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How to Replace a Beloved TV Host

Shows like Jeopardy! have promoted from within, while others have looked elsewhere for ringers.
  • Pat Sajak, Alex Trebek, Ken Jennings, Padma Lakshmi (photos: Everett Collection, Bravo)
    Pat Sajak, Alex Trebek, Ken Jennings, Padma Lakshmi (photos: Everett Collection, Bravo)

    On July 11th, Bravo announced that Kristen Kish would replace longtime host Padma Lakshmi on Top Chef, starting with the show's upcoming 21st season. Lakshmi, who'd hosted the series since its second season in 2006, said she was going to focus on her Hulu series Taste the Nation, in addition to other creative pursuits.

    The very next day, Lakshmi got her fifth Emmy nomination as reality-competition host for Top Chef. A look back at some of the hosts nominated in the early days of that category is instructive as to how the face of television has changed in recent years. Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn left Project Runway in 2018. Tom Bergeron exited Dancing With the Stars in 2019. This wouldn't normally be so unusual for TV, but reality TV shows have proven to be especially durable. The most formidable reality series like Survivor, The Amazing Race, and Big Brother have been holding court for more than two decades, and with the same hosts. But nothing lasts forever, and the question of how to handle replacing hosts who have become synonymous with their long-running shows is a tricky one.

    The Top Chef example offers a strategic path to replacing a host while maintaining the goodwill of the audience. Lakshmi had been with the show for 19 seasons and had grown into her role, becoming both an empathetic liaison for the contestants and a culinary authority in her own right. Replacing her was going to be a delicate task, especially considering the temptation to just let Tom Colicchio's role expand to fill the void she left behind. Choosing Kristen Kish showed that Top Chef's executive producers (a group that includes Colicchio, Gail Simmons, Casey Kriley,  Jo Sharon, Doneen Arquines, Hillary Olsen, and Tracy Tong) place a lot of value on keeping things within the Top Chef family. Kish won the show's 10th season, the first winning chef to do so after being eliminated and returning through Last Chance Kitchen. Kish has since been back many times as an all-star guest mentor and judge. She'll benefit from her status as a fan favorite as she takes time to adjust to the role, but most importantly, her bona fides have already been established.

    In choosing Kish, Top Chef has emulated the strategy of its former Magical Elves stablemate, Project Runway. When Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn decided not to rejoin the show when it returned to Bravo in 2018, Gunn's role as mentor was filled by Christian Siriano, winner of Season 4 and the show's most successful alumnus. Klum's role was harder to fill, as she served as host and lead judge (and was also an executive producer to boot). Rather than replace Klum in all those roles, the show has opted for a committee approach.

    After trying to get the alchemy right for a few seasons with Karlie Kloss as lead judge, the current season is leaning into its own history, bumping up longtime judge Nina Garcia to the lead role, in charge of saying who's in and who's out. Runway has essentially decided to go host-less in its current incarnation. Siriano and Garcia are the faces of the show, but they're role players rather than being outright hosts. It's not the same — Siriano's approach to mentoring is more aggressive; Garcia was always best deployed as the cutting right hand to Klum's softer touch — but there's a continuity that's maintained through this method of succession.

    The most high-profile of these promote-from-within strategies in recent years has been on Jeopardy. Game shows have gone for even longer runs than reality shows, with a generation of hosts like Dick Clark, Bob Barker, Alex Trebek, and Pat Sajak becoming TV icons in the process. The passage of time is relentless, of course. Barker retired from The Price Is Right in 2007, and Clark died in 2012. Trebek's death seemed to have hit the culture hardest, perhaps due to his very public battle with pancreatic cancer, perhaps because he died during the pandemic lockdown in 2020.

    The search for Trebek's replacement was a daunting and rocky one, with at least one major controversy, but the choice came down to Mayim Bialik and Ken Jennings. Bialik was the Emmy-nominated star of The Big Bang Theory and certified smarty-smart, with a doctorate in neuroscience. Ken Jennings was famously one of the winningest Jeopardy champions of all time, and probably the one household name anyone could come up with if you asked them to name a Jeopardy player. The show's producers ultimately decided to split the difference and have the two share time as hosts (though they wouldn't share Emmy nominations).

    That decision was perhaps an acknowledgement that there really is no one person who can replace Trebek — it's never going to be quite like it was, so why not go in a different direction entirely? Wheel of Fortune's decision to replace the retiring Pat Sajak with Ryan Seacrest certainly promises to bring a different energy to that show. Sajak didn't become famous for his sparkling, upbeat personality. He was always vaguely sardonic with the Wheel contestants, but never enough to make a big impression. Sajak's legacy is in his longevity. Seacrest's upbeat, red-carpet, pop-radio energy will be something quite different, but maybe that's the point.

    A lot of these replacement decisions will take months if not years to reveal whether they were successful. There are no grades to be given to Ken Jennings or Ryan Seacrest, and certainly not to Kristen Kish, yet. But it's good practice for if and when the remaining hosts of this generation of reality TV and game shows start thinking about packing it in. The Amazing Race's Phil Keoghan has shown no signs of slowing, certainly not with Tough As Nails giving him a second major presence at CBS. And it's something of a wonder that Julie Chen Moonves was able to not only weather her husband's downfall at CBS (Les Moonves resigned from his position as CEO in 2018 after dozens of women came forth with allegations of assault and harassment) but double down in her support of him by taking on his name publicly, which she hadn't before.

    Years ago, Jeff Probst considered leaving his job as Survivor host, but he's had more of a "from my cold, dead hands" tone in recent statements. Still, the show's 50th season — which, if things stay on schedule, would be in the spring of 2026 — is a landmark that could be a jumping-off point. Meanwhile, RuPaul, the current seven-time defending Emmy champ, has begun to exhibit a certain Murtaugh-esque "I'm getting too old for this sh*t" crankiness. And while nary a whisper has been uttered about Ru leaving Drag Race, fans and critics have been given to speculate which of the show's many regal alumni might be able to one day fill her shoes.

    As a certain recently-completed scripted drama made clear, succession plans are complicated. Not every show will be able to keep up fan engagement by passing off hosting duties to a popular former contestant. How the current generation of veteran reality and game shows handle these handoffs may well inform the next generation how it's done.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Top Chef, Jeopardy!, Padma Lakshmi, Project Runway, Wheel of Fortune, Alex Trebek, Christian Siriano, Heidi Klum, Ken Jennings, Kristen Kish, Mayim Bialik, Nina Garcia, Pat Sajak, Tim Gunn