The show is based around a "team" of nine contestants, who take turns answering "general knowledge" questions. Each correct answer earns more money for a single communal pot, but an incorrect answer wipes the money earned thus far in the round. However, 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 more money. The ascending chain of increasing amounts is reset by an incorrect (which loses the money unbanked) or a "bank" (which stores the money).
At the end of each round, contestants must vote off one player whom they consider to be "The Weakest Link": wasted the most time, failed to bank judiciously or given too many wrong answers. While the contestants work as a team, they are encouraged at this point to be vicious 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 presenting the BBC's viewer complaints show, Points of View, where her trademark sarcastic tone and expression 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.
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 % 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.
As of 2003, The Weakest Link has been cancelled in the US. The primary problem with the format is that the best players tend to get voted off, because of the winner-take-all format and the final playoff. If you're an average player, you're better off having a good chance of winning a small pot than having a small chance of winning of big pot. One suggestion is that the Strongest Link should get immunity from being voted off. Another possibility is to allocate votes based on questions correct, rather than 1 per person.