Interview: Co-creator Elise Doganieri discusses The State of ‘The Amazing Race’

Back in June, I trekked down to Palos Verdes, wherever that is, to take part in a junket for the new “Amazing Race” season, conducted just days before the teams headed off on their race around the world.
I’m still trying to figure out what to do with my conversations with the different teams — at the very least, I have lots of dramatic irony-laden quotes to toss back at the teams when they’re eliminated — but I also got to chat with both executive producer Elise Doganieri and host Phil Keoghan. 
Both interviews were fun for me because I had a long time with both “Amazing Race” veterans and if you’re a reader of my regular weekly recaps, you’ll note that I was able to ask about an awful lot of the issues that are weekly bees in my bonnet through any given season.
This interview with Doganieri, for example, includes discussion about the planning of Non-Elimination Legs, the rise in alliance-building in recent seasons, the controversy over the show’s trip to Vietnam last year and, my personal favorite bugaboo: The structure of Double U-Turns.
Doganieri also teases some of this season’s locations and talks about the potential for another All-Stars season in the future.
Click through for the full conversation…
HitFix: When you’re starting to cast up a season, do the agendas or needs change in any particular year?
Elise Doganieri: The agendas don’t really change in any particular year unless we are doing, you know, like All-Stars, which we did a few times. Then we start looking back at what we’ve done before. We always cast for Type A personalities, super-competitive people. It’s always nice if they have a sense of humor, because you have to have a sense of humor to be on the road for so long. And it’s also for people who have interesting personalities with each other. It can’t just be, “We’re best friends and we have a good time.” People who tend to have relationships that are so perfect and easy-going aren’t the best TV sometimes. We have to see, underlying, that there’s a little drama there, a little spark. We always look for that — Just really interesting character that we know will have good relationship moments on the road.
HitFix: What would you say is the best way to get noticed? To get that spark noticed?
Elise Doganieri: You know what? Some people just naturally have it. It’s like the charisma that a movie star has sometimes. When you meet them, you can see it. They just kinda shine a little bit brighter than everybody else and we like to think that we’re able to find all those types of people. People who speak really well… It is a reality show and there’s no script involved, so they might be super-intelligent people, but if no words come out of their mouth, then we don’t have a TV show. People who love to talk are perfect for this show. Everybody that’s a future contestant on the show, we always ask, “Do you think you can win this?” And the ones that are always on the show are the ones that always say, “Yes, I think I can win this.” Or not even, “I think I can win this.” “There’s no competition,” usually they say, “I can win this.”
HitFix: So far, I’ve asked seven teams about phobias and thus far, all seven have said, “No phobias.” How much do you want or need something like that that you can, hypothetically of course, exploit?
Elise Doganieri: Yeah, I don’t believe them. I don’t believe that contestants don’t have phobias. I think they don’t want other people to know they have a phobia. We don’t even ask them that question anymore. “Are you afraid of heights?” “Are you afraid of spiders?” Most people are afraid to just fly sometimes. Elevators. Claustrophobia. People have all these hidden agendas and phobias that most people don’t even like to talk about, so we usually find those out when they’re in that situation and many times we put them in extreme situations, so it’s far worse. I don’t know anybody who isn’t afraid of a snake. You may not be afraid of a spider, but when you’re in a certain country and they’re the size of your hand, you might feel a little differently about that. So I know all these teams want to come across super-strong and most of them are, but everybody’s got something that irks them a little bit.
HitFix: And the one phobia that a couple teams mentioned is snakes. [“Isn’t that funny?” she asks.] So if you have any open challenges for this season, I recommend, “snakepit.”
Elise Doganieri: it’s too late to change the creative now. It’s already locked in. But we’ll see. There might just be a snake that comes up just from the location they’re in. You never know.
HitFix: How *totally* locked is the creative in any given season?
