She means well
But maybe Anne Robinson is her own Weakest Link
P.J. Bednarski -- Broadcasting & Cable, 4/22/2001 8:00:00 PM
Being that it was that kind of week, I had lots of opportunities to hear someone other than Anne Robinson say, "You are the weakest link. Goodbye." As yet no one has, though it was predicted that by this week at the latest, there would be T-shirts and embroidered throw pillows repeating the jaunty kiss-off.
Maybe on dates? I don't think so. The trouble with the phrase is that in this country, unlike England, people have guns.
(On the other hand, a perfectly timed, "Is that your final answer?" might get you somewhere.)
Despite the early hit status of this NBC game show imported from Britain, Weakest Link seems to be something less than the Mania of the Moment. Maybe it's because Robinson is so unlikable. The New York Post called her "Host from Hell" in 80-point type on its front page last week. In the bizarre world in which we live, that is what publicists would say is the kind of press money just can't buy.
Last week when Regis Philbin was trying to give away a million dollars, a contestant missed a pretty tough question involving, of all things, shrubbery. Ol' Reege seemed crestfallen that instead of keeping $16,000 this loser would walk away with just a grand; indeed Regis had counseled the guy to stop when he was ahead.
On the other hand, Robinson last week asked one contestant who had missed a few answers, "Is there no beginning to your knowledge?" To a would-be thespian who missed an Oscar-related question, Robinson chortled, "Oh, Tansy! The actress who doesn't know what the Academy Awards are!"
And at least twice, at the part of the show where contestants vote each other off, she exclaimed, "We'll soon find out who should be watching television, not be on it" a nice slap at the millions of semi-literates tuned in.
You're killing me Anne. ("TV's new 'Queen of Mean' is just as nasty off screen," the Post confided.) Honest, her viciousness is quite clever, but a sweet truth about television is that it doesn't long tolerate stars who are mean, or they don't succeed. Ralph Kramden and Archie Bunker were louts, but they always got their comeuppance.
Television is nice. Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses (father to ABC's once-famous programmer Jamie) were spectacular television writers in their day, and created Buffalo Bill, an NBC sitcom starring Dabney Coleman as an extremely ornery talk show host. In 1983, it probably was the second funniest sitcom on television (Cheers started at the same time) while it lasted, which wasn't too long, because America hated the guy. Tarses in fact, created a string of shows that failed for the same reason, though most of them were, literally, wickedly funny.
There are other examples. David Letterman, at his darkest moments, gets his darkest ratings. And remember Action, the Fox sitcom just a couple years ago starring Jay Mohr as a venal studio executive? Brilliant, the critics said. Remember how long it lasted?
So Weakest Link could be a short-lived phenomenon.
So far, Robinson hasn't withered—but hey, it's only been three days—and already NBC Enterprises is looking for a way to turn the show into a daily strip for syndication. That's an odd casting call, since the syndicators have to find someone mean (like Robinson) but not as mean (so America can stand it day after day, I presume). Who's Don Rickles, but nicer?
Tim Brooks, the veteran head of research for Lifetime, is watching Weakest Link with some fascination because at one point in his career he researched game shows for the very same NBC.
"You get a very strong feeling from testing that people want a host who wants them to win," he told me, "or at least isn't rooting for them to lose. ... If she is perceived as being simply nasty—if people start asking, could she do better if she were a contestant?—it could be a car wreck. It won't wear well if people think she is overtly putting contestants down."
Possibly, though you know NBC did gobs of research itself and that, if the network is smart, has already calculated the moment the audience will turn on her.
Still, it might be poetic justice that the television personality who invented the phrase will have it used against her in every newspaper headline in the nation the day her show is banished.
Bednarski may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 212-337-6965
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