The Amazing Race

Helping to Fix a “Race”: How to Make “The Amazing Race” Succeed on Wednesdays.

Why, oh why, is a site with the word “film” in its title writing about “The Amazing Race,” you might ask? While we have sometimes strayed into the area of television, mostly with scoops on casting for network and major cable series, rarely have we ventured into the realm of reality television. Mainly it’s because I am a huge fan of a show I consider to be vastly under-appreciated— and probably also because I happen to work with one of the more popular contestants from the show’s first installment.

To be over-the-top dramatic as to why I’m writing this column, perhaps it is because the CBS show faces a conflict that even a Michael Bay summer blockbuster would have trouble mustering.

“Race” was on the bubble for several reasons. The show is actually a costly one to produce–imagine for a moment the complex logistics involved, of which the second edition was held over 30 days and crossing 55,000 miles over 5 continents. For an idea, a recent article from Zap2it.com spoke on the logistics involved with just the host in the current installment of the show—Apparently Phil Keegan was only able to steal an hour’s worth of sleep in the midst of a 72 hour-leg. Then, he says, “I got in a van and drove eight hours to the next location, got out of the van and went straight to the pit stop to welcome the next team for the next show.”

Insurance and travel concerns in a post-September 11th world also were prohibitive— there were marked differences between the first two installments, with the first installment filmed before and the second after the national tragedy. In the first they could run like madmen through the airport; there wasn’t a chance of them trying this in the second, unless the contestants wanted to be told they had been eliminated in an airport detainment facility several days later.

Also, despite doing well in that particular demographic and consistently heralded by television critics for its premise, it only received lukewarm ratings overall in a competitive Wednesday night. So when “Race” was picked up for the fall, there came a huge sigh of relief by the show’s devoted fanbase.

The Competition

“Race” retains its timeslot, as will its main antagonist, NBC’s “The West Wing.” Even with its three day-old Emmy win as best show; the season premiere of “Wing” still saw a year-over erosion of 13 percent of its audience for the show’s premiere on September 26th.

ABC shifts into the 9 p.m. hour another hour-long reality series, “The Bachelor,” to directly compete against “Race,” while moving the flagging “Drew Carey Show” (which previously help this timeslot) to Mondays in a last-ditch attempt to revive a show they still are contractually obligated two years for. The phenomenon that is “The Bachelor” also seems to have lost some steam with viewers, although a retrospective show that also unveiled the new bachelor was directly competing with the season finale of “Big Brother 3” on September 26th—it rebounded slightly on October 2nd.

From there, the competition is new. Fox and the two netlets each promise new programming targeting a niche audience. Fox builds on the powerful lead-ins of the returning comedy “The Bernie Mac Show” and freshman sketch comedy “Cedric the Entertainer,” with “Fastlane,” which stars Bill Bellamy and Tiffani (nee Amber) Thiesen. I’m not sure if the show has the goods to stick around— “Fastlane” saw a loss of 1.65 million viewers from the pilot episode on Sept. 19th to the second episode that aired on September 26th, but managed to still rank second in the hour in the all-important 18-49 demographic.

While MediaWeek.com’s Marc Berman is optimistic about the show’s future—in a recent column, he said that Fox “may very well have something here”—I am less so. This new show figures to be the main competition to “Race,” and I’m guessing viewership will erode. We’ll find out in a couple weeks how the two manage head-to-head, once we see the end of the baseball play-offs.

Among the laggards among the national networks, UPN offers a new version of “The Twilight Zone,” hosted by Forest Whitaker, while the WB has high hopes for “Birds of Prey,” adapted from a D.C. comic book series. Despite having a good pedigree, “Zone“ looks DOA with a 73 percent retention of it’s “Star Trek: Enterprise” lead-in (as well as a 24 percent erosion in week-over households), while “Birds of Prey” is late to the ball, only beginning its run on October 9th. That could either hamper its end results or the extra promotional time could serve to help it. I’m guessing it’s the former at this point, based on negative advance word.

So, despite positive to fair first- and second-week numbers for each of these shows, the arrival of “Race” is an important one to gain a sense of the bigger picture.

With “The West Wing” seeing some audience erosion, there is a chance that “Race” could surprise this fall. In no way should CBS cede the second-place spot to the any of the new wave of competition, though, or should its fans be worried— the third installment’s airing presents a tremendous growth opportunity for the show.

But the initial installment numbers were not promising— The first real night of “The Bachelor” managed to outdraw “Race” by nearly 35 percent of viewers, helping the Tiffany network to come in at #4 slot among the networks.

In fact, as they prep for the fourth installment, this is the perfect time for the show’s producers to stop, take stock and adjust the series with a few minor tweaks.

