LOS ANGELES – The quiz show contestants stand in a semicircle. They look tense. The host is center stage, wearing black and an unveiled expression of contempt.
"You did marginally better than the first round," Anne Robinson chides the players. "Let me remind you, slow coaches and ditherers have no place on the team. It's time to vote off the weakest link."
And they do, forcing one of the humiliated band to shuffle away, a camera in their face and Robinson's tart words echoing as their TV epitaph: "You are the weakest link. Goodbye!"
Ouch. But that's entertainment, at least in Britain where Weakest Link is a smash hit. Now NBC is giving Americans their own version of the show that retains its prickly host, a London journalist turned TV star.
The network has lagged in matching competitors ABC (Who Wants to be a Millionaire) and CBS (Survivor) in the development of alternative shows, but it's betting big on Weakest Link.
It needs to. While returning series like The West Wing and Law & Order have performed strongly for NBC, newcomers such as Titans and First Years wobbled and crashed.
Also in the picture is a possible summer walkout by Hollywood writers and actors. That would put pressure on NBC and other networks to develop reality and quiz shows such as Weakest Link to fill in for missing sitcoms and dramas this fall.
The quiz show debuting at 8 p.m. EDT Monday could deliver for NBC, one analyst said.
"I think it has a shot," said Paul Schulman of the media-buying firm Schulman/Advanswers. "Outside Fox's Boston Public, nothing else is in the 8-9 p.m. hour. It has a shot to at least be a marginal hit."
He added, however, that NBC hasn't had a show that worked on Monday since Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Weakest Link is getting a splashy, triple-pump launch after weeks of heavy promotion. Its Monday debut will be followed by additional episodes at 9:30 p.m. EDT Tuesday and 10 p.m. EDT Wednesday.
Patterned closely on the British version but with heftier cash prizes, it's a kind of stagebound Survivor: Players work with and against each other in pursuit of up to $1 million, winner take all.
Answering questions individually, contestants can collectively amass up to $125,000 each round. The group votes out one player at the end of a round, ultimately leaving two people in the fray.
The questions in the British version (a preview of the U.S. show was unavailable) are standard quiz-show stuff. "If each side of an Egyptian pyramid is 220 meters long, how far would you walk if you went around it?" (880 meters) or "In the animal kingdom, which 'j' is the largest South American cat?" (the jaguar) were among the queries posed to British players.
But it's style, not substance, that sets Weakest Link apart. Like a one-woman hit squad, Robinson peppers the contestants with rapid-fire questions and high-caliber insults.
After one player flubbed a science question, Robinson politely asked his profession. He was a teacher, the man offered.
"You're actually a coordinator for science in the school," she replied, taking aim.
"I certainly am," he said.
"Are you sure about that?" Robinson curtly replied. Fire!
Draped in black designer garb that gives her the air of a chic Western gunslinger, her mouth pursed hard, Robinson breaks the mold of the blandly inoffensive TV personality.
Could bubbly Regis Philbin ever be so cold? Or courtly Alex Trebek?
That's their problem, suggests Robinson, 56, who argues she is the one taking the high ground.
"Quiz show contestants are really very feisty and very sure of themselves and it just would have been inappropriate and patronizing to treat them any other way," Robinson said in an interview.
In her career on TV and as a journalist (she's currently a columnist for The Times of London), Robinson says she's avoided patronizing people or talking to them "as if their dog had just died."
As applied to Weakest Link, it's an approach she believes makes for good television. "It's feisty, it's fast, it's dramatic. It's a bit like a car crash, but you look anyway."
It certainly has more pep than Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Robinson notes. "Mind you, it wouldn't be difficult to have more energy than what's-his-face," she says of its host.
With an "oops" expression, she reminds herself to be a bit more discreet. But Robinson — who has a winning off-camera smile — just can't stop. She goes on to recall the dismal interviews she conducted as a radio host with the likes of Mel Gibson (he fell asleep) and Meg Ryan (she was on autopilot).
"Michael Jackson turned up two hours late," she continues. "John Malkovich came on and there were so many silences people rang up to see if their set had gone bad."
Those experiences made her vow to keep things interesting when the ball was in her court. Robinson believes U.S. viewers will understand that Weakest Link is a form of performance art, not cruelty.
"There is a sense of the absurd about it. And me winking at the end — it's a conspiracy."
If the prime-time Weakest Link catches fire, NBC may launch a syndicated daytime version. But the host under consideration may be too polite to equal Robinson: It's Survivor schemer Richard Hatch.