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Mike Richards came highly recommended to CBS’ The Price Is Right. The iconic game show produced by Fremantle was a year removed from a major transition as longtime host Bob Barker wrapped up a 35-year run in June 2007, with the studio passing the torch to comedian Drew Carey.
Richards, who worked at Dick Clark Productions as exec vp development and current series, had thrown his hat in the ring and auditioned to replace Barker. Syd Vinnedge, who was involved with the search for Barker’s replacement on Price and whose company distributed the show, remembers: “While he wasn’t going to replace Bob, he was somebody I filed away. When it came time to get a producer-showrunner, he went right to the top of the list.”
With an assist from legendary producer-host Dick Clark (Richards has called Clark his “mentor”) along with host-producer JD Roth — who worked with Richards on Beauty and the Geek — the exec moved from a failed Price Is Right hosting audition in 2007 to a senior leadership role at the series and fellow Fremantle-produced Let’s Make a Deal a year later.
More than a decade after taking over those series, Richards made headlines in August after leading Sony’s search for a replacement for beloved host Alex Trebek on Jeopardy! After, effectively, picking himself as the host when Sony unveiled its decision Aug. 11, Richards’ past alleged conduct and comments resurfaced and were scrutinized in the media. Facing a backlash, Richards told staff Aug. 20 that he’d be stepping down from the hosting role (but remaining executive producer) on Jeopardy! as to not cause “too much of a distraction.” And, by Aug. 31, Richards was also out as executive producer of both Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune.
As Sony faces criticism over its handling of the Jeopardy! host transition, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with more than a dozen former staffers on The Price Is Right about its workplace culture during the decade that Richards presided as co-exec producer and then executive producer and showrunner, from 2008 to 2019. The portrait that emerged from these sources — many of whom declined to speak publicly out of fear of retribution in the industry — was of a manager who was more interested in being a host, who ushered out veteran on-set leaders, was the subject of at least two HR complaints to CBS and Fremantle, and presided over budget cuts and loss of benefits to staffers.
Multiple sources involved with Price Is Right during Richards’ tenure also questioned his conduct with models on the series. Several sources claimed he would parade models around the stage during rehearsals as he polled employees about their attire and gave preferential treatment to some.
Others contest this description. “The show had a routine with how to choose wardrobe for the models before Mike arrived and we continued with that routine until Mike made some changes to it,” stated Gwendolyn Osborne, who was a Price model from 2005 to 2017. Osborne, who spoke with THR after being connected via Richards’ PR, added: “This included Mike transitioning from the uncomfortable parading on stage in our outfits to having proper fitting in the wardrobe department with a stylist.”
Former staffers pointed to a 2011 wrongful termination suit in which Lanisha Cole — the show’s longest-tenured model at the time — alleged she was treated “differently” by Richards, who she claimed “sent messages, notes and comments to her using staff and other models as messengers.” Richards was ultimately dropped from the suit, which was settled in April 2013. At the same time, producer Fremantle was mired in separate litigation in which another model, Brandi Cochran, claimed she was discriminated against because she was pregnant. Cochran, who would miscarry one of the twins she was pregnant with at the time, ultimately settled in March 2016. “This happened before #MeToo; there was no protection. I saw Brandi’s breakdown on stage and it was heartbreaking,” one former staffer recalled. (Cole and Cochran did not respond to THR‘s request for comment. Richards declined to comment for this story.)
Carey, for his part, tweeted in support of Richards and his involvement with models on Price. “Every TPIR model since I started got pregnant and he built whole season arcs celebrating them. We even had baby shower shows for crying out loud. They weren’t even allowed to talk to me before Mike came on the show,” Carey posted Aug. 7, three days after Variety reported Richards was the frontrunner for the job but before his role in previous bias lawsuits resurfaced. “He took them from just bodies on the stage to actual people that audiences could get to know as part of the TPIR family. He’s great. And I hope he gets to be the next Jeopardy host too.”
Other former insiders who worked under Richards, however, say his transformation of Price led to the dissolution of the close-knit work family that preceded his tenure on the show. (Price had dealt with its share of workplace issues and complaints, including lawsuits, during the Barker era as well.)