Elise Doganieri: 100 percent. In every season, before we leave, the creative is 100 percent locked. It’s actually locked a few weeks in advance before we leave, because we have to make sure of two things that are really important: This is a reality competition show for a million dollars, so if there was anything that would change on the road just because we felt like changing it, we wouldn’t make it to another season, so many people would come after us. The only way anything ever gets changed is by a force of nature. That means that if we’re in a location and all of a sudden there’s a monsoon… I mean, it doesn’t even exist anymore. We have people that are advanced, already on the road. There are people already out on the road before we even started that are in their countries, so we’re checking weather reports every day. Many times if there’s a location that we lose because of weather, there is backup plan. We have a lot of Plan B’s in place that we know like, “OK. If that river’s gonna flood, there’s another river over here that we know we can use.” So the creative pretty much stays on path, but it’s really a weather issue or, worst case scenario, a fight gets cancelled and the whole team can’t get in and the contestants are trapped somewhere… But this show has to run on-schedule on a daily basis and we know every day where we’re gonna be and what challenges are going to occur.
HitFix: And that includes the To Be Continued Legs and the Non-Elimination Legs?
Elise Doganieri: The Virtual Pit Stops… Everything is planned out. All the Non-Elimination Legs are planned out. All the Fast-Forwards. Everything is planned out and locked before we leave. All the clues have been written right now. All the host scripts have been written. CBS and the legal team have signed on everything at this point.
HitFix: OK, so convince me on why Non-Elimination Legs aren’t the worst thing ever.
Elise Doganieri: [Chuckles.] You know what? They’re not the worst things ever, because there have been times where someone has been saved by a Non-Elimination Leg and they’ve actually won the Race. So I think that’s special. It was something that we always struggled with at the very beginning: How many teams can we really have racing around the world that the viewer can follow? What can we do within the parameters of the show? I don’t know. I think it adds a special little twist. And every so many seasons we try to switch up what that penalty might be for coming in last. Right now we have the Speed-Bump that follows in the next show — You know, “You were the last one in and you’ve gotta do something extra.” Some people don’t recover from that. Look, the teams look forward to something like that happening and there’s always a dramatic moment where Phil is standing there and says, “So-and-So and So-and-Son, you’re the last team to arrive… But!” So, it plays well on TV and I kinda like it.
HitFix: OK. And what is the strategy when you look at the course of the Race where you stick those Non-Elimination Legs?
Elise Doganieri: For Non-Eliminations? It’s what we didn’t do the season before. There is a little bit of a strategy. We definitely sit down and look at the layout. We have a room called the War Room in our office and every episode is laid out and it just has to fit organically, sometimes, where it works best for us, where it feels like it works within the show. So it’s not a random pick, but we also try to make it so if we picked Episode 4, 6 and 7 in the previous season, we don’t want to do that again. We want to throw people off-guard so they’re not expecting it.
HitFix: Looking back on last season, were you surprised by how easy it was for Bates & Anthony to get other teams to not want to get rid of them? [She laughs.] That’s the thing that surprised me all season. From the first episode, people were like, “OK, these two are the biggest target out there” and then they just helped them all the way along to the million.
Elise Doganieri: I find it really interesting, the psychology of people when they’re in groups and how they work and the pack mentality sometimes. People feed off of what other people are thinking. Sometimes people don’t want to rock the boat. Or Bates & Anthony seemed like two big guys that weren’t such a threat. They just came off very likable and I think that was to their advantage. There’s also a certain amount of charisma, which I talked about when we do the casting. They’re both very charismatic guys that have great senses of humor, so they tended to put the contestants at ease all the time by their personalities, so it was a very smart, manipulative strategy that they used to get people to believe that maybe they really weren’t a threat, when ultimately they were the biggest threat out there, because they won the show.
