This story appears in TheWrap's EmmyWrap Reality Issue.
It has happened before, and it will surely happen again. The brain trust of “The Amazing Race” will be sitting around a conference table in the show’s headquarters, located conveniently close to Los Angeles International Airport, when one of the newer staffers will come up with an idea.
“We have people who’ve been here since the beginning, and then we’ll have new people come onto the staff,” said Elise Doganieri, co-creator and co-executive producer of the CBS show with her husband, Bertram van Munster.
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“The new ones might not have seen or remember every episode, and they’ll say, ‘Oh I have a great idea for a challenge!’
“And we have to say, ‘Nope. We’ve done that.'”
Of course “The Amazing Race” has done that, and been there. After 22 seasons of racing around the world, after 850,000 miles and close to 100 countries and who knows how many bungee jumps and tricky clues and eating challenges and roadblocks and detours and U-turns and fast forwards, and after winning nine of the 10 Emmys that have been given out for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program, what haven’t they done?
And as the era of reality television moves through its second decade, “TAR” is hardly the only show to have that problem.
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“Survivor” host Jeff Probst can get through most shows uttering phrases he's already used dozens of times; “Dancing With the Stars” pros like Karina Smirnoff and Derek Hough are probably sick to death of easing a new clumsy celeb through the Paso Doble.
There’s a reason the singing shows are playing musical chairs with their judges — because when you’re going into double-digit seasons on a show whose format is more or less set in stone, what once seemed novel can start to feel downright pedestrian.
“Keeping it fresh after 22 seasons is a real challenge,” Doganieri told TheWrap, as she and van Munster sat in their production offices surrounded by props and souvenirs from a decade’s worth of global excursions. “There are only so many things you can do, but we have to keep trying to find ways to do it differently.”
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“To keep it fresh comes in many different forms,” added van Munster. “It comes in little tweaks, little mechanical tweaks. But it is also the fascination with what are you doing, what are the challenges.”
It’s a tricky balance reality producers must strike — trying to figure out how much you can change the format that drew viewers to the show in the first place, or how long you can keep it the same before it reaches its sell-by date. While van Munster insisted, “The format doesn’t need to be changed — it’s been good since the beginning,” Doganieri took a more nuanced view.
“We like to keep the format of the show true to what it has been since Season 1,” she said.
“There’s always a roadblock, detour, pit stop, fast forward, route marker. But sometimes it’s nice to spice things up a little bit and throw the contestants off, so they’re not going into Season 23 thinking, ‘I know what to expect.’ You try to keep the show fresh without changing the format.”
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On a travel show like “The Amazing Race,” another problem is that if you go to Paris, you’d better show the Eiffel Tower; if the teams are racing through Sydney, viewers probably want to see the Opera House in there somewhere. “You have to hit the iconic buildings and places and statues,” Doganieri said, “but maybe we’ll be in a scout car and see something you’re going to find in the Let’s Go: Europe book. This is stuff that’s way off the beaten path, the stuff that makes it fun.”
One example from van Munster: “We were scouting in Azerbaijan, driving down some back alley because the driver couldn’t find his way at a market. And what do I see? I see a Russian car filled with apples. The trunk is filled with apples, and the entire back seat and the front, except for the driver’s seat. Filled with 1,700 kilos of green apples. I said, ‘Back up the car — what is this all about?’ It turns out they have a group of apple salesmen that drive to the market once a week, that come 100 miles from the interior. So we did a challenge with that.”
Even as they prep the show’s 22nd and 23rd seasons, van Munster said he still scouts every location. He and Doganieri are a hands-on producing team on a logistically complex show.
Their LAX-adjacent offices have rooms for planning, rooms for editing, rooms for meetings — but also an on-site travel coordinator, a person who just handles visas for the contestants and the 70 crew members who hit the road with them, and others to deal with security (which countries should we avoid this month?) and the legal fine print that must be met by a game show that gives away a $1 million prize.
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And they do it on a budget that van Munster said was cut significantly by CBS a few years ago. (That means if the race goes through Europe, which is expensive, they have to find cheaper places to save money elsewhere on the route.)
“It’s like planning a military operation,” Doganieri said. “The producers go a week or so in advance to the country the contestants are going to, and they have their checklists: make sure the clue boxes are in the right locations, the safety checks are done, the security team knows what’s happening and where we’re going.”
If the contestants have to make a long drive in a place like India, van Munster added, the production will station ambulances at intervals on the road, just in case of emergency.
“We contact hospitals in the cities and countries where we’re operating,” he said. “We know the names of the doctors and the surgeons. We know the helicopter operators, the numbers of the helicopters we’re using. We know the records of the pilots we’re using.” They also know that if they’re going back to somewhere they’ve been before, they need to find a twist — though to hear Doganieri tell it, she’d just as soon map out a course full of uncharted territory.
“We have a nice little ceremonial thing that starts off each season,” she said. “Bertram and I sit in what we call our War Room, which is the room where we put up all the creative on the walls. We have a giant map of the world there, and we sit in front of it and talk about where we want to go and where we don’t want to go.”
She laughs. “I always want to go to the most random, bizarre places, and Bertram is always, ‘How are we going to get into and out of there?’ I would love to go to Easter Island. I don’t know what we would do there, but I would love to go.”
“You can fly to Easter Island,” said van Munster calmly. “I just looked into it, as a matter of fact. The problem is you fly there, and then you walk around for a few hours, and then you have to get on the same plane back. And it’s a long flight.”
“But places like that fascinate me,” Doganieri said. “We would love to go to Antarctica. We still haven’t gone to Israel. The list has 50 to 100 more countries where we want to go. We need more seasons. If we keep getting picked up, we will get to all those places.”