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The smartest game show on TV made a rookie mistake. And now Sony needs a new “Jeopardy!” host — again.

I have been talking with this year’s guest hosts, wannabe hosts, agents, TV executives and others close to the Mike Richards mess. The sources have the same questions I have: Why did Sony botch this so badly? Did Richards rig the host search in his favor? Will he remain the show’s executive producer? And who will take over as host?

To address that final question first, most of the sources said Ken Jennings is now the hands-down favorite for the host job. “They have to give it to him now, don’t they?” one TV agent said.

Jennings was said to be a finalist the first time around, and he has said all the right things in the press this month. He has stayed with the show as a consulting producer as well. “I hate that something pure like that has to be sullied by backstage drama,” he told The New York Times on Friday.

The other name that keeps coming up is LeVar Burton. He tweeted “Happy Friday, y’all!” right after Richards stepped aside; that tweet has racked up more than 100K likes.

And don’t forget, “Mayim Bialik was hired to host a series of prime time ‘Jeopardy!’ specials and spinoffs,” so she is “likely now a serious contender for the full-time job,” the Los Angeles Times noted.

Jennings is now a favorite to be the new host of Jeopardy, sources predict

I’m wondering if Sony will try out some new names — folks like CNN senior legal analyst Laura Coates who were snubbed the first time around. The company has some quick decisions to make since production of the new season is underway. “They’re really missing a grand opportunity here to keep playing the Final Jeopardy music on a loop until they make a decision,” CNN producer Kristin Wilson quipped.

Will Richards remain executive producer?

My impression is that the answer is no, Richards won’t be there much longer. As NPR’s Linda Holmes put it: “How do you make someone the boss who didn’t meet the character requirements to be the host?”

But Richards still has the job for the time being, and any exit from the executive producer role will likely require a negotiation between his agents and Sony.

The Times’ story notes that Richards “must contend with a dispirited ‘Jeopardy!’ staff whose frustrations erupted in an emotional meeting on Thursday, where crew members told Mr. Richards his past behavior had imperiled the show’s reputation.”

Sony execs allowed the producer-turned-host to say he “stepped down,” citing the controversy over “past incidents and comments.” But this was a corporate save-the-ship move. It was all due to Claire McNear, a reporter at The Ringer who is incredibly well-sourced in “Jeopardy!” land thanks to her 2020 book about the show, which is now moving up the Amazon chart.

With the help of her Ringer colleagues, she exposed a litany of offensive comments in Richards’ past — comments Sony should have uncovered before Richards was hired as executive producer. Sony said Friday that “we were surprised this week to learn of Mike’s 2013/2014 podcast and the offensive language he used in the past.” So in other words, the company didn’t do basic vetting of its executive producer and host.

“The public response” to the story “convinced Sony that it would be impossible for Mr. Richards to continue as host,” the Wall Street Journal reported. So production was halted on Friday morning. But the five episodes Richards led will still air. And production will resume Monday with guest hosts. What an embarrassment for Sony. What a frustrating sideshow for the local TV stations that depend on the game show’s high ratings. And what a disappointment for the contestants who are supposed to be the stars of the show. Here’s my full report for Friday evening’s “Erin Burnett OutFront.”

Was the tryout process rigged?

I don’t mean rigged in a literal sense, of course. But “Mike wanted the job from the very beginning,” a source with knowledge of the tryout process said Friday. “And I think he manipulated it in such a way so that he was the right choice.” This is the consensus view among the sources I spoke with. They want to know: Were the other guest hosts really set up to succeed? Were their best episodes shown to focus groups? What about the people who wanted to try out and were turned down — were qualified candidates with past game show experience turned away on purpose?

On Friday I picked up on a lot of sourness not just toward Richards, but toward Sony executives like Tony Vinciquerra as well. “Tony has to own this screwup,” one of the guest hosts said. Vinciquerra was at Thursday’s tapings with Richards, but was silent about the matter on Friday.

CNN media critic Brian Lowry’s take

Brian Lowry writes: “While it’s easy to write question-formed headlines about what a debacle the ‘Jeopardy!’ host story has been for Sony, let’s not spare the media, which got swept up in the romantic, populist-sounding ideal that by publicly auditioning all of these candidates, the viewers would be allowed to dictate the final decision. When Richards was anointed, people seemed to come late to a realization that seemed likely from the start: While the rotating hosts garnered attention and bought time, choosing a replacement was going to boil down to executives/producers, not public opinion. The whole exercise brought to mind a recent NYT oped by Annalee Newitz, under the overreaching headline, ‘From Loki to Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Fans Are Calling the Shots.’ Fans surely have more input now in creative decisions — and more direct ways of expressing it — in the current environment, but there are limits to what Newitz called ‘the age of fan service,’ and perhaps some naivete about how decisions and deals get made.”