TV Bites Back

Nigel Watson

Talking Pictures alias






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Anne Robinson whips TV into shape.BBC’s The Weakest Link quiz show is the television phenomenon of 2001. It has made its compare Anne Robinson a transatlantic star and set a new standard for abusing ‘real people’ on TV.

Back in the 1980s Clive James showed us clips of nasty Japanese game shows, which verged on torture. Contestants usually had to climb into tanks full of snakes or creepy crawlies, roll in mud and/or eat something disgusting. How we laughed at such antics, yes Johnny Foreigner is a silly old stick. 

We laughed because we were superior enough to think nothing like that would be made here. Programmes like The Jonathan Ross Show did feature pretty disgusting acts (mainly in the form of people eating goldfish and regurgitating them) and there was another, The Word that got members of the public to do something disgusting (e.g. like sniffing dog doings or eating it) just to get on TV. Fortunately, most of these were confined to the late evening slots aimed at drunks returning home from the pub.

Now we have Anne Robinson and The Weakest Link quiz show that makes abuse the main selling point of the whole enterprise. The premise of the show is incredibly simple. Robinson fires questions at the competitors who stand before her in a semi-circle like virgins before a sacrificial altar.

If a question is answered correctly money goes into the ‘bank’, but if wrong all the money is drained from the bank. To win the money for the team, a contestant has to say “bank” before their question is read out, and the process of banking starts over again.

After each round the competitors vote for the ‘weakest link’, so that by the end of the show there are just two people who fight it out for the money accumulated in the bank. It should be noted however that the contestants only pick who they think is the weakest link or they can even pick anyone else if the whim strikes them. Often the ‘team’ will pick someone who has been hesitant or seemed incompetent, quite often they miss the person who statistically answered the least questions and/or lost the team money. There is also strategic voting near the end of the game when two weaker players will gang up to eliminate a stronger player.

What makes The Weakest Link different is that after each question round Robinson grills the contestants about their choices, belittles them if they answered badly or did not bank much, and pounces on anyone who is a member of Mensa or has a fancy job title. When the weakest link is chosen they have to take the ‘walk of shame’ from the studio floor. 

The show uses psychological pressure combined with ritualistic humiliation - the worst scenario is for a contestant to be voted off in the first round or to be lashed by Robinson’s vicious tongue.

The programme is shocking and watchable because it turns the quiz show format on its head. In most the host is painfully genial and supportive of the contestant, if they miss-out on the star prize it is a major tragedy. In The Weakest Link there is only one winner and the rest are dismissed with the words “You are the weakest link. Goodbye.” ringing in their ears.



The show advances a form of socially sanctioned sado-masochism borne out of the displaced desires of an economized, virtualized society... Just as sexual gratification ... becomes removed from the sexual act, the role of game show contestant or viewer is removed from the object of winning the game.
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Material Copyright © 2001 Nigel Watson