LOS ANGELES – “Jeopardy!” needed a host, and Lucille Ball had an enthusiastic suggestion for creator Merv Griffin: The smooth-voiced, debonair emcee of the “High Rollers” game show.
That was 1984. Decades later, filling the void left by the late Alex Trebek involves sophisticated research and a parade of guest hosts doing their best to impress viewers and the studio that's expected to make the call before the new season begins taping later this summer.
Think of Sony Pictures Television as clutching the rose, and Mayim Bialik, Anderson Cooper, Katie Couric and “Jeopardy!” champs Ken Jennings and Buzzy Cohen among the suitors so far, with more to come including Robin Roberts, Dr. Sanjay Gupta and LeVar Burton.
Sony has “the most robust team of people I have ever seen looking at this and analyzing it in a very cerebral way,” said executive producer Mike Richards. “It’s a real change from the way casting has traditionally been done on television.”
“It’s usually been a gut instinct of the head executive: ‘How about that person?’” Richards said.
That was producer-entertainer Griffin’s approach when he brought a syndicated version of “Jeopardy!” to TV, five years after the quiz show’s last network iteration wrapped in 1979 on NBC. A word from Ball, of “I Love Lucy” fame, and Trebek’s skill and experience sealed his hire.
Audience and critical regard for the Canadian-born Trebek grew over the years, which makes finding a worthy replacement both a gesture of respect for the late host and the means to protect a corporate asset. While ratings have shifted under the guest hosts, “Jeopardy!” remains among the top-ranked syndicated programs in viewership.
Trebek helped build the show’s “display of excellence with his own excellence. And it’s tremendously difficult to find somebody to replace him, not only because of the status that he had in the American imagination,” said Deepak Sarma, a Case Western Reserve University professor and Netflix cultural consultant. “Anyone who is going to take his position will be judged in the end against this model of perfection.”