Decade-Old Discrimination Lawsuits Cast Shadow on Prospective ‘Jeopardy!’ Host Mike Richards

Mike Richards
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Television

News that Mike Richards is in advanced negotiations to become permanent host of “Jeopardy!” made headlines coast to coast on Wednesday. But in what has become a familiar pattern for public figures, older incidents of questionable actions from his past quickly became a hot topic of conversation on social media.

Richards, a game show veteran who is already executive producer of “Jeopardy!” and its companion series “Wheel of Fortune,” was named among the defendants in multiple discrimination lawsuits filed during his 10-year run as executive producer of the “The Price Is Right.”

One brought by former “Price Is Right” model Brandi Cochran in 2010 accused Richards of firing her because she had become pregnant and had a difficult pregnancy. Another suit filed in 2011 by “Price” model Lanisha Cole asserted that she was wrongfully terminated and subject to harassment on the set of the long-running game show. Richards was dismissed as a plaintiff in Cole’s suit in 2013 and the case was settled out of court.

Cochran’s suit in Los Angeles Superior Court against “Price” producer FremantleMedia, Richards and others on the show went to trial, where a jury awarded her damages of $8 million. That decision was overturned on appeal in late 2014 and the sides eventually reached a settlement.

Court filings from the Cochran case paint Richards as callous about her pregnancy to the point of expressing dismay after learning that she was expecting twins. “Price” producers opted not to rehire Cochran in early 2010 after she had been on leave since January 2009.

According to court filings, Richards asserted that the reason Cochran was not brought back was because the show made changes in the on-air ensemble lineup of models who interacted with host Drew Carey. Richards stated that Cochran was a “good model” but “would not take us to great,” according to court filings. Richards was also heard to say of Cochran at the show’s 2008 holiday party, “Go figure, I fire five models, what are the odds one of the ones that I keep gets pregnant,” according to the 2014 appellate decision.

Cochran’s lawsuit and trial generated a fair amount of media attention in the moment. But Richards’ association with discrimination claims were not prominently discussed in the “Jeopardy!” social media world during Richards’ on-air run as guest host in February and early March.

But the details came quickly into the foreground Thursday when online observers — including some who were vocal about rooting for other “Jeopardy!” guest hosts to land the permanent job — weighed in on Variety’s report Wednesday  that Richards was in advanced negotiations with “Jeopardy!” producer Sony Pictures TV for the plum post.

Richards’ already faced a high bar in succeeding Trebek, who was beloved by viewers and hailed for his gracious manner with “Jeopardy!” contestants.

Richards rose to the top of the list after months of guest hosts that were widely seen as on-air auditions. Richards impressed Sony brass with his command of the show and his easy manner in bantering with guests and delivering clues. He is seen as a “game show guy,” according to a source close to the situation, who would maintain strong enthusiasm for his work as host and help keep the show fresh as it approaches 40 years in first-run syndication. “Jeopardy!” is enormously profitable for Sony.

It’s unclear if the sudden scrutiny of allegations of insensitivity and workplace discrimination from the “Price Is Right”-era litigation will damage Richards’ chances of landing the “Jeopardy!” job. The discussion of Richards’ past on social media Thursday ranged from vitriolic condemnations of his alleged statements to rantings about the excesses of “cancel culture” — before the job has formally been handed to anyone.

Richards has a long resume as a producer and a fair amount of on-air experience too. A stand-up comedian after college, he previously hosted “High School Reunion” on the WB network, the CW’s “Beauty and the Greek” and “The Pyramid” for Sony’s GSN cabler. He was executive producer of CBS “Let’s Make a Deal” in addition to “Price,” just as he at present juggles “Wheel” and “Jeopardy!” for Sony Pictures.

Richards joined Sony Pictures Television in 2019 and took over as executive “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel” following the exit of longtime executive producer Harry Friedman in 2020. Richards also served as executive producer of the 2020 celebrity revival of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” for Sony.

During his stint as guest host in February, Richards gave a shoutout to Trebek and Dick Clark, the late producer and host who was Richards’ first industry mentor. Richards worked for “Beauty and the Geek” producer Dick Clark Prods., and the titular boss was a model for his ambition to work out front as well as behind the camera.

“I was the VP of his company when I got the ‘Beauty and the Geek’ hosting job,” Richards said on social media. “I was concerned about producing for him and hosting at the same time. He told me ‘I’ve done it my entire life, you’ll be great.’ “