The Sunday Conversation: Bertram van Munster and Elise Doganieri of ‘The Amazing Race’

Bertram van Munster and Elise Doganieri, co-creators of the CBS reality competition "The Amazing Race," in their L.A.-area home.
(Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles Times)

The 21st season of CBS’ “The Amazing Race” begins Sunday night, on the heels of the reality competition show’s ninth Emmy win. Bertram van Munster and Elise Doganieri — a married couple who are the creators and executive producers of “The Amazing Race” — talked about some of their own team challenges pulling off a globe-trotting show for the last decade.

Congratulations on your ninth Emmy. Do you have a sense of why “The Amazing Race” is such a favorite with the television academy?

Doganieri: Since most of our peers are in television, I think they really understand what it takes to produce a show that’s global.

What’s involved in planning a global show?


Doganieri: It takes months of pre-production and planning, about four months of casting, prep, all the scouting, all the creative. We pick the route and then we film the show in about three weeks, so it’s all in the planning.

You guys are advance location scouts, yes?

Doganieri: Bertram does more of the scouting than I do at this point. We start with research in the office, we plan out where we want to go for the next season and we go out on the road with the country producers — the people who are going to produce each location. I’ll meet with our local facilitators and local companies to produce each episode.

That sounds like a lot of people. I thought reality shows proliferated in part because they were cheaper to produce than scripted.


Doganieri: “The Amazing Race” is in line with other reality shows, and probably at this point, we produce the show for less than most other shows. We don’t have any extra people on the road who don’t need to be on the road. Most of the people who work on our show come back season after season, and everybody is well versed in what it takes to produce the show. We work within a budget, and we stick to it.

After two decades, how do you keep the show fresh?

Doganieri: We are very involved. Bertram and I go on the road, and we’re there during the filming, and we’re involved in the editing and the casting. We try to find new and exciting locations. We make sure our cast is diverse and exciting. You know, with the global backdrop of the world, it doesn’t get boring — you always have a beautiful backdrop, interesting people, fantastic cultures. And if you cast it well and you have good creative, which is a huge part of making a show, it all blends together to be this fantastic adventure to watch at home.

How many countries has the show visited?


Doganieri: About 80. I hope we’re secretly educating people about geography and culture. I’ve heard some wonderful stories about teachers using “The Amazing Race” in their syllabus to teach children about countries, geography, cultures.

What do you think about the kind of reality shows that focus on wildly dysfunctional relationships? Yours seem like mostly pretty normal relationships — there’s friction because there’s stress, which is a different thing.

Doganieri: Everybody has their area of expertise. Bertram and I liked the idea that “The Amazing Race” is a competition where nobody gets voted out, no one is judged out and based on your own ability or inability, you are the person or your team that will not make it through or will succeed. What we love about producing our show is it’s a family show that everybody can watch.

Van Munster: There are 500 channels. There’s room for everybody, and why not?


Doganieri: Our show touches everybody. Our cast is really diverse. There’s father and daughter, there’s a wide range of ages and backgrounds. Everyone who watches can relate to somebody. So the drama comes from the relationships — people traveling together, there’s going to be drama, but it’s pretty much what we all go through when we travel together. There’s a million dollars and traveling to 10 or 11 different countries in three weeks, and you’re tired, you’re hungry — it definitely doesn’t bring out the best in people.

You guys have produced other adventure shows, like “The Great Escape” and “Wild Things” — clearly you’re a fan of adventure. What has been the most adrenalin-producing adventure you’ve ever had personally?

Van Munster: Of course there are very many white-knuckle flights — that’s an adventure in itself — into crazy territory, but to pin it down to one is difficult. The world is just damn small, very tiny. What I have learned from it is that it’s absolutely absurd that we have wars between each other. People don’t realize how small the world is and how similar our problems are. People all over the world are extremely hospitable — kind, friendly. You pay respect to their rules and their religion, and people are kind everywhere you go.

So you’ve never in all these years encountered anti-American sentiment abroad?


Van Munster: It’s more anti-government than anti-American — our policies. Nobody is anti-American. People just love us. They think we’re great. Several times contestants have lost money, like in Moscow on the street. People pulled money out of their pocket. I’ve never seen that here in America. Twenty, 30, 50 Euros, no problem. If you’re in the Arab world, very often people invite you into their house for food and hospitality. We go to Africa, people give you the shirt off their back. It depends on how you approach it and how you deal with people.

To go back to your Moscow comment, I know contestants are given allowances, and if they run out, they have to figure out how to get more legally. After Season 7, you specifically banned begging in U.S. airports. Did somebody do that in Season 7?

Van Munster: What happened, in Egypt, was that the soccer moms ran out of money, and they found two or three tour buses by the pyramids. And there were a lot of American tourists and they asked them for money and they got money from those guys. That was Season 5, I think.

Doganieri: The one thing we don’t want people to do, if you’re down to your last couple of dollars and you’re in a country filled with poverty, it just doesn’t look right or feel right to beg for money. If they want to perform and get paid, maybe — that could be kind of fun. But just to ask people who are underprivileged, sometimes it’s a bit off-putting and we just don’t want that to be an impression we leave behind.


Let’s talk about the new season. Why did you boost the prize money to $2 million? Isn’t $1 million still a lot of money?

Doganieri: We thought it would be a real game-changer. We wanted to up the ante. Yes, a million dollars is a ton of money, but we’re also hopeful that the people who win will do something wonderful with the money. One girl was a diabetic, and I know she was putting some of her money into research for diabetes. It also lit a fire under the contestants like you wouldn’t believe when they heard that.

What else can you tell me about the new season?

Doganieri: Contestants are going to travel through three different continents. They’re going to nine countries. We flew them around the world about 25,000 miles. And we have a great cast. We have some heavy metal rockers — one of them was a member of White Lion and Megadeth. We also have a woman who had meningitis and at 19 lost both her legs, but she survived, and she is a professional snowboarder and an inspiration to anyone who deals with any type of disability. On a really fun side, we have Chippendale dancers, and these guys are wildly entertaining.