After taking over as exec producer in 2009, Richards cleaned house of Barker’s team in a bid to update Price, which celebrated its 50th anniversary with a CBS primetime special in August. Roger Dobkowitz had been with Price for 36 years and created 18 of the show’s iconic games while earning five Emmys and, as showrunner, coached Richards for his hosting audition. He was let go in 2010, a year after Richards became showrunner. “All of the sudden he’s announced as producer of Price Is Right. I saw in the trades and thought, ‘What?! he has no experience producing, he’s a host.'” Dobkowitz recalls to THR. “Look at his résumé. He has little or no experience in producing. I don’t understand how he got the job of producing The Price Is Right. Some great people were up for the job and they were passed over for him? I thought he wanted to be a host.”
Then it was Rich Fields, the show’s third announcer, who was let go after a seven-year run that included the transition from Barker to Carey as Richards plotted a “new direction” for the series. “I was shocked that after treating Mike Richards as kindly as I did during the Bob Barker replacement auditions, that he came in as executive producer just months later and showed complete disdain for me,” recalled Fields in an Aug. 20 Facebook post. “It was palpable from the get-go!” Kathy Greco, a 35-year veteran associate producer, was out by 2011. “There was a dismantling. Anybody who worked with Barker was cleansed from the show,” Fields says.
During Richards’ tenure, many lost benefits and paid hiatuses as Fremantle took greater control of the series. The enviable schedule in which five episodes were filmed over four days each week, with staffers getting Fridays off, was tabled as Richards mandated everyone to come in on Fridays even though it wasn’t a filming day. Paid hiatuses — a staple under Barker — were also taken away and lavish holiday parties with performers like Frank Sinatra Jr. and KC and the Sunshine Band went away.
“People were there for decades because it was a great job. You were getting paid 52 weeks a year and working 30 weeks a year with the taping schedule,” notes a decade-long former staffer who was among one of the multiple departments that were eliminated under Richards and Fremantle. Says another ex-employee who recalled a tenure that she says left her feeling traumatized and nearly prompted her to leave the industry altogether: “It was shitty management.”
Bente Christensen spent 18 years on Price as an art director and production designer, the last three of them under Richards. She filed a complaint against Richards with CBS HR in 2012. Christensen says this targeting included, but was not limited to, age-related comments as well as micromanaging.
“I filed the complaint because I felt Mike Richards was targeting me, trying to get me to quit,” said Christensen, who earned multiple Emmy nominations for her work on the show. “CBS ‘looked into’ my allegations that Mike Richards was targeting me, bullying, intimidating and demeaning me,” but Christenensen claims HR said his behavior was “not punitive or illegal.” Eventually, she says, “most people realized going to HR was worthless because they only protect management.”
“I sold my house to downsize in the, what I thought, inevitable event I got pushed out and a year later, I quit,” Christensen adds. Richard Domybl, a set director who spent 22 years on Price and worked under Christensen, seconds her recollection of the events leading up to the filing of the HR complaint. Domybl says he declined a promotion that would have given him Christensen’s job: “I witnessed what he did to Bente and I didn’t want that nonsense.”
Richards did not comment on Christensen’s claims. However, Richards’ publicist, Edmund Tagliaferri, offered a comment from Ron Lane, who began working on The Price Is Right in 2004 and is currently employed by the show, who said: “If I was asked if I witnessed any combative behavior from Mike to others in my department, the answer is no. Mike was incredibly patient, creative and collaborative in every meeting and discussion that I was in attendance.”
Multiple sources also cite a 2013 incident that prompted a meeting with Fremantle HR in which a staffer whose wedding activities and honeymoon plans conflicted with taping days after Richards changed the long-planned non-taping schedule. Richards and producer Adam Sandler, after hearing the conflict, allegedly chastised the staffer and questioned their commitment to the job. Fremantle brushed off the matter, three sources say.
Reps for CBS and Fremantle declined to comment.
