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'Amazing Race' Defies Odds, Earns Renewal
May 14, 2017  | By Alex Strachan

The Amazing Race
will live to run another race, after all.

CBS’s pre-upfronts announcement late last week that the 13-time Emmy Award-winning competition series will return for a milestone 30th season was in doubt ever since jetlagged viewers appeared to tire of the madcap dash around the world.

That Amazing Race’s Emmy record will take some beating — it probably can’t be beaten — having won the first seven years after the awards committee established the reality-competition category in 2003. Overall, The Amazing Race won in 10 of its first 12 years it was on the air.

It’s no coincidence that ratings began to slide around the time Race lost the Emmy for the first time, in 2010, and The Voice emerged in recent years to seize the Emmy mantle.

The truth is, though, that Race was never a ratings juggernaut — not the way CBS companion show Survivor has been and continues to be.

It may seem odd to say about a reality-competition program that has lasted 30 seasons (15 years), but The Amazing Race was always more of a sprint than a marathon.

And yet, here we are. (Season 29, Panama City, right.)

There’s much to recommend The Amazing Race as entertainment viewing, and also as quality television. It’s fast-paced, driven by colorful characters performing challenges and racing through colorful destinations — destinations even the most avid traveler watching at home is unlikely to see in a single lifetime. The present race, the 29th running of a madcap dash around the world, has taken in Panama, Brazil, Tanzania, Norway, Italy, Greece and will carry on through Vietnam and South Korea in the two weeks that remain. (Host Phil Keoghan, at the Pit Stop in Trianon Park in Sao Paulo, top.) The finish line is Chicago’s Wrigley Field, with the finale set to air May 25 on CBS. (Programming note: This week’s installment, Thursday, is back-to-back episodes, so set your PVR accordingly or tune in an hour earlier than usual, if you’re watching live.)

This is actually one of the more prosaic Race routes. Earlier seasons have touched on and taken in Oman, Estonia, United Arab Emirates, Armenia, Iceland, Kazakhstan — Borat’s country — Mongolia, Kuwait, Romania, Bangladesh, Malawi, Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Mauritius, among others. But not Tibet. (China wouldn’t have it.)

A friend, who is not a fan of The Amazing Race, says he doesn’t care for the peppy challenges, which he says distracts from the cultures and surroundings the race passes through, but then Race was always a reality-TV competition, not a travel show. (Season 29, "Good Job Donkey" episode, Greece, right). The truth is, though — and this is one of the big reasons — that this is the only way many of us will get to even grab a glimpse of Malaysia (five times) or Sri Lanka (twice), let alone Bolivia or Mongolia.

(Trivia note: The Amazing Race has also passed through Canada, Finland, Vatican City, Liechtenstein, and Monaco, but did not actually overnight there, so those countries don’t officially qualify as pit stops. Now you know.)

The tensest, most controversial parts of The Amazing Race may well be those parts you don’t see on TV. In one of several interviews with this correspondent, Race co-creator and series director Bertram van Munster — he operates his own camera, much as he did on his first U.S. TV show, Cops — confirms that all teams must go through customs and immigration of every country they visit. (Evzones, Greece, right.) Cameras are not allowed at border crossings and entry points — obviously, for national security if for no other reasons — but that doesn’t stop some Race teams from elbowing their way forward, trying to jump lines and not being at their best or most patient when dealing with immigration officials. Van Munster says he came by his white hair honestly; an entire hidden-camera show could be made of spats — and potential international incidents in the making — at border crossings. There’s only so much the producers can do to prepare border officials in advance. Crossing from Canada into the US is one thing; crossing from Brazil to South Africa, as in the present season, is quite another entirely.

That’s why Race producers plan the race in such a way that teams frequently end up on the same plane, especially for long international flights. Otherwise, the production teams — each Race team is assigned its own camera operator and sound technician operator — may end up being scattered all over the planet.

Race teams can also move fast. In another interview, host Phil Keoghan admitted that, more than once, he and his camera team have nearly been beaten to the mat by race contestants, even though they don’t have challenges to get through first. There are certain constants to getting around any big city, in any country in the world, and bad traffic is one of them. As many Race contestants have learned to their regret, often the difference between finishing first in a race leg or finishing last and being eliminated from the race, is an inexperienced cab driver.

The Amazing Race itself has found it tough, though, to stay in the ratings race in recent seasons.

The writing appeared to be on the wall just this past year, when CBS cut the series order back to one cycle a season, rather than the customary two, then left The Amazing Race off its fall 2016-’17 schedule entirely.
Although the 29th season was filmed, edited and in the can, CBS didn’t actually air the new season until March 30 of this year, in the lull between the NCAA Final Four — an annual ratings-grabber for CBS — and May sweeps. ("Good Job, Donkey" episode, right.)

The network still had some faith in Race, however, as evidenced by its late Thursday-night time period. Ten o’clock may seem like an odd time for such a family-friendly program — The Amazing Race is arguably the most family-friendly reality program on TV this side of Dancing with the Stars.

The day, though, not the hour, is the key here.

Thursday is a critically important night for the broadcast networks, even in this time of fast-changing audience habits.

Thursday is the big advertising night for the major Hollywood studios’ weekend movie openings.

And while audiences continue to rebel against traditional TV ads, movie ads remain an exception. For many would-be moviegoers, that 30-second TV spot is the first and possibly only look at a new movie they’re weighing whether to see that very weekend. Movie ads not only pique viewers’ interest; they play a big role in convincing viewers to pay to see a movie just days after viewing the movie ad on TV.

For CBS to give The Amazing Race a Thursday berth — despite its flagging of late in the ratings race — was a vote of confidence, and an early signal, perhaps, that renewal was not such a long shot after all.
On with the show, then. As Phil Keoghan likes to say, the world is waiting.
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