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Host only as strong as her 'Weakest Link'

Sunday, April 15, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

NBC's new game show "Weakest Link" (8 p.m. tomorrow) will either be a huge hit or a flash-in-the-pan flop.

Viewers will either latch onto host Anne Robinson's dismissive farewell - "You are the weakest link. Goodbye!" - or they'll change the channel, having no patience for the rude, condescending British host.

My bet is it will be a hit, though probably one with a much shorter life than "Who Wants to be a Millionaire."

The one-hour game show combines quiz show elements of "Millionaire" with the tribal council judgment of "Survivor." Each week, eight contestants play as a team, answering general knowledge questions doled out by Robinson. The top prize possible is $1 million. At the end of each round, players vote off the contestant who they think performed worst - the weakest link. The last two remaining contestants compete for a better score in a final round to determine the night's winner.

Launched last August in England, "Weakest Link" and its host became a smash success, beating the British "Millionaire" in the ratings. When it came time to import the series to America, original "Survivor" winner Richard Hatch taped a pilot as the host, but ultimately NBC stuck with the British original.

TV Review
"Weakest Link"
When: 8 p.m. tomorrow on NBC.
Hosted by: Anne Robinson

Though she has no marquee value here, in England Robinson successfully hosted a BBC consumer affairs show, fighting for the little guy. Presumably she smiled on occasion while hosting "Watchdog," not so on "Weakest Link."

Cold, precise and dressed in black, Robinson sounds like Linda Hunt and looks like a scowling Sally Jessy Raphael.

"When we began this evening, I explained that you were all previous winners on this show, which must be puzzling for the audience and embarrassing for you because there's absolutely no evidence of your skill during that last round," Robinson said on one British episode after the contestants missed many questions.

Where Regis tries to put contestants at ease, Robinson enjoys terrorizing them. But it's all a put-on, as her wink to the camera at the end of each episode is meant to convey.

In a phone interview late last month, an ebullient Robinson said her hostess-with-a-whip routine was borne out of her background.

"I spent the last eight years on television doing the BBC's main consumer program, which means I'm not a stranger to confrontation in terms of giving corporate bosses a hard time," Robinson said. "I don't think anything on 'Weakest Link' will come as a surprise to people who live in families where there's a lot of joshing and debating. It's nothing that doesn't go on at our breakfast table."

She has no problem with her reputation as being a tad, well, frightening.

"I think all journalists are a bit scary," she said. "Journalists are trained to ask impertinent, awkward questions. Haven't you asked impertinent, awkward questions before?"

Ma'am, yes ma'am!

Robinson described "Weakest Link" as an ironic show with a sense of humor and she appreciates contestants who are willing to engage her in verbal sparring, although few do.

"Nothing works well unless you have someone to play with," she said. "I'm more than happy for contestants to respond. That's the fun of it."

And though she's a Brit, Robinson considers America her favorite country and won't look down her nose at American contestants.

"I don't expect them to have a lack of intelligence," she said. "I expect to spar with them, not belittle them."

That seems a bit disingenuous given that belittling is routine on "Weakest Link." Robinson said those humiliating put-downs aren't scripted. She thinks them up herself.

She isn't the only one who has to think quickly. Contestants must answer questions and pay attention to how their competitors perform so they can make an informed decision when voting someone off.

"Playing this game you have to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time," Robinson said. "You have keep your eye on the opposition and answer questions quickly and give the impression of knowing answers even when you pass. People get marked down for dithering even when they answer correctly. Guys are better at answering with great confidence even when it's the completely wrong answer."

Robinson said she's noticed a trend among contestants on the British show.

"People who have the most fantastic knowledge are strangely not very good on current affairs and politics," Robinson said, "whereas young students and those at university are less good at [general knowledge] quiz questions and very good at [current events] questions. It's interesting to see where the knowledge is."

In England, Robinson was near the top of recent polls for both most popular and least popular celebrities. Her stern style has garnered her a cult of admirers.

"I understand I have become a gay icon," Robinson said. "And there are men who get excited about me being in leather as some sort of dominatrix. Frankly, as long as they watch the show I have no particular concern."

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