Racing around the globe for a million-dollar-prize sounds like a great time, as long as you're not the one responsible for setting it all up. For the producers in charge of two-time-Emmy-winning reality series, The Amazing Race, it's a logistical nightmare of the highest order. Moving people and equipment around the world for a month requires precise planning and a small army of people to pull it off.
"We have over 2,000 people working on the show worldwide," says producer/creator Bertram van Munster, who starts planning out each Race edition three months ahead of time. "In order to lay out the Race and make it financially, creatively and logistically work, I go everywhere and lay it out, and hand all that knowledge over to the rest of my team," he says. "Then I travel with my team again around the world and plan exactly where the camera position is going to go, what we're going to do, and come up with all the challenges."
Not surprisingly, van Munster knows quite a lot about getting from one place to the next. "People in my office are sometimes shocked by the amount of airline schedules I have in my head. I can tell you where Air Nepal is flying at 1:00 in the afternoon. I can tell you how many flights Air Botswana has between Gabarone and Johannesburg," says the Dutch-born producer, though unforeseen travel roadblocks inevitably arise.
"Every time we get on a plane and we go to an airport, it's like rolling the dice," says Race host Phil Keoghan. "Is there going to be a mechanical [problem] on the plane? Are there going to be weather delays? We've been sitting on planes with the weather closing in and a team might be on another plane that got out before the weather closed in. Now we're sitting on the ground and we know the teams are racing ahead of us. It gets really challenging. I've literally Raced teams to the pit stop. One time I was literally running up to the mat while they were running from the other direction."
Then there's the totally unforeseen obstacle that can force the production to change locations. "In Argentina, about two years ago, we had a situation where the entire banking system collapsed. I was about to wire a substantial amount of money there because we were going to shoot there. We changed the itinerary from Brazil-Argentina-South Africa to Brazil-London-South Africa," remembers van Munster. "We had a situation in Rio where the paparazzi found out where we were going to be shooting and we switched samba bars."
With the popularity of Race, it's now necessary to have security, decoys and cover stories to fool the curious, particularly in places American tourists frequent. "We have the Pied Piper motif going on a little bit," allows van Munster. "We'll call the show something else-they think we're filming a commercial," adds co-producer Elise Doganieri, van Munster's wife. "We'll be setting up a club box and Americans will ask, 'Is this The Amazing Race?' And we'll say, 'No, we're doing a documentary.'"
Doganieri and van Munster employ a network of local facilitators in each location Race visits. "I set up a worldwide infrastructure years ago to produce a different show and I have satellite offices around the world that we've used through the years. These are people I know for many years and through these offices we get our permits," says van Munster. Adds Doganieri, "We tell them 'We need this many cars at this location,' 'We need this many hotel rooms,' and we negotiate the deal when we get there."
As you might expect, their phone bills are astronomical. Typically, "one country alone was over $25,000," notes van Munster, who calls communications their biggest logistical challenge. Satellite cell phones "keep us aware of everybody and where they are," he says. "Each team has a crew and so does Phil," adds Doganieri. "Everybody has a cell phone so they can stay in contact."
As for the challenges they create for the teams, van Munster and Doganieri strive to make them indigenous to the location. "You have to find things that the locals do, and you don't look in a tourist guidebook," says Doganieri. "You drive around the countryside and you look for the little things, because the locals sometimes don't even realize how unique the things they do are, like building a mud hut."
Keeping Things Safe
The challenges must also be difficult, exciting to watch and safe. "Absolutely everything is totally checked over and over and over again. We can't afford to put these people at risk," assures Keoghan. "It's perceived danger. To me what really works about the Race is not when we put people in harm's way. It's when they're pushed outside their comfort zone. Watching ordinary people in a totally unusual, extreme situation is interesting TV."
Doganieri is among the challenge testers, and vividly recalls a 134-meter bungee jump she made in New Zealand a few seasons back. "I'd never done that and I'm a little afraid of heights. I took about four minutes before I stepped off. I knew if I was that scared we had to do it for the show. But I almost had a heart attack doing that one," she admits.
In the event of a real medical emergency, contingency plans are in place. "We have first aid, and we know all the hospitals and have doctors on call. We have ambulances standing by," says van Munster. There have been a few mishaps. A rescue boat in Vietnam hit a sandbar, injuring a producer, and another producer broke her wrist. Several contestants have been hurt, though not seriously.
A Road-weary Host
The current edition of The Amazing Race, its seventh, began in Long Beach, California with 11 teams, including engaged Survivor: All Stars winner and runner-up, Amber Brkich and Rob Mariano. Keoghan greets the teams as they arrive at the pit stop for each leg of the Race for a 12-hour rest. "They really do stink. And they always want to hug me," laughs the New Zealander, who adopts a stony demeanor for a second or two before he tells them they're still in the Race. "I want the tension there on the mat," he explains. "The feedback that I've gotten from the audience is that they love not knowing, and they love that I mess with them a little."
He interviews the contestants after they arrive, and those sound bites are used throughout the show. "When they come in, they're excited and pumped up and want to share their experiences. I get a front row seat to this amazing game," says Keoghan, for whom the hardest part of the job is telling the last team they have to go home. Once eliminated, teams must board the next plane to the U.S.
Keoghan, who produces and hosts No Opportunity Wasted for TLC and wrote a book of the same name last year in addition to his Race duties, had two days off in 2004. "I was so fried when I got home. But on the day when I didn't have anything to do, I didn't quite know what to do with myself. I couldn't actually believe that I had a day off. I added it up and I think I did something like 450,000 miles last year. I was speaking to a pilot who flies for Virgin about it and he said, 'Dude, you flew more than I did. I fly four times a month.' It was insane. I would wake up and go, 'OK, where am I? What country am I in?'"
He's not confused, however, about the appeal of this show and what sets it apart from its reality brethren. "A huge part of it is that we're always in unique places and can show you something you've never seen before," says Keoghan. "One of the things that makes Race stand out is that we have consistently had a show that has accentuated the positive, always gone for something uplifting that is a celebration of the human spirit, rather than a train-wreck show. The show is not about going to extremes to create television."
Nevertheless, the producers like to change things up from time to time, adding new elements to the game. Season eight will feature teams of four players instead of two, all with some familial connection.
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