing around 8 million viewers daily on the stations that carry it across the country, according to Nielsen data — more than most network prime-time programs. Younger viewers are finding past episodes on Netflix.
Viewers will start seeing guest hosts after the final Trebek episodes taped in October air this week. Trebek, the only host of “Jeopardy!” since it was revived for syndicated TV in 1984, died Nov. 8 after battling pancreatic cancer.
All-time “Jeopardy!” champion Ken Jennings will be the first guest host starting Jan. 11. Longtime TV news personality Katie Couric has also signed to be a substitute host for a week, which makes her a candidate as a permanent replacement.
Couric declined to comment on the booking and whether she is interested in a permanent role.
Other names that have come up in early discussions about the job include Steve Kornacki, the MSNBC political correspondent who has developed a rabid cult following for his savant-like analysis of vote counts on election nights; actress Mayim Bialik; and Mike Richards, the executive producer of “Jeopardy!” who also has experience as a game show host.
Richards delivered an on-air message to “Jeopardy!” viewers after Trebek’s death and has appeared in TV interviews about the host’s legacy but is not a household name.
The search has caught the talent agency business a little by surprise as many representatives believed Jennings was being groomed to be Trebek’s successor. Jennings has an overall deal with Sony and is likely still in the running, although some insensitive comments he made on social media about people with disabilities generated criticism and led him to make a public apology.
Jennings also got drawn into the social media drama involving John Roderick, a musician now known as #BeanDad. Roderick, who co-hosts a podcast with Jennings, became an online pariah after posting a Twitter thread Saturday about refusing to help his hungry young daughter open a can of baked beans, forcing her to learn to use a manual can opener if she wanted to eat. The 9-year-old struggled with the task for six hours.
Roderick issued a profuse apology but not before other inappropriate tweets on his now-deleted account were unearthed. Jennings defended his pal. Sony has not commented on any of the social media issues involving Jennings.
Jennings is part of the Jeopardy family, but he does not fit into the parameters of the search, according to people who have been briefed on it. Sony is said to be looking for “A-list” names — well-known TV or movie stars — who would be consistent with the “Jeopardy!” brand, which is basically a television quiz show for intelligent people.
There is no shortage of interested applicants.
“It’s a dream job for a lot of people because it’s a lot of money and not a lot of days of work,” said one TV executive who was once involved with the program who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The initial message to agencies is that whoever takes the role has to make it his or her primary job. That might filter out some of the other names that have come up over the years such as CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, who made no secret of his desire for the job and has long been on the list of possible Trebek successors.
ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos has also mused about hosting if the job became available as has CNN’s John Berman, a celebrity “Jeopardy!” champ in 2015, and former “Today” co-host Meredith Vieira.
TV news personalities may have the best skill set for the program, which is done almost in real time, as they often work without a script and have to be able to think on their feet.
That theory will be put to the test when Couric — who has done thousands of hours of live TV and interacted with the public every day when greeting “Today” fans every morning on Rockefeller Plaza outside of the program’s street-level studio — gets her chance later this year.
Expect fans to weigh in.
“If you ask 10 fans who they want to be the next host, you’ll get 15 different answers,” said Claire McNear, author of “Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy!” “But there are some through lines. It has to be someone who projects intelligence, whether that’s because they’re a famous former champion or because they bring broadcaster gravitas like Katie Couric or something else.”
McNear added: “You want someone who can make the show fun but, at the same time, ‘Jeopardy!’ is intentionally a show that doesn’t leave much room for editorializing: If you have to get through 61 clues in a single half-hour, there’s not much room for a host to start cracking jokes.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.