HitFix: So when people say, “Oh, they’re two professional athletes, so of course they have an advantage when they’re carrying barrels up steps and whatnot!” your response is, “Well, other teams should know that…”
Elise Doganieri: Other teams should know that and if there’s a chance to ever knock them out, you’ve gotta get rid of those people right away. People forget that they’re racing for a million dollars and they kind of fall in love with all the other teams because they’re all in it together and it’s like this big group mentality, but some of the smarter ones really pull away from that and say, “This is a competition. I’m not making friends with anybody.” But a lot of people get caught up in it, because when you look at this tiny group of people traveling around the world for a month, there’s a camaraderie that starts to happen and you can’t help but start to like the other people, because you’re playing the game together and you’re experiencing something together. It’s a unique situation, but don’t ever be fool. But you know what? Don’t also ever be fooled by the people who aren’t super-athletic, because we’ve certainly had plenty of teams come in first that weren’t super-athletic. And if you’re smart, when you’re doing your Detours, there’s always one that’s a little bit more mental and then a little physical, so take the one that suits you best and if it’s gonna be the one where you’re not lifting heavy barrels and you’ve gotta think a little more, go for that one. Go with what suits you.
HitFix: You talked about the teams sorta bonding as they go along. I’ve felt like the past couple seasons, alliances have come more to the forefront than they ever did in the first 20-ish seasons. Does it feel like that to you as well?
Elise Doganieri: I’ve noticed a little bit of a trend in that and what I see is happening is that when contestants get separated from the pack, they get really scared. They don’t know if they’re ahead or if they’re behind. They can’t see what the viewer’s seeing. They can’t see what production is seeing. So sometimes the teams, right now they’re tending to want to stay in a pack, because they think that if they keep their enemies closer, then they know where everybody is and they just have to beat the people they’re with. That seems to be a little bit of a trend right now. But you know what? With this group that we have this season, it’s so unpredictable. I don’t know which way they’re going to go. We’ve got doctors, we’ve got guys who live off the grid, we’ve got professional athletes, we’ve got super down-and-dirty manipulative people that are ready to find a way to get ahead any way they can. It just depends on the group and how they start to act together. They’re not allowed to talk to each other until we start the show, but they’re all looking at each other in our pre-interview meetings, but they’re not allowed to speak. They have no idea what they’re up against, but don’t judge a book by its cover. That’s one thing I’ll say to them: Never judge a book by its cover.
HitFix: Do you like the idea of alliance-building on this show, though? Or do you like that the absence of that sort of thing was part of what made “The Amazing Race” different?
Elise Doganieri: You know what? It doesn’t bother me, but I think it’s not something that’s necessary. If you want to win this Race, you’ve gotta focus on your game. This is not a team sport. It’s you and your partner and that’s the only team, just the two of you getting ahead, moving forward and getting ahead. The ones that fall into the trap? I think it makes great television, because it’s an interesting challenge, it’s an interesting perspective for the viewer to see how people react to one another and the way that they fall into categories.
More on Page 2, including Double U-Turn rules, the Vietnam controversy and which countries are in store for this season…

HitFix: The Race has remained fairly stable in its structure over the years. Occasionally you try something new and then you pull it back. So like the $2 million twist two seasons ago or the double Express Pass last season, do you feel like those were experiments that worked? Did you not go back to the $2 million for any particular reason?
Elise Doganieri: You know what? Everything is an experiment when we come up with something. “Oh, let’s come up with a twist for the next season.” I think the $2 million worked and it was a great idea. I don’t know if we got so much out of it in the end. The double Express Pass? I think that worked out really well. What person gets a double Express Pass and gets eliminated because they’re so sure that there’s another team behind them or they’re so sure that they’re going to get to use it later? That’s where the double Express Pass played on somebody’s mind and it gave him a sense of security that really wasn’t there. So it actually backfired on John and Jess and, unfortunately for them, hopefully if we use that again, which we’re thinking of, it’ll be something that somebody takes advantage of and uses early on.
HitFix: Everybody was sitting at home for that entire episode yelling at the TV and yelling at John and Jess. What’s happening in production as that’s happening?
