Since its premiere on CBS in 2001, The Amazing Race has dominated the outstanding reality-competition category at the Primetime Emmys, winning a total of ten times. Created by Bertram van Munster and Elise Doganieri, the show has become a valuable format brand with hit versions in Canada, Vietnam and China, among other markets. The Amazing Race returns to Australia this year after a five-year gap on a new home, Network Ten. Eureka is making the new Australian version in association with van Munster and Doganieri’s production company, Profiles Television. Ahead of jetting off to a “very remote place” as he plots his new National Geographic series Race to the Center of the Earth, van Munster spoke to TV Formats about his long-running franchise and its enduring appeal in the U.S. and across the globe.
TV FORMATS: How has The Amazing Race been able to endure as long as it has and remain beloved by audiences worldwide?
VAN MUNSTER: It’s relatable, and it’s great for an entire family to watch together. You see how successful it is around the world—that tells you something. We’re in 130-plus countries. We have formats going around the world. It keeps going and going! Of course, the creative that surrounds it and the concepts are very strong. We have a great army of people working on the show. Around the globe, we have well over 3,000 people that have worked on the show or still work on the show. We’ve gone through generations of cameramen. People get old on the show! It’s unbelievable.
TV FORMATS: How have you been able to innovate every season?
VAN MUNSTER: Imagination. I’m never running short on imagination and creativity. As I travel around the world with my team—I write the outline for the show every season—there is so much to see and so much that gives you ideas. It’s so broad. I can’t sit in a room and do it. I go around the world and whatever I see, whenever I see an opportunity to get something out of it that is unusual and creative and fun and dramatic, I jump on it. As a result, I’ve gone around the world 92 times!
TV FORMATS: Do you have any favorite cities? Are there some that are particularly good to film in?
VAN MUNSTER: The world is very small! My favorite places depend on the mood I’m in. You want to go to Sicily? Let’s go to Sicily, that’s a great idea! There always has to be a logic to how we lay out the route. It has to make perfect sense logistically because it deals with finances and creativity. Logistics, finances and creativity belong together; they all have to be on the same page. If something is not working, we take it out. And there has to be a flow in how you race around the world.
TV FORMATS: How long does it take you to map out a route for each season?
VAN MUNSTER: To come up with the idea for the route, I look at what we’ve done in the past. I can do it in a couple of hours, on the back of a newspaper. The actual creative layout, how they’re going to travel, takes three or four months. Once I lay it out, I go to the network and say, What do you think? If they approve it, then I’ll go out with my producers and challenge producers and we lay out the course and the route. There has to be a flow to it, a logic to it; it has to go from A to B to C to D. You look on the map and see where the logic lies. It feels random, but it’s not random at all.
TV FORMATS: What’s the approach to casting?
VAN MUNSTER: Casting is the backbone of the show. We have fantastic casting people who have been working with us for many, many years. We do this together with the network. We present the network a wide array of people—before it was people from all walks of life, but the last two seasons were themed [such as reality TV or social media personalities]—and if we all agree, then we move forward on getting the contestants in place.
TV FORMATS: Twitter didn’t exist when the series premiered in 2001. How has social media changed how you make the show?
VAN MUNSTER: When we started, we wanted to keep everything a secret. That turned out to be impossible! You can’t yell at people in an airport and say, don’t take a picture of my cast! My lightbulb went on and [I realized], we have a diamond in the attic and nobody gets to see it. Why don’t we let it all out in the open? Then we can take advantage of social media. [In season 25] we started in Times Square in New York—you can’t be more in the center of the universe than in Times Square. There were hundreds and hundreds of people taking pictures, which were all over social media. It worked! We went from keeping things a major secret to putting things out in the open, and it’s just been much more effective. We take full advantage of social media wherever possible. And they take advantage of us. It’s a good marriage.
TV FORMATS: The Australian version of The Amazing Race is coming back this year, with a new home on Ten. What can you tell us about the new adaptation?
VAN MUNSTER: It’s in full swing. Australians have a great sense of humor. It’s going to be a fantastic show. We have a great team there.
TV FORMATS: What advice can you give to international producers on casting and plotting out the routes for their own versions of the format?
VAN MUNSTER: That’s why our guys are there. And we are welcomed everywhere. Where we were not welcomed, [the local version] didn’t work! It is a collaborative effort, where we can transfer our experience of many, many years doing this—and we got a bunch of Emmys in the meantime—and our connections around the globe. Whatever they need, we’re only a phone call away. That saves a lot of time, money and aggravation. We let them do their own creative. We’ll say, This works great or, This wouldn’t work for this reason.
TV FORMATS: Do any of the international versions feel substantially different from the original on CBS?
VAN MUNSTER: Canada is doing a fantastic job. China did a great job. Singapore did a great job [with a regional version]. We’re pleased. The Israeli version is stretched quite a bit with interviews. But that’s their decision; we’re fine with that.
TV FORMATS: How did Race to the Center of the Earth come about?
VAN MUNSTER: I was approached by Courteney Monroe [president of National Geographic Global Television Networks]. They had a concept from a company in England [Plum Pictures], and they liked it and asked if I would be willing to produce. We looked at it and said, Absolutely, it sounds like a fantastic idea, let’s do it. This is super exciting. It’s new and fresh. It’s very different from The Amazing Race. It’s a completely different animal.
TV FORMATS: The TV industry has changed so much since we last spoke five years ago. What new opportunities do you see now that perhaps didn’t exist then?
VAN MUNSTER: There are a lot of opportunities. We are lucky—we get calls regularly to produce shows because people want to make sure they get done right and their money doesn’t get wasted. The deal-making has changed quite a bit. I have said to my team, Let’s be adaptive and make sure we’re not just working for hire. I think work for hire is great for people just stepping into the business. As people develop and get skills, they can make better deals for themselves.
TV FORMATS: Is it more difficult to get genuine reactions out of contestants today, given that people have become so accustomed to filming themselves and posting on social media?
VAN MUNSTER: Our stuff happens so hardcore in the moment, you have to be yourself. You have no choice but to be yourself. You’re standing in the middle of an intersection in India with thousands of people and cars and mopeds cruising around you. That aspect can be there a little bit when you interview them, they can fake it, but in the reality of doing the show and being in the heat of the battle, you better be yourself!