Insiders who worked under Richards observed a pattern during his Price regime. “The staff he replaced the older staff with were all under 27 and we called ourselves the Brat Pack,” says a source who was hired by Richards. “We loved our jobs and loved our mentors and when they became disillusioned, we became disillusioned. When people would leave, they’d replace them with people who were loyal to Mike. It became a vicious cycle.”
Others claim Richards micromanaged the staff and, by asking to approve of every decision, created longer daily hours for the staff. “Mike Richards changed the taping schedule so he and people who don’t do a lot of work could come in later and leave early but the people who did a lot of work expanded their schedules because they had to wait for them to come in. I worked extra hours, he asked me in front of the whole staff what I thought about it and I said it screwed everyone. He said I was being demoralizing,” says Claire Dawidziak, who worked as a staging supervisor on Price from 2011 to 2015. “He’s one of the reasons I left.”
Richards also clashed with the prize department, asking to make changes that sources say didn’t align with Price‘s key middle-class demographics. Multiple sources say Richards asked the prize department to buy such name-brand items that included Ralph Lauren, Tiffany and Christian Louboutin. When luxury brands declined to provide products to Price in exchange for airtime (which remains standard practice), Richards allegedly had the prizing staff find such items at outlet stores. “We started getting cease and desist letters from those companies. We were getting those left and right. Our department didn’t want to do that, but this was his directive,” says one member of the prize department who was let go under Richards after 12 years on the show. Contestants, this source recalls, were upset that they were having to pay full retail price taxes on winnings for shoes that didn’t come directly from brands themselves and were sometimes the wrong size.
One by one, the prize department was “eradicated,” says one longtime member of the CBS division. Richards then hired a staff of his own and made leftover items — including name-brand items — available for sale to staffers (including himself). “When I worked on the show, prizes that were bought and not won were not sold to the staff or employees,” Dobkowitz recalls. “We weren’t even officially allowed to eat the chicken that would be inside of a bucket of KFC chicken that was used one time in a showcase.”
At the same time that Richards was overseeing Price Is Right and Let’s Make a Deal for Fremantle, he began to parlay his role to hosting opportunities elsewhere. He signed with Game Show Network in 2012 to host the short-lived The Pyramid update and followed that up in 2017 with the same role on the Sony-owned cabler’s Divided before leaving Price and Deal in 2019 for an overall pact with the studio. Sony selected Richards in August 2019 to take over as exec producer on Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, replacing Harry Friedman, who stepped aside in 2020 after a 25-year run that included 12,000 broadcasts, a prestigious Peabody Award and 14 Emmys.
Sony now finds itself going back to the drawing board for a Jeopardy! host as well as finding a new executive producers for that show and Wheel. Embassy Row’s Michael Davies (Disney’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire) has agreed to help with production on an interim basis until full-time exec producers for both shows can be found. Richards, meanwhile, has a contract with Sony. (Pat Sajak, who turns 75 in October, has one year left on his current Sony contract that keeps him hosting Wheel until the end of its upcoming 2021-22 season.)
At the same time, Sony is now scrambling to find a permanent host for Jeopardy! and, per sources, wants Mayim Bialik to take over. Bialik — who has also drawn ire for shaming Harvey Weinstein’s victims (she later apologized) and for her stance on vaccinations — was a top choice of Sony senior execs to take syndicated hosting job but her previously set schedule on the Warner Bros.-produced Fox comedy Call Me Kat is preventing such a move. She’s currently filming as guest host for three weeks as Sony scrambles to find a host to take over in late September, when Bialik begins filming season two of Kat. Bialik, who has a doctorate in neuroscience, was announced Aug. 20 as the host of Jeopardy‘s primetime specials and spinoffs, including the upcoming national college championship series. The Big Bang Theory Emmy nominee has signaled she’d be interested in the full-time Jeopardy! job should Call Me Kat not return for a third season.
“When Mike got the exec producer job, no one could figure out why he’d take Wheel and Jeopardy when he had the Price Is Right and Let’s Make a Deal job — was it more money?” asks a former Price staffer. “Then I realized it’s because he would do some game show things and it was obvious that he wanted to be a game show host. What better way to create that opportunity than to be in charge of the hiring process as EP?”
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