Elise Doganieri: As it’s happening in production, while that was going down, we’re all talking to each other and whispering in pure amazement and saying,  “What is wrong with this person? What is he thinking? It’s now getting dark outside. Doesn’t he think that all the other teams have come in?” And there’s Jess, who’s standing up by the Pit Stop waiting for him and seeing all these other teams coming, all these other teams coming in. Every time she goes and checks in at the Pit Stop with him and Phil tells him he’s wrong, she’s not speaking up either! She’s not saying, “Let’s use it.” She’s saying it a little bit, but she wasn’t strong enough to convince him to use it and that’s unfortunate for them, that they got really so secure in themselves that they thought there was another team that was behind them. We were frustrated beyond belief but, on the other hand, we’re thinking, “This is great TV.”
HitFix: It made for good TV for one episode. It cut off strategy going forward…
Elise Doganieri: Yeah, but still! What a great ending to an episode there.
HitFix: OK. I’m not going to forgive myself if I don’t ask this. Why at a Double U-Turn can a team that has already been U-Turned then turn around and U-Turn another team before they complete the other half of the U-Turn?
Elise Doganieri: [Long Pause.] Oh. Why? That’s a good… That sounds almost as complicated as the U-Turn.
HitFix: Once you’ve been U-Turned, you have the responsibility to go do the other half of the Detour. But you haven’t completed your portion of the task. So why can you U-Turn somebody else?
Elise Doganieri: Right, but you are going to that location where the Double U-Turn board is, so your time there is to select another team.
HitFix: But you haven’t really checked in there, because you have to go perform the other Detour and then turn around and come back.
Elise Doganieri: Right. Well… That’s a very good question. I don’t know. I’ll bring it up with the Challenge department.
HitFix: This is a question that I raise every year when it happens.
Elise Doganieri: And you raise a very good point. I don’t know if we’ll change it, but I will definitely think about that a little more. It’s not a bad idea, not a bad suggestion. I will definitely consider that.
HitFix: I understand that it allows for the bunching up that you want.
Elise Doganieri: There’s no penalty for the person who is applying the U-Turn to somebody else. It’s just part of the game. So why do we choose to do that? It’s just the way that we designed it. It works out nicely for us. It makes good TV. Again.
HitFix: Changing gears. Were you surprised by the brief Vietnam tempest-in-a-teapot last season? Or did you anticipate it?
Elise Doganieri: Yes. I was surprised by it. But I think we all did the right thing by responding and apologizing and moving on. It was a big learning experience for all of us, right? We should have paid a little more attention to the feelings of everyone out there when we get to a location like that. To be perfectly clear, we have been to extremely sensitive places around the world. We have been to Auschwitz. We have been to the Berlin Wall. We’ve been to Robben Island where Mandela was locked up. We’ve been to Goree Island, where the slaves were all taken from Africa and sent over. We have given moments to respect, we’ve paid homage, we’ve had a moment of silence in all of these places and we never wanted to show any disrespect to anybody, so it was clearly something that we should have addressed more formally when we were there. Moving forward, we’ll pay the same attention that we’ve given to all the other locations when we find a sensitive area and do that in the future, just like we always have.
HitFix: Was the correct solution just as simple as giving a moment of reflection like you previously have?
Elise Doganieri: I think so. Don’t you think? It could have been that simple. We were in Hiroshima and we took a moment of silence, of course. There are so many sensitive places in the world where we should do moments like that if we’re going there. Unfortunately, sometimes the contestants also run through a location and they don’t sometimes even see, unless we stop them and say, “Stop here. Look what you’re looking at. Think about what you’re thinking about.” For example, in Vietnam we’d also gone to the prison where John McCain had been held captive. We went there. We’ve been there many times. We’ve been to places in Vietnam where we have honored those locations and respected them with the due respect that they all deserve. So that’s it. It was nothing we ever intended to do on purpose. 
HitFix: What do you have by way of new locations coming up this season? Can you tease any of them?
