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Contestant Interview with Howard Merritt
of the Weakest Link

You came so close to being an all-time winner on the show, what do you plan to do with the money you won?

Well, first of all, I paid off just about every debt I had, so I'm practically debt-free for the first time since I was in college. I don't think I would have been able to enjoy my good fortune as much if I had just kept the money for myself. So, I shared a lot of it with family, relatives, and friends. I invested/saved a good portion, both as a "rainy day" fund and for the anticipated federal taxes (they immediately take out 7% California state tax, but give you the rest with the understanding that you have to pay your own taxes out of it). As for indulgences, I didn't do anything wild or extravagant. No Rolex watches or bottles of Dom Perignon.

But there's one thing I'd been holding out for forever, that the victory allowed me to do. I have an old Porsche 928, my pride and joy, which I bought when I was in my mid-twenties. That car has been with me all over the world, from Canada to New Zealand (where I lived for a couple of years). Well, the engine died on it about three years ago, and I couldn't afford to get it replaced. Yet, I never wanted to part with my old friend. So, since 1999, I've kept it garaged, hoping against hope that some day I would have the funds to get it fixed up. With this win, I've been able to get my car fully restored, both inside and out. That's enough for me. I'm still the same guy I was prior to "The Weakest Link", just with a little more money and another interesting story to tell my family and friends in the years to come.

What was Anne like?

Let's see, what is Anne Robinson like? Well, that's hard to answer, since we really didn't spend that much time with her. We got to the studio at eight in the morning, and spent most of that time either in the Green Room (filling out forms, trying on the different clothes, getting made up, etc.) or over in a nearby building, getting interviewed by the producers. You see, although there are 8 people on the show, they invite 12 people out. 4 people will be selected as alternates (i.e., not get on the show that time, although there was a possibility that they would be invited back at a later date [which, back then, wasn't as unlikely as it sounds now; I believe that Louis, the bodyboarder, was a former alternate]). However, you don't find out until after the interview, just before the taping starts, whether or not you get to be an on-air contestant. In the brief period between finding out, and gathering for the opening group shot, Anne Robinson came out to say hello to us, but it was very brief. She said what appears to be her stock pre-show statement: "This is the last time you will see me smile!" I don't recall anything else she said - it was that quick.

There were rumors going around that players of the unaired NBC episodes would not be paid, but that is not the case?

As for the funds - from what I understand, all of the winners of the unaired episodes (including myself) was paid by the Gurin Company (WL producers) during the summer of 2002, a couple of months after the NBC cancellation (hiatus, whatever) announcement. You might see in some of my previous posts on this subject, I failed to mention that fact. It was only to muddy the waters a bit, and maintain the confidentiality of the show. If I started popping off about payments and such, it might have raised some suspicions amongst Forum members. And, really, isn't it better to be surprised? (*smile*)

The confidentiality agreement I signed was valid until the show actually aired. So they didn't have to send me a reminder along with the check. Besides, I wanted to keep it quiet, early on because I was under the impression that NBC would air it sometime during the spring or summer of 2002 (or PAX during the fall), and after that, I did it just for me. I signed an agreement, and I wanted to abide by it. So, no, I didn't tell a soul, and kept things very low key.

What was it like being on the set, was there alot of pressure? It didn't seem like it, I was impressed the way you were able to throw lines back at Anne, at one point she was speechless!

There is a certain amount of pressure on the set, with the lights flashing in your face, and the people in black surrounding you, not to mention Ms. Robinson, who can be very intimidating to many people. But, honestly (and not that I'm any better than anyone else), I went into that situation completely calm and focused. I had figured out a game strategy after weeks of watching the show at home, and that what I concentrated on. I wasn't worried about Ms. Robinson - I was a Navy officer when I was younger, and in my military work I've had to refuse the requests of captains and admirals, who could be a lot more intimidating than ol' Anne! I wasn't worried much about the questions, either - my friends say I'm a font of useless trivia!

