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The Weakest Link
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The Weakest Link

The Weakest Link is a television game show which first appeared in the United Kingdom on BBC TWO in 2000. It was devised by doctor and sitcom writer Fintan Coyle and the comedienne Cathy Dunning, and developed for television by the BBC Entertainment department. It has since been replicated around the world.

The original format featured a "team" of nine contestants who take turns answering general knowledge questions. The object of each round is to answer a "chain" of consecutive correct answers to earn an increasing amount for a single communal pot. However, just one incorrect answer wipes out any money earned in that chain. Before their question is asked, a contestant may say "bank" and the money earned thus far is safely stored. It is advantageous but risky to not say bank, as each successive correct answer earns proportionally more money.

At the end of each round, contestants must vote off one player whom they consider to be "The Weakest Link": the one they believe wasted the most time, failed to bank judiciously or gave too many wrong answers. While the contestants work as a team, they are encouraged at this point to be ruthless to each other. At the end of the show, only two contestants remain for a final showdown. Only the winner leaves with the accumulated prize money – everyone else leaves with nothing.

Part of the show's success was due to the presenter, Anne Robinson. Already well-known in the UK for her sarcastic tone while presenting the BBC's consumer programme Watchdog, she found here a new outlet in her taunts to the contestants. Her sardonic summary to the "team", usually berating them for their lack of intelligence for not achieving the target became a trademark of the show, and her call of "You are the weakest link – goodbye!" quickly became a catchphrase. (Originally, the devisors suggested the equally acerbic Jeremy Paxman, host of University Challenge.)

Voting presents somewhat of a tactical challenge for canny players seeking to maximise their chances of winning, and maximising the payoffs if they do. Voting off weaker players is likely to increase the payoff for the winner, but stronger players may be more difficult to beat in a playoff. Some players may consider incorrectly answering some questions so as not to appear so much of a threat – however, such a strategy is risky. One study suggested that the optimal percentage of questions to answer correctly is 60%. If you do worse, you risk being voted off for being too weak; if you do better, you are perceived as a threat in the final showdown.

Mathematical analysis of the expected payoffs provided by various voting strategies suggest that the optimum strategies are to either attempt to go for the highest payoff, or bank after every question. Few teams adopt either – most choose to bank after three or four questions.

With elements inspired by Big Brother and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, the show differed from virtually all games shows before it by inviting open conflict between players, and using a host who is openly hostile to the competitors rather than a positive figure. Heavily criticised by the television press in some countries for its Hobbesian overtones, the show has nevertheless been a ratings success in most countries.

The American version of The Weakest Link ran in 2001 and 2002 on NBC, with Anne Robinson hosting. A syndicated version ran from January 2002 through September 2003. It was hosted by George Gray and produced by The Gurin Company, BBC Worldwide and NBC Studios.