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Mike Richards steps down as new 'Jeopardy!' host

"It has become clear that moving forward as host would be too much of a distraction for our fans and not the right move for the show," Richards said.

Mike Richards, the executive producer of "Jeopardy!" who was tapped to succeed Alex Trebek as host of the venerable game show franchise, announced Friday he is stepping aside amid recent scrutiny over past comments about women, Jews and poor people.

"I was deeply honored to be asked to host the syndicated show and was thrilled by the opportunity to expand my role. However, over the last several days it has become clear that moving forward as host would be too much of a distraction for our fans and not the right move for the show," Richards said in a statement.

"As such, I will be stepping down as host effective immediately. As a result, we will be canceling production today," he added.

Richards was one of several guest hosts who helmed the show after Trebek died in November. Sony Pictures Television, which produces the show, will now "resume the search for a permanent syndicated host," he said. In the meantime, the show will continue to feature guest hosts.

"I want to apologize to each of you for the unwanted negative attention that has come to 'Jeopardy!' over the last few weeks and for the confusion and delays this is now causing. I know I have a lot of work to do to regain your trust and confidence," Richards said.

In a statement, Sony said it supported Richards' decision to step down.

"We have spoken with him about our concerns and our expectations moving forward," the company said in part. “Mike has been with us for the last two years and has led the 'Jeopardy!' team through the most challenging time the show has ever experienced. It is our hope that as EP he will continue to do so with professionalism and respect.”

Richards will continue to serve as the show's executive producer, a spokesperson for Sony confirmed to NBC News.

The backlash

Richards, who filled in as guest host from late February to early March, has faced intense scrutiny in recent weeks over alleged past behavior, riling up longtime fans who believe producers are derailing a game show that has been a mainstay of American syndicated television since 1984.

Twitter lit up with fury that the show did not select a more diverse candidate for the job, such as the actor and former “Reading Rainbow” host LeVar Burton, who is beloved among millennial audiences and even inspired a petition calling on “Jeopardy!” to make him the permanent host.

Richards’ detractors have resurfaced two discrimination lawsuits in which he was involved. He has denied wrongdoing.

The first was filed by Brandi Cochran, a former model for “The Price Is Right,” who said she was fired after she became pregnant. Richards, who was not listed as a defendant, was accused in the suit of treating Cochran differently after she announced she was pregnant in 2008. The case went to trial and a jury awarded Cochran more than $8 million.

The award was later overturned by a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge; Cochrain and the defendants settled out of court, documents show.

In 2011, Lanisha Cole, another model for “The Price Is Right,” sued and accused Richards of treating her differently than the other models.

Richards was among the named defendants in that suit. However, he was later dropped as a defendant, and the suit was settled in 2013, according to The Daily Beast. In a recent note to “Jeopardy!” staff members, Richards described the lawsuits as “employment disputes” against “The Price Is Right.”

“I want you all to know that the way in which my comments and actions have been characterized in these complaints does not reflect the reality of who I am or how we worked together on ‘The Price Is Right,’” he wrote.

The backlash to his hiring escalated Wednesday after The Ringer’s Claire McNear reported that Richards made disparaging comments about women, Jews, poor people and Haiti seven years ago, while he was co-executive producer of “The Price Is Right” and hosting a podcast called “The Randumb Show.”

McNear, the author of “Answers in the Form of Questions,” a book about the “Jeopardy!” franchise, says she reviewed all 41 episodes of the podcast, which was billed as a behind-the-scenes look at “The Price Is Right.” NBC News has not listened to the original recordings, which appear to have been pulled offline.

Richards, for his part, apologized and said in a statement on Wednesday evening: “It’s more than clear that my attempts to be funny and provocative were not acceptable.”

The firestorm was highly unusual for a program that was virtually synonymous with Trebek’s sober-minded bearing and above-the-fray style — and largely exempt from the cultural feuds and cycles of controversy that have lately engulfed the internet.

The fan reaction

In the days before Richards announced he would step down, NBC News interviewed "Jeopardy!" die-hards across the U.S. who expressed mixed opinions about the new emcee and the future of the franchise.

Amy Bornmann, a director in the corporate office of a timeshare management company in Orlando, is such a loyal "Jeopardy!" viewer that she figures she spent more time in the virtual company of Trebek than with some of her own family members. When she tuned in for the series of guest-host tryouts earlier this year, Bornmann was impressed by Richards' confidence and easy command of the answer-and-question format.

"Honestly, I had him pegged at the top of my list, even though I kept referring to him as 'What's his name?' because nobody knew his name. It made sense because he's so intimately familiar with the show. It was comfortable for him to step in,” Bornmann said in an interview.

“It was just so natural for Mike Richards. He knew the right pacing, how to get through the questions, how to get the contestants to move along,” she added.

Bornmann, 45, said the recent headlines about Richards made her second-guess whether he is the best choice, although she added she would have “100 percent” continued to watch the show if he had remained in the job.

But some fans believed that while Richards might have been trying to signal contrition for his past behavior, the “optics” of his accession to the syndicated TV throne were still deeply unfortunate.

Eric Seader, who records “Jeopardy!” on his DVR every night and watches it with his wife during dinner, said he believed the show’s producers demonstrated poor judgment in allowing Richards to be chosen for one of the most coveted hosting gigs in television.

“I think, in 2021, it’s incredibly tone-deaf for any media organization to even consider somebody who might have a controversial past,” Seader, 42, said. “I’m sure we all have stuff in our past that would be offensive to somebody, but given the diversity of the guest hosts,” producers could have gone in a different direction.

Seader, a technical consultant who works with law firms and lives in New Jersey, said he was far more impressed with the guest-hosting stints by Burton, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, ABC News personality Robin Roberts, sportscaster Joe Buck, and “TODAY” show co-host Savannah Guthrie. (“TODAY” is produced by NBC News.)

“They introduced all these guest hosts who were excellent, but then the guy who has the controlling stake basically says, ‘I’m going to keep doing it.’ The optics are terrible, and I don’t really see any positive spin that could be on it,” Seader said.

In a 2018 interview with TMZ's Harvey Levin, Trebek identified two potential replacements: Laura Coates, a legal analyst for CNN, and Alex Faust, the play-by-play announcer for the Los Angeles Kings hockey team. Neither served as guest hosts this past season.

The new season of the show started production in mid-August. It was expected to debut on Sept. 13.

Diana Dasrath contributed.