I hoped that my strategy would hold up, but even if it didn't, my second goal there was to take a bite or two out of Anne, if I had the opportunity! Yes, during the 3rd round, when I 'got' her, it literally stopped the show! It took a couple of minutes for the audience and production staff to recover from their laughter before the taping resumed. Most of that was edited out of the broadcast. And yes, Ms. Robinson appeared to be none too pleased at being one-upped! She came at me again in later rounds, in sequences that were also cut. I like to think I held my own in those encounters as well, because she all but left me alone for the latter portion of the show!

Sorry you had to wait over a year to finally see your episode, did you feel anxious to tell your friends and co-workers the outcome?

At first, I was itching to tell SOMEBODY - it was a pretty big deal for me, and I wanted to share it. But I agreed to abide by the Confidentiality Agreement I signed, and I'm a man of my word. Plus, I thought it would be more fun to downplay it, sort of let people forget about it, then see their faces when it actually aired. Like I said, I was a Navy man, and in that position I learned to appreciate the value and necessity of keeping some things secret. So after a while, it stopped bothering me. I like to play poker as well, so I have had practice at keeping a blank expression on my face in pressure situations.

What are your thoughts about the overuse of celebrity editions that soposedly lead to the cancellation of the primetime show, and that the syndicated version is coming to an end after the current season?

As much as I've bashed the execs at NBC regarding their handling of "Weakest Link", I don't believe that they intentionally destroyed the show. During 1999 and especially in 2000, ABC's "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" broadcast several celebrity shows that were ratings successes. My thinking is that NBC tried to emulate the success WWTBAM had with this format by rushing and putting as many celeb shows on the air that they could soon after the debut of the show. In hindsight, the mistakes NBC made in adopting this format are glaringly obvious:

1. WWTBAM was a hugely popular, established property by the end of 1999, and thus could afford to have celeb shows without eroding its base of popularity. WL, while initially successful in the weeks after its debut, had not established a large, devoted audience. The apparent changing of WL's casting rules (that is, celebs instead of civilians) may have confused viewers and caused many to turn off the program.

2. WWTBAM appeared to be judicious in its use of celeb programs. Although the show was on several times a week at one point, most of the week's shows were the familiar and popular civilian editions, with celebs showing up only occasionally. WL kept the celeb shows coming every episode, week after week.

3. WWTBAM's format and host were well suited for celeb editions. Regis Philbin and the selected celeb guest were seated across from one another, talk-show style. While an element of tension was present during the questioning rounds, there was enough "space" in the format to allow Mr. Philbin to use his interviewer skills, and let the audience get to know the celeb a bit more. By getting to know the person, empathy was created which made viewers actually connect with the celeb and his/her struggles to answer the show's questions. WL made no effort to make the celeb seem like a "real" person, someone with something to lose if he/she was voted off the show.

It seemed that WL celeb shows were showcases that focused on Ms. Robinson and the guest stars trading quips, insults, and one-liners back and forth, a la a "Dean Martin Celebrity Roast". The WL celebs seemed one-dimensional, even moreso when the network began airing shows featuring wrestlers and lookalikes.

The main attraction for both shows, and for game shows in general, is watching ordinary people winning life-changing prizes, with the implied notion that, yes, even you, Mr. & Mrs. John Q. Public, could also have the chance to be a winner.

WWTBAM failed not because of the airing of celeb shows, but mainly due to the end of the telephone contestant competition (one of the most brilliantly executed ideas in game show history). With that innovation, the idea that "anyone can get on the show and be a winner" was fully realized. Ending the phone competition brought a lot of people back to earth. On the other hand, WL failed because of the celeb shows. They forgot about the regular Joe, who wanted to feel that he too had a chance at all of that dough. And in the end the 'regular Joes' made the network pay.

Overall, I think the time of big-money game shows like WWTBAM and WL is over, due to oversaturation. And this oversaturation has carried over into the syndicated versions of these former primetime shows. The interest and excitement level for Merideth Viera's and George Gray's shows pales in comparison to the early days of their parents. That's what I think killed Gray's WL, and it will ultimately lead to syndie WWTBAM's cancellation.

Thank you for your time and Congratulations on being the Strongest Link!


Report conducted March 21, 2003.

2003 Toeth's Game show insights,