Jeopardy: The next generation
Checking in on the contest to fill Alex Trebek’s shoes
Hundreds of thousands of fans rooted for LeVar Burton as he stood where Alex Trebek once did as host of Jeopardy! Who could blame him for being nervous?
“My standard of excellence is so intense that my initial approach was to try and be as good as Alex was,” Burton said last week in an interview on Good Morning America. “Of course I realized right away that was an impossibility.” He said he asked his wife how he did, and she responded with, “Ehhhh.” He knew he needed to be himself rather than attempt to be Trebek.
Throughout 2021, Jeopardy! has auditioned a series of guest hosts to find a replacement for Trebek, who hosted for more than 30 years until his death in 2020 of pancreatic cancer. Ken Jennings, the show’s most recognizable former champion, went first. Then producers lined up a parade of celebrity hosts to take turns, including Katie Couric, Dr. Oz, Aaron Rodgers, Anderson Cooper, Mayim Bialik, and George Stephanopoulos. Burton was one of the last in the lineup. He hasn’t been shy about letting everyone know he wants the permanent gig.
Even before Trebek’s death, Burton, known for his role as Lt. Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation and his 21 seasons hosting Reading Rainbow on PBS, threw his name out as a possible replacement. In September 2020, he tweeted, “Not gonna lie, I feel like I’ve been preparing my whole life to occupy the @Jeopardy host podium when Alex retires.” Burton won an episode of celebrity Jeopardy! in 1995 with a score of $14,500. He says his life’s mission is to use television to entertain and educate. Jeopardy! might be the next step in that mission.
Before Burton ever set foot behind the quiz show’s podium, more than a quarter of a million people signed a petition on Change.org to “show Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. and producers Mike Richards and Harry Friedman just how much love the public has for Burton, and how much we'd all love to see him as the next host of Jeopardy!” As The Wall Street Journal reported, Burton also has some famous friends lobbying for him including Yvette Nicole Brown from the NBC sitcom Community, who encouraged all her followers to promote Burton’s week of hosting. She suggested Burton did not get a fair shot since his week coincided with the Olympics.
Burton’s delivery is softer than Trebek’s or many of the other guest hosts, but he kept the show running smoothly and didn’t have some of the timing issues that plagued other guest hosts. Many Jeopardy! enthusiasts have blamed this year’s lack of repeat champions on erratic delivery from the podium, but during Burton’s week, Matt Amodio continued his winning streak. Ken Jennings has said anticipating the timing of the question is more important than knowing the answer since each contestant is smart enough to know most of the answers. However, Burton’s first night hosting did have the dubious distinction of breaking the record for lowest score ever when Patrick Pearce finished with a score of -$7,400.
So far, Ken Jennings got higher Nielsen ratings than any other guest host. But Sony executives will base their final decision on several factors, including audience feedback and focus groups. Entrenched fans favor Jennings, but Burton could attract a new generation. Executive producer Mike Richards cited credibility as the most important trait for the job, and millions of kids grew up trusting Burton through Reading Rainbow. That investment in them might make the difference.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to support WORLD's brand of Biblically sound journalism, click here.