Elise Doganieri: I can tease some cities and countries that I’m excited for. We are going to go to Abu Dhabi, which we’ve never been to before. This is the most futuristic city you will ever come across and it’s built on sand. It’s built on a desert and it’s become a desert oasis and it’s so super-high-tech and the fantastic thing they’re doing there is they are creating a city that is environment. They’re using solar power and they’re building all these high-tech locations that can hopefully one day run without the use of a lot of the world’s natural resources. It’s sustainable living and we found that a fantastic thing that we want to express in the show. We’re going up to Norway to the Arctic Circle, way, way, way up north. Not a lot of people can say that they’ve been to the Arctic Circle. We’re going back to Chile, but to a different city called Iquique, which is a city where the desert meets up with the ocean, and right where the desert meets up with the ocean, this giant sand dune comes down to the ocean is a fantastic city. It’s visually an incredible looking city. We’re going to go back to Tokyo, because we love Tokyo. It’s always fun and a super-challenge for the contestants. And there are some other really fun place, but I think I’ve given you enough already.
HitFix: Has regional fatigue set in anywhere? Are there places where you look and go, “OK, we’ve been to this general area enough times, let’s take five or six seasons off”? 
Elise Doganieri: We take a couple breaks from different locations. I would love to go to India every season, because I always find it challenging for the contestants and challenging for production. It just is always great story and India is such an incredible country with so many different environments. There’s tropical, there’s congested super-packed cities. But sometimes we’ve gotta take a break from even places like that which we love to go to so much. We always go back. Africa, we would love to go through the entire continent of Africa and go to all of the fantastic countries in Africa and try to find new things, but we’ve got to keep it fresh for the viewers and the contestants. Whatever we can do to keep it interesting we try to do.
HitFix: Does the world feel safer now than eight or 10 years ago in terms of travel or just stability?
Elise Doganieri: It’s interesting. The world to me feels safe and not safe in many ways. Different countries have fallen into “safer” categories and other countries have fallen into “unsafe” categories, where we’ve gone to countries in the past, for example, like Egypt — I loved going to the Pyramids and we had a Pit Stop right at the Sphinx. Different countries fall in and out and so we just switch our security position with our team. We have an incredible security team that keeps us updated on the latest things that are happening around the world and sometimes new places open up that we’ve never been able to go to before that we want to go into right away, because want to get there. But we’re always very much well aware of security and keep our contestants’ safety as No. 1. We want it to be an exciting adventure, but we want to get everybody home safe. That’s our Number 1 priority.
HitFix: As a last question: “Survivor” has now gotten to the point where they apparently really can’t do a season anymore with entirely new players, without at least a few All-Stars. You guys have mostly resisted that. You’ve done the couple All-Stars seasons and that’s been it. Do you feel like you might go in that direction more in the future? Bringing back occasional favorite teams? Or is there another full All-Stars season coming?
Elise Doganieri: I think casting, you always have to look at where there’s some fantastic contestants that were eliminated early on that we wish would have been on the show longer. Sometimes we lose our personal favorites right off the bat and then nobody ever gets to meet them or know them, so that’s frustrating. I’m sure down the line at some point we will think about that, but right now we have still so many thousands and thousands of people applying for the show that are interesting and fascinating characters. We’re very happy with this season’s cast and so that’s where we are. We find great contestants every new season right now.
HitFix: So you don’t feel like there’s an All-Stars season coming around the bend?
Elise Doganieri: I don’t know. It’s always brought up every season and we’ll discuss it when it comes up and we’ll figure out as we go.
HitFix: Who fights for it and who fights against it?
Elise Doganieri: Oh my God! Talk about Type-A personalities! All of the executive producers and CBS, we all throw our opinions in the mix and then there’s a giant vote and wherever the vote leans is where we got to. It’s gotta make great TV, so what’s what we’re all about. We want to entertain the viewers and keep people watching the show.
“The Amazing Race” premieres its new edition on Sunday, September 29 at 8 p.m.