Elise Doganieri and Bertram van Munster, creators and producers of CBS’s The Amazing Race, talk to Awards Daily as they enter the final leg of Season 29.
CBS’s smashingly successful reality-competition series The Amazing Race enters its final leg for Season 29 tonight. After 16 years airing on American television, millions of viewers continue to watch to see which team wins the $1 million prize. At a time when other reality-competition series have long ago fizzled out, CBS’s The Amazing Race keeps going strong and merits well deserved Emmy® consideration.
Yet, the series isn’t simply about winning money. It informs viewers about exotic locales and foreign cultures that most wouldn’t ordinarily see. It encourages viewers to open their minds and expand their own borders at a time when international travel seems like a risky prospect to many. The husband/wife producing duo of Bertram van Munster and Elise Doganieri want everyone to know reality couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Here, they discuss the genesis of The Amazing Race, the benefits of traveling around the world, and what steps they’ve taken to keep the Race fresh after 29 seasons.
Where did the idea for The Amazing Race come from?
Elise Doganieri: The idea originally percolated in my brain. Way back in 1999, I had an idea and spoke to Bertram about it. When I graduated college, I traveled around Europe backpacking with very little money. I didn’t speak any languages and traveled with my college roommate who was my best friend. Halfway through the trip, we just got tired of each other and had a huge blowout. We took the day off from each other and later got back together. Everything was fine after that.
Later, Bertram just returned from MIPCOM, and I asked him what new shows were on TV. He said, “Oh, you know, nothing. Everything’s kind of the same.” I told him you guys in TV need to come up with something new and exciting. He told me, “You come up with something new and exciting, you’re so smart.” The idea of backpacking with my roommate around Europe came up [which morphed into The Amazing Race]. Bertram pitched it to [CBS’s] Les Moonves… and he loved it. That was the beginning of The Amazing Race.
Bertram van Munster: And now we have many, many Amazing Races formats around the world. The Israeli format. The Chinese format which is hugely successful. The Canadian format. A format out in Singapore. And the [American] show itself distributes into 34 countries, so we have a fan club around the world that is second to none.
With the international versions, how much influence do you have over those? Or do local production companies handle those?
Bertram: No, we have a very heavy hand in it. We are absolutely there all the time. My executives who have been with me for many years now run them with people directly from those countries.
Are there noticeable differences between native local versions and the American version?
Elise: There are some differences. Where people live in the world and how people do things, everybody has their own style of doing the Race. When you see each show, though, you see people with clue envelopes with backpacks doing challenges and roadblock. You see all the standard formats with pit stops and roadblocks, but in Israel, the clues are in Hebrew. In China, we do a celebrity version where Chinese celebrities are contestants in the show which is very popular there. They prefer to see celebs running around. We love to see celebrities too, but for our show, we prefer to see people who are just like you and me doing the show. The Canadian race is probably the closest to the American version.
I often wanted to try out for the show, and I mentioned it to my wife one night. She looked at me without missing a beat and said, “You’re more of a Big Brother person.”
Elise: [Laughs] Well, all the comforts of home! If you want to camp or be outside sleeping on planes, trains, and automobiles or ride camels or motorbikes or scale high walls, you do The Amazing Race. If you want to have all the comforts of home with peanut butter and jelly, then you do Big Brother.
Ha. Well, she based it off the fact that I can’t drive a stick. We honeymooned in Italy, and she tried to teach me there. Short story. Never. Again.
Bertram: We had a team in Norway. They drove the equivalent of about 300 miles in first gear because they were too afraid to go into second gear. They destroyed the engine. [Laughs]
That would definitely be me. So, you filmed the first season prior to 9/11, and after that day, airline travel changed forever. How did Season 2 change in terms of worldwide security?
Bertram: It didn’t really impact us that much. Overseas, everything else was pretty much the same. It was the beginning of standing in lines a little bit. But nothing else really changed. Here, the news creates a situation where everything in the rest of the world is extremely dangerous. It’s just not the case. You can go anywhere you want.
Elise: We love that we kind of picked up and got back out there and showed everybody that we weren’t frightened. Bertram’s right, the thing that slows us down a little bit, and I’m all for this, is that there’s more security at airports and train stations. We just factor that time in. As far as showing that the world is still a beautiful place and there are beautiful people in the world, I think our show helps keep people aware that you can still travel around. Nothing should stop you from doing that. Don’t be frightened by things that happen in the world. You just have to enjoy your life as much as you can.
Bertram: We were just filming in Zanzibar which is mostly Muslim. I went to a school where all these Muslim children are where they wear their traditional garb. You see how sweet and wonderful these children are, and I wanted to bring that home to show how much we are on the wrong track. These people are some of the most warm, nice, and hospitable people.
Elise: Something that’s really incredible, over the last 29 seasons of The Amazing Race, we’ve traveled over 1 million miles in the air, and we’ve visited nearly 100 countries. I think, if you ask anybody who was a contestant on The Amazing Race or anybody that’s worked on the crew, people just can’t wait to get back on the show and do it all over again.
So, you’ve won 10 Emmys for Outstanding Reality-Competition Series out of 14 nominations. What does that feel like for you as producers?
Elise: We’ve been nominated in the category every year since its inception in 2003. The first that the category existed was one of the most amazing moments of our career. It meant so much to be noticed by and nominated by our peers. We never feel like we’re going to win again. Every time we’ve won, it’s always a shock. It’s pretty spectacular and special. The people that we work with, our crew, are some of the best producers, cameramen, and storytellers. The cast is always amazing. We’re just so fortunate to work with some of the best people in the business.
Bertram: We have this wave of enthusiasm for our colleagues who work on the show here in the States. They’re so enthusiastic to work on it because it’s so original and so much fun to do. We are humbled by the Emmys each and every time, but we also set a very high standard. It’s so nice to be recognized by our peers in the Academy.
How are you keeping The Amazing Race fresh after 29 seasons?
Bertram: We try to keep it fresh by being really original through the creative process. Elise and I work very well together. We have plenty of back and forth between us, but we work well together. She is incredibly creative as a person, and I know the world really well, what to do, and what to anticipate. That’s not something you can improvise.
Elise: Keeping it fresh is also a matter of casting too. Are there little tweaks that we can do in every season that still stay true to the show and what we do? Bertram always says that the world is a very big place, and there are so many places we haven’t been yet that we still want to go to. We introduce new countries, new cultures. The backdrop forever changes. Even if we return to a place that we might have been to before, it looks a little different every time you go back.
What about Season 29 excites you?
Elise: We tried something new with this cast because they didn’t know each other going into it. It really became a social experiment of relationships. Putting people together that didn’t know each other turned out really interesting. We got to cast really strong solo people and put a team of two together. Sometimes when we’re casting, you have a great team, but one person is much stronger or maybe has a bigger personality. But when you can cast single people and put them together, you can cast people that have incredible personalities across the board. When you put that together, you get pretty explosive casting.
Bertram: It also has drawbacks. I feel very strong about the original format. Casting gimmicks I’m generally not crazy about. I feel the original concept is very strong, but I may be fully in the minority on that one.
Elise: No, I agree with Bertram on that too, but it’s nice to switch things up. The other thing I love about Season 29 is all the continents that we hit. We go to Panama, Brazil, Tanzania, Norway, Italy, Greece, Vietnam, and South Korea.
Anything exciting planned for Season 30?
Elise: It’s going to be big. Bertram and I have a lot of ideas, and that is to be seen! [Laughs]
The Amazing Race wraps Season 29 tonight on CBS at 10pm ET. You can find the full season on CBS.com or through CBS AllAccess.