Mike Richards has finally spoken — but without really saying anything. In a memo to staff, the executive producer of Jeopardy! addressed the controversy that has swirled around him since last week’s reports that he had become a frontrunner for the coveted gig. If you find yourself asking who exactly Richards is, you’re not alone. After a months-long trial process to find the right person to replace the late and beloved Alex Trebek, news broke last week that Richards, who would presumably be involved in the hiring process as an executive of the show itself, was apparently in “advanced negotiations” with Sony to take the job himself.
The report was not only met with heartbreak for some within the show’s loyal fanbase, particularly those who had been campaigning hard for LeVar Burton’s candidacy (Burton himself has been perhaps the most public of all about his desire to become host), but also with queasiness and incredulity at the entire situation around Richards’s running.
For one, the notion of Richards’s self-serving nepotism — an inside man perhaps giving himself the job, in essence — inspired disdain and prompted Jeopardy! fans to question whether this public hiring process, which included 16 high-profile guest hosts and was purportedly designed to involve fan input, was a sham to begin with. In addition, even as a behind-the-scenes man, Richards is largely new to Jeopardy!, having only becoming seriously involved with the long-running and storied show in early 2020 as an executive producer. Worse yet, many began to point to Richards’s dark, or dubious at best, legal past, which involves lawsuits alleging pregnancy discrimination and harassment.
Most of this, though, was skirted around in Richards’s recent memo to Jeopardy! staff. He praised the show’s resilience amid the pandemic and its admirable fundraising campaign, while saying that his position as a candidate was never his idea. He was asked to host the show, he said, and was "deeply honored" to be considered. “I know I have mentioned this to you all before, but the choice on this is not my decision and never has been,” he writes in the memo. This claim, though, is questionable at best. When Richards guest-spotted in February for a week, he stated that he had stepped in as a last-minute replacement because of a sudden cancellation from another guest host; people behind-the-scenes, though, have indicated that Richards insisted on taking on the role despite what was in fact a solvable scheduling conflict.
Richards’s memo also vaguely dismissed the accusations of discrimination (two models during his tenure on The Price is Right claimed pregnancy discrimination, one of which filed a lawsuit that was ultimately settled out of court). “I know firsthand how special it is to be a parent,” Richards wrote. “It is the most important thing in the world to me. I would not say anything to disrespect anyone’s pregnancy and have always supported my colleagues on their parenting journeys.” Meanwhile, he avoided any mention of other claims in lawsuits that allege his dictating Price is Right models’ skirts being shorter, along with his toxic workplace behavior (icing out one model and becoming involved in an "intimate" relationship with another).
Amid this all, as the position remains up in the air, Richards writes, “No final decisions have been made and discussions with me and other potential hosts are still ongoing.” This all begs the question: why wouldn’t Richards simply step down? Such a strong backlash and multi-pronged controversy would seriously damn anyone’s candidacy in this situation, let alone the fact that Richards doesn’t even have the leverage of star power to draw viewers.
Compare that to Levar Burton, the former Reading Rainbow host who garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures in a viral fan petition that lobbied for him to become the new host. He got his chance to guest host for a week in July, and his support has continued, despite battling the Olympics for viewership. And his candidacy doesn't have any of the controversy or ethical concerns that Richards's does.
It is perhaps among the most revealing examples in recent history of just how sullied the inner workings of the entertainment industry truly are — that even a no-name executive embroiled in controversy and publicly denounced by one’s own fan base will nevertheless hold on for dear life to give himself the job. Of course, this arc only works when you have the face and name of a Mike Richards. And perhaps this is the reason he still may get the job — to Sony, perhaps the face of Richards, with its chiseled blankness and whiteness, projects (to some) a certain quality of staid assurance that is suited for Jeopardy! And yet, that is, in fact, exactly why LeVar Burton knew his position would mean something — to take on that role specifically as a Black man — and why he fought so hard for it. Unfortunately, the Mike Richards of the world aren’t ready to agree.