''The Weakest Link'' brings masochism to television
NBC's new game show demands smarts, guts, and a thick skin
(The following is an excerpt of a story from the April 20, 2001, issue of Entertainment Weekly. See the magazine for the story in its entirety.)
It doesn’t take long to get a taste of what scores of contestants have endured from tart tongued Anne Robinson, host of Britain’s ”Weakest Link,” the BBC quiz show that’s supplanted ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” in popularity since its overseas launch last August, and which invaded America on NBC April 16. No sooner does a writer settle into a chair opposite her in a London TV studio than Robinson asks, ”Where are you staying?” When told the name of the hotel, she snaps, ”Why are you staying there? That’s a fussy little place in the middle of nowhere — wait, don’t tell me: A woman told you to stay there, right? Told you it was a posh place, did she?”
Well, no, actually, one begins to splutter, much like the unnerved questionees on ”Link,” over whom the 56 year old, redheaded Robinson presides dressed in schoolmarm long black dresses, sensible shoes, and steel rimmed glasses to match her steely glare: Think Mary Poppins as a dominatrix.
Tea drinkers dig the way Robinson not only asks difficult questions (”In the New Testament, who is called ‘the beloved physician,’ Luke or Matthew?”) but also needles the contestants, describing their efforts as ”sad” and ”embarrassing.” (The correct answer is Luke, by the way.) The series poses trivia questions with the threat of expulsion
After each round of questions, the beginning eight contestants vote off one of their number in successive rounds until a sole winner is left. (The top prize is £20,000 — about $30,000 — which NBC says will be increased here to a larger amount yet to be announced.) ”Link” is best known, however, for Robinson’s pithy, pitiless farewell to every pathetic sod who slinks off the set in what’s called the Walk of Shame: ”You are the weakest link: Goodbye!” It’s the tag line NBC has been pumping into its ”Link” commercials, the phrase they hope will be this season’s ”Is that your final answer?” pop cult mantra.
But wait: The British are used to the stinging lash of boarding school bullying and House of Commons wig pulling; they groove on vicarious masochism. Americans, by contrast, feel self esteem stroking is an inalienable constitutional right; are led by a President who campaigned as a ”uniter, not a divider”; and are accustomed to Regis Philbin’s jokey crankiness. Will we take to a woman who ridicules contestants by asking the TV audience, ”Who is suffering from vacancy of mind?” and ”Whose doughnut has run out of jam?” and ”Who’s gone from dim to downright stupid?”
”She’s the anti- Reeg,” says NBC’s Jeff Zucker, who, upon leaving his post as the ”Today” show’s executive producer to head up the network’s entertainment division, made it one of his first moves to sign up ”Weakest Link,” thereby launching the lagging network into the ”scripted reality” game show competition. He admits, ”There were people [at NBC] who said, ‘She has an accent — will people understand her sense of humor? Is she too mean?”’
”What attracted me to the game,” continues Zucker, ”was her: She was fierce, she was competitive, she was feisty, and I think those are all the things that we need to be as a network.” Robinson, who was born in Liverpool and worked for decades as a print, radio, and TV reporter, returns the compliment. ”[Zucker] is a newsman…and he, like me, enjoys the chase [for ratings], the excitement and the edginess, and would be completely uncomfortable with anything less aggressive.”
”’Weakest Link’ requires every single skill I’ve acquired over 30 odd years in journalism,” says Robinson. ”A woman from the Los Angeles Times told me that she normally interviewed important anchorpeople in New York, and asked was I doing this for a lark, and I said no! I thought to myself, I consider myself every bit as important as the important anchorpeople she usually interviews.” She laughs, but just a little, her eyes flashing defensively. The daughter of an elementary school teacher father and a shopkeeper mother who became ”the biggest supplier of poultry in the northwest of England,” Robinson’s life has had its own weak links.