Defying a backlash over sexist and crude comments, a top Sony TV executive told the show’s staff that the studio stood behind Mr. Richards as the executive producer.
Last week, Mike Richards lost his gig as the new host of “Jeopardy!,” faced a rebuke from the Anti-Defamation League, heard an outpouring of dismay from the show’s demoralized staff, and was forced to apologize after it was revealed he made sexist and crude jokes on a podcast several years ago in which he mocked women’s appearances, unemployed workers and the size of Jewish noses.
This week, Mr. Richards is back running the show. And his bosses at Sony appear intent on keeping it that way.
In a show of defiance that has baffled Hollywood, Sony Pictures Entertainment has signaled that it will keep Mr. Richards on as executive producer of “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune.” During a call with “Jeopardy!” staff on Monday, Sony’s top TV executive, Ravi Ahuja, made clear that the studio supported Mr. Richards, according to several people briefed on the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations.
Mr. Ahuja praised Mr. Richards for his willingness to step down from the hosting job, saying it was the right move for “Jeopardy!,” and signaled that he expected the crew to move forward from last week’s uproar with Mr. Richards in charge, the people said.
He lamented the media coverage of Mr. Richards and instructed the staff not to speak to reporters. Mr. Ahuja also invoked his own upbringing as an Indian American who grew up in the 1970s in Mississippi, where, he said, he faced racially offensive remarks, to emphasize that he was sensitive to concerns about Mr. Richards’s crude comments, the people said.
Mr. Richards has agreed to undergo sensitivity training, the people said.
On the call, Mr. Richards apologized again for his behavior and asked for an opportunity to prove “who he really is,” according to his spokesman, Ed Tagliaferri.
Mr. Tagliaferri also swatted away the notion that Mr. Richards might be negotiating an exit from Sony, saying, “Mike is committed to continuing as the executive producer of ‘Jeopardy!’ and ‘Wheel of Fortune.’”
Sony has tapped a veteran business and legal affairs executive at the studio, Suzanne Prete, to oversee Mr. Richards at the show and “take more of an active presence on the creative direction and strategy.” Sony said that the new role for Ms. Prete, who will also oversee the business side of the show, was planned before last week’s uproar. She will report to Mr. Ahuja.
Sony declined to make Mr. Ahuja available for an interview. Mr. Richards is back on set this week taping episodes with Mayim Bialik, who has temporarily taken over weekday hosting duties. A Sony spokeswoman referred to a statement issued last week, in which Sony expressed “hope” that Mr. Richards would carry out his producing duties “with professionalism and respect.”
Hollywood insiders had widely expected Mr. Richards and Sony to be negotiating his exit after a report in The Ringer revealed a string of past offensive comments. In a podcast he recorded in 2013 and 2014, while serving as executive producer of “The Price Is Right,” Mr. Richards called his female co-host a “booth slut” because she once worked as a model at a consumer trade show, asked if she had “booby pics” on her cellphone, mocked women who wear one-piece swimsuits as “really frumpy and overweight” and referred to stereotypes about Jews and large noses.
Former employees of “The Price Is Right” had also filed lawsuits that accused Mr. Richards of making sexist and misogynist comments on-set, including balking when a model he had hired for the show revealed she was pregnant with twins. (Mr. Richards disputes those claims.)
Some “Jeopardy!” fans were already skeptical of Mr. Richards, a virtually unknown figure who was named as Alex Trebek’s replacement despite helping to oversee the host audition process.
Sony says it made its decision independently of Mr. Richards. But as executive producer, he had a hand in choosing the footage of each candidate that was screened for focus groups.
Meredith Vieira, the former “Today” show star, was one television personality who was eager to try out as a guest host. But she was not offered an audition, with the studio saying it was not interested in anyone currently hosting another game show, according to three people familiar with the audition process who spoke on the condition of anonymity. (Ms. Vieira hosts a syndicated show based on a board game called “25 Words or Less.”)
Mr. Richards, an experienced game show host himself, was hired by Sony in 2019 from “The Price Is Right,” a tired franchise that Mr. Richards helped revive with Drew Carey as host. (Mr. Richards also auditioned for that hosting job.) He became executive producer of “Jeopardy!” last year, replacing Harry Friedman, an under-the-radar figure who exercised near-complete control of the program over a 25-year tenure.
“Jeopardy!” is one of the more profitable assets in Sony’s American entertainment portfolio, but picking Mr. Richards as the host came with an added financial benefit. As a relatively obscure figure, he would command a smaller salary than better-known contenders like LeVar Burton or Anderson Cooper. Mr. Richards’s compensation as host and executive producer was believed to be significantly lower than Mr. Trebek’s pay.
A segment of “Jeopardy!” viewers and aspiring contestants has expressed dissatisfaction with the decision to keep Mr. Richards as executive producer — some going so far as to re-evaluate their interest in the show because of his behavior.
“If it was enough to disqualify him from being host,” said Jon Porobil, a 35-year-old “Jeopardy!” fan from Pittsburgh, “why isn’t it enough to disqualify him from being executive producer?”
Matt Cappiello, 34, has taken the “Jeopardy!” entrance test multiple times, hoping to fulfill a lifelong dream of appearing on the show. But because of the controversy over Mr. Richards, he is now reconsidering.
“It tarnished the reputation of the show for me,” said Mr. Cappiello, a copywriter who watches the show nightly from a bar in Brooklyn. “‘Jeopardy!’ is supposed to be a celebration of knowledge, and it’s being run by this guy who’s the personification of ignorance.”
For all the criticism, Mr. Richards does have some supporters.
Gwendolyn Osborne, a model who worked on “The Price Is Right” for more than 12 years and considers herself a friend of Mr. Richards, said she was shocked to learn about his podcast comments, saying they did not align with his behavior as a boss. Contrary to the behavior alleged in the pregnancy-discrimination lawsuit, she recalled that Mr. Richards supported her when she returned to work from maternity leave, and then years later when she became pregnant again.
“I have reached out to him to tell him to continue to believe in his greatnesses, and that I do believe that everybody is worthy of redemption,” she said in an interview.