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One Mean Quiz Show

TV Review: NBC’s 'The Weakest Link'

by Mark D. Johnson
April 16, 2001

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One Mean Quiz Show_Mark D. Johnson-TV Review: NBC’s 'The Weakest Link' Last week, CBS and the producers of “Survivor” sued the Fox network over “Boot Camp,” Fox’s attempt to cash in on cut-throat reality shows that hit U.S. shores last summer in which contestants are voted off the show. The whole issue of intellectual ownership gets a little murky here because “Survivor” itself began as a Swedish show before CBS bought the rights to create a U.S. version. If this lawsuit is successful, then ABC might as well sue NBC for ripping off “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” with its latest game show “The Weakest Link.” (CBS can sue here too, since contestants are again voted off.) After all, “Millionaire” started out on British television, as did “Weakest Link.” Who cares who came up with the idea in the first place? These shows are in U.S. airwaves now!

As you might have guessed, “The Weakest Link” is another quiz show in the mold of ratings hog “Millionaire.” The circular futuristic set, the swirling spotlights, and electronic music are so laughably similar to those of “Millionaire” that you’d think this was a parody. There are differences of course, the primary one being that the British host, Anne Robinson, also host of the original version in England, is tough as nails and almost mean-spirited in stark contrast to her folksy counterpart (and men’s fashion mogul) Regis Philbin on ABC. And yes, there are contestants who try to work together to build up the cash prize as a team, voting off the “weakest link” after each round along the way. The pace is faster, requiring the players to think fast as they race the clock, as opposed to “talking it through” with Regis and getting bailed out with lifelines.

At first glance, one would assume there is no reason to believe that this will last any longer than any of the other trivia shows that sprouted up in the wake of “Millionaire’s” success only to crash and burn. Remember Chuck Woolery and “Greed,” Dick Clark’s “Winning Lines,” and “The $64,000 Question” with Maury Povich? Where “Weakest Link” may have a better chance than those cancelled shows is in the fact that the British version now whops the British “Millionaire” in the ratings. This is what NBC is banking on. If all goes according to plan, they could come out ahead even after the hypothetical ABC/CBS lawsuit.

To me, however, this show does not have the smell of success for several reasons, not the least of which is its aforementioned blatant theft of ideas. I don’t know how many knock-offs came after the original “Millionaire” show took off in Britain, but there probably wasn’t the slew of failures that U.S. networks churned out last year. The notably small amount of competition in British TV would presumably have given “Weakest Link” a better chance in that country. Additionally, while British audiences, who know Robinson as a serious journalist, might appreciate this host’s callous approach, I think American viewers will recoil at the insults she dishes out to the contestants. Brits enjoy a good, witty tongue-lashing, while Americans prefer to sympathize with struggling underdogs.

Furthermore, the audience is not only incited to hate the host, but all of the contestants as well. Upon getting cast out (and coldly told by the host that “You are the weakest link -- goodbye”), each loser gets some brief air time to trash talk the remaining contestants. Clearly, all the players are coached to be merciless in their comments to give the show more competitive edge. This meaner (though utterly contrived) approach to game shows may be valid, but “Millionaire” fans are likely to be put off by it. XFL fans might like the phony combative talk, but the trivia format may be a tad too brainy for them, and they certainly aren’t a ratings factor anyway. (Once NBC dumps the XFL broadcasts, Vince McMahon and the WWF may want to sue NBC for stealing the whole trash talking bit.)

That leaves the show to people who just can’t get enough trivia. Though most of the questions don’t seem too challenging they will still have the satisfaction of knowing all of the answers to the questions that contestants miss. There is no filling that void for those people.

Maybe, if it is not too much trouble, it is time for American networks to come up with their own game show ideas. Oh wait… the couple of times we tried that, we wound up with “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” and “Temptation Island.” Nevermind.

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