The New Season of “The Amazing Race”

Like any reality show, the biggest challenge for the show is its casting. The casting people have given us some great contestant teams in Kevin & Drew, Team Guido, Wil & Tara, Cha Cha Cha and Gary & Dave in seasons past. But they have also supplied a great deal of duds as well, relying on contestant archetypes that have failed to do well, and would continue to do so in subsequent editions, such as the mother/daughter combinations, regular-type married parents and older married couples. This was the main problem with the second installment.

This reliance looks to having been lessened this year for the sake of more viable contestants, although a few archetypes still remain, like the stay-at-home moms from South Carolina and the married parents from Florida. They’ve also added one more team to the mix, bringing the total up to 12.

Some of this year’s stand-out teams include Flo and Zach, friends and Vassar College grads who’ve shared a mutual attraction, but never have acted on it; Andrew and Dennis, a conservative Baptist and his openly gay son; and Michael and Kathy, a long-distance couple who had never spent more than a week together. There is some great potential conflict here, much better than in previous seasons.

But perhaps the most interesting pair is the contestant team bound by the September 11th tragedy. According to CBS.com, New York business consultant Jill Aquilino applied last year to compete on CBS’ “Amazing Race” in tandem with her brother, Frank Thomas Aquilino. They weren’t picked to compete in the second installment, and Frank, a VP at Cantor Fitzgerald, ultimately lost his life in the World Trade Center tragedy. Despite his death, Jill Aquilino teamed with boyfriend John Pietanza, her brother’s closest friend, to compete in the current edition.

So it looks like the show’s most basic issue has been solved, at least for this coming installment. But there are still some other quick fixes needed for the series— for the fourth in 2003’s first quarter.

Seven easy recommendations include:

1. Less vacations give-aways: Introduced during the second installment was that during certain legs of the race, the contestant team that arrived first at a leg’s “pit stop” was awarded a vacation, sponsored by American Airlines. In this advertising and sponsored-depressed market, I’m not sure the investment makes any sense for the airline from a business standpoint and—we’re talking 7 figures for the sponsorship, at the very least—and doesn’t seem to be it doesn’t reinforce any messages to me to use the airline, seeming to only serve to annoy the show’s more fervent fans, if the message boards are any indication. Seeing as how “Survivor: Thailand” had problems signing up sponsors for this installment, this problem may have solved itself.

2. Can the non-elimination rounds: They don’t work at all. Given there is one more team this go-around, guessing this will be solved somewhat—there are still going to be one or two still.

3. More one-dollar legs: Make it challenging for the contestants— sometimes I think they’re contestants in “Big Brother” with how painless the games within the competition seem to be. The dollar leg during the last installment made it one of the most interesting, and I would love to see more of that—too many contestants were too tight with their cash and this was a way to level the playing field.

4. Pit stops are a bore: By the same token, spice this aspect of the game up somehow. While I appreciate that these people are supportive of each other, I also want to see some rivalries bloom when they aren’t necessarily racing to the next pit stop, on camera. We saw a little bit of this last time with the flirtation between contestants and one flare-up, but it wasn’t enough. Can the winner for the leg get some further amenities, perhapsr

5. Re-purpose the show properly: Last winter, in a show of synergy, first-run episodes of “Race,” re-appeared on CBS’s corporate cousin UPN on Friday—two days after first-run episodes appeared on CBS. Although the audiences for the re-airing were a measly 1.5 million, it helped raise awareness for the show and allow fans who missed it the first time (like I missed the premiere’s first 15 minutes last night). CBS should seek to re-air this on a non-network Viacom cousin ASAP.

6. We need a leaderboard!: Times for the leg and the entire race are too often absent, only to be guessed on by extrapolation. Adding this to the mix can help viewers see the overall scope of the race, as well as give further appreciation for what the contestants are going through. Overall, it adds another component to the game, one which is sorely needed—make it feel like a sporting event, which will draw a key demographic of CBS viewers: football fans.

7. Make it more interactive: This is where “Survivor” excels, mostly because of the depth of its fan community—and there is now an official “Survivor Fantasy League” offered by the site. One of the most intriguing offerings for “Race,” albeit non-official, is the American Online Race, of which the next season will take place on October 25th. There needs to be more of this, coming from the official sites to help the show build its own community. Polls and weekly chats can only do so much.

There is a great deal at stake this season, and hopefully some of these suggestions help to fix a “Race” so that the show continues to clip forward at its brisk pace. Based on the recent viewership numbers of its rivals, there is no reason why one can’t think it will not pick up viewership share in the coming weeks—but CBS has to fix some of the existing problems of its show as soon as it can. Fourth place for the hour is, at best, something to build on. And it definitely has the tools and the pull to do so.

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