The answer has the potential to upend the search for the next host of beloved game show Jeopardy!. The question is, did frontrunner Mike Richards show bias against or harass women who worked with him on The Price Is Right?
Jeopardy! has been in state of transition since Alex Trebek’s death last year. After trying out numerous guest hosts, including former contestant Ken Jennings, Big Bang Theory comedian Mayim Bialik, Green Bay Packer Aaron Rodgers, and actor and pop culture icon LeVar Burton, the show had seemed to settle on the most boring choice possible: Richards, who was already an Executive Producer on the show. Richards is reportedly in advanced negotiations to take over the role permanently, and his tenure as a producer on The Price Is Right is coming under scrutiny.
As The Hollywood Reporter notes, Richards was named in a discrimination suit in 2010. A former The Price Is Right model, Brandi Cochran, did not have her contract renewed after taking time off for a pregnancy. Another pregnancy bias lawsuit was filed against The Price Is Right that same year by model Shane Stirling, though she didn’t cite Richards in court. As if that weren’t enough, the show was also named in a 2011 suit, where another producer, Adam Sandler (no relation to the actor) was accused of sexual harassment, while Richards was also implicated in hostile work conditions.
Of the three lawsuits, the allegations made by Cochran are most directly related to Richards, and are the most likely to cost him the Jeopardy! gig. In 2008, when Richards joined the show to aid new host Drew Carey, he purportedly wanted to make the models a bigger part of the show. To do this, he cut the roster down from 10 to five — the better for the audience to have a relationship with the remaining models — while allegedly pushing for fewer evening gowns and more bikinis.
When Richards found out at a holiday party that Cochran was pregnant, he allegedly said, “Go figure, I fire five models, what are the odds one of the ones that I keep gets pregnant?” Later, when he discovered she was expecting twins, she said he “put his head in his hands,” and said, “Twins? Are you kidding? Are you serious?”
Cochran miscarried with one of the twins and gave birth to the other three months early — a result of stress, she said. After taking time off for the birth of her child, her contract was not renewed. In 2010, she sued. Richards defended the decision in court, citing the decision to reduce the total number of models used by the show, and saying Cochran was a “good model,” who “would not take us to great.”
Initially, the jury sided with Cochran, and she was rewarded $8.5 million in punitive and compensatory damages. But her victory would not last, as another judge overturned the result, citing bad jury instructions. An appeals court ruled that another trial could take place, but instead, Cochran and the producers for The Price Is Right reached a settlement.
As for the second pregnancy bias lawsuit brought by Stirling, the judge ruled that producers demonstrated a “legitimate” explanation for why she was let go. She had been fired more than a year after giving birth, after she had already returned to work. CBS and production company Freemantle Media argued that she lacked chemistry with host Carey and that, as a blonde white woman, she didn’t further the show’s new goal of a “diversity of appearances.” Richards was not individually named in the failed lawsuit, though he was working on the show at the time.
However, Richards was cited as creating a hostile environment and allowing Sandler to sexually harass the former model Lanisha Cole. In her suit, Cole accused Richards of abruptly cutting off communications with her after he had begun a relationship with another model, while using new rules he had implemented to reduce her work. Meanwhile, she alleged that Sandler burst into her dressing room while she was naked from the waist up and berated her for forgetting to wear a mic after a costume change. Richards was ultimately dismissed as a defendant, and the case involving Sandler was settled out of court.
Update — August 9th: Richards has issued a statement responding to the allegations. Via Deadline, it was sent as an internal email to the staff of Jeopardy! “I want to address the complicated employment issues raised in the press during my time at The Price is Right ten years ago,” he wrote. “These were allegations made in employment disputes against the show. 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. I know firsthand how special it is to be a parent. It is the most important thing in the world to me. I would not say anything to disrespect anyone’s pregnancy and have always supported my colleagues on their parenting journeys.”
He added, “I am very proud of my time on The Price Is Right and Let’s Make a Deal. During my tenure, our female cast members welcomed seven beautiful children. We embraced and celebrated each pregnancy and birth both in front of and behind the camera. It was a joy to watch their families grow and highlight their happiness as part of the show.”
No final decision has been made on whether Richards will replace Alex Trebek, though as previously noted, he is in advanced negotiations. As The Daily Beast reports, his guest-hosting tenure saw the second-highest ratings of the guest host period, behind Ken Jennings — though Nielsen ratings for LeVar Burton’s run are not yet available. Other candidates besides Richard are said to still be in consideration for the permanent hosting position.