Yahoo! TV Blog
Interview With Phil Keoghan of 'Amazing Race': Part I
By Farhan Hashim | Friday, November 20, 2009, 5:38 PM
To fans of reality TV, Phil Keoghan needs no introduction. He is the adventure-loving, globe-trotting host of CBS' seven-time Emmy-Award-winning show "The Amazing Race," who recently biked 3,500 miles across America to promote awareness for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. A few weeks back, I had a chance to talk to Phil about the show and its current season, as well as the recent remarks made by some in the industry that the show should remove itself from consideration for future Emmys.
Let's start with the passport rule. A lot of people are very upset that Zev and Justin got eliminated for not having their passport. Has any thought been given to allowing the team that has lost their passports to have the time until the next leg begins to find them, and eliminating the team if they are unable to do so?
It would be incredibly difficult to orchestrate something like that. [After the elimination] I get on the next plane out of town. So if we were going to try to [do the elimination later], it brings up a lot of logistical issues of how we do that elimination. Where would we go, because we have permits to shoot at certain places and only up to a certain time? And then, who would have to stay behind in order to execute the shooting of the later [elimination], and do we have the logistical resources to shoot that? So it would make our life really nuts. And then I guess you have to get into: How far before [my] flight check-in [do we do the elimination]? Two hours? Three hours? Because we would need to get from the location to the airport. I mean, it just gets very complicated.
So we just made the rule that the passport is your ticket to staying in the race. The idea is that when you check in to the mat, you need to have your documentation to prove that you are ready for the next leg. You're checking in at that point with everything you need to continue the race, as opposed to having a check-in with everything but your passport and then starting the next leg leaving the decision on whether you have everything you need for the next leg until the last minute before the next leg starts. You've got to have [the passport] with you at all times because … it's a very important thing in a lot of countries, just as a form of ID. So that's just a rule that we've had.
I think [there would be] less of this feeling if it was a team that people weren't so closely connected with. I've got to be honest with you -- they were one of my favorite teams ever, and … it's one of the most difficult eliminations that I've had to make because I wanted nothing more than to see them go on. And particularly, you know, the assumption was that it was Zev's fault. A lot of people thought that because he has Asperger's, it was his fault, but it wasn't. It was Justin's fault.
We were all very upset here at Yahoo! TV to see them go.
Yes, and believe me, I was, too. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that it was a team that everyone actually really cared about.
Continuing on with the teams: How do you feel the cast for this season stacks up with casts you've had in prior seasons?
It's a fantastic cast. I love Flight Time & Big Easy and the dynamic between the couples. I love the poker players. It's impossible to pick sort of a favorite season or the best mix, but I love the mix. I love that it changes. I love that we're never the same. So as far as it stacks up, I think it's as refreshing as any season we've had. And certainly, just in this last week, our ratings were up from this time a year ago. So here we are 15 seasons in and we had season-high ratings this last week, and still pulling good numbers for a show that has been around for 15 seasons. So I'm very proud of what the casting people do on this show. I can't say enough about the mix of people they bring every season. I really enjoy going to the [final] castings … It's hugely helpful for me to be able to see [the teams] before I go out on the road with them … to get a little insight while they are being interviewed by us.
After 15 seasons, you have probably seen every kind of pairing imaginable. So is casting more difficult at this point? And what is it that you are looking for in teams for future races?
I think it's actually impossible to answer that question because I could never have used my imagination to come up with a team like Kynt & Vyxsin or Charla & Mirna or Sarah & Peter or Zev & Justin or the poker players or Flight Time & Big Easy. I think it's a little bit like looking for love … you can sort of describe some broad characteristics of what you're looking for in a partner, but until you actually meet them, you wouldn't know how to describe [them]. You know, there's that little something that [makes] you go, "Oh yeah, that's what we're looking for. That's really great!"
I get that question a lot, but I think it's impossible to answer. I think some people come into the casting process trying to be a team that maybe we've had in the past because they think that, "Oh, they liked that particular type of team. Let's be that again." And really, we don't ever want to repeat ourselves and we try to be original every time. And there's no reason why we shouldn't be. So I think that what we're looking for is a point of difference. We're looking for telegenic, engaging, captivating characters. Period. Whether they're tall, short, black, white, Republican, Democrat, rich, poor, well-educated, uneducated, from the country, from the city, it doesn't really matter. First and foremost: Are they interesting? Will people want to invest time watching them?
That first elimination this season before the race even started … that was a little bit cruel, right? Did you feel that way?
Well, yes, certainly, it was a hard start to the race. But you know, the only time we stop and redo things and take a lot of time in the race to set things up is at the beginning and at the end. In the middle of the race, we shoot as we go. From the point of "Go" to the finish, it's pretty much as live [as it can be]. But when we do the opening and the closing, that's when we actually have more time to be like other shows and do things more than once. For instance, my starting-line speech is done a number of times so we get the shot from different angles. We get it with the helicopter, we get it with the jib, we get it with the steady camera, we get it wide, we get it close, we shoot that a lot. When I do my speech, a lot of times you get the teams that are looking back … with this sort of complacency of "Yeah, yeah, Phil, we know. We got it."
Now, when we did the start of this race, I did my usual spiel all the way up to where there was this new challenge, this new surprise, and up until then I had their attention, but I didn't really have their attention. Then I deliver this speech of "Do I have your attention? Because there's something I need to tell you. You really need to listen. Before you leave here, one team is going to be eliminated." Now, I only had to deliver that speech to them … once. I did it as live … once. No redos, no reshoots. It was as live as it happened. And those reactions you saw from those teams were shot as live. And they were visibly shocked by what I was saying. And I think it was a way to give them and future racers a wake-up call that anything can happen on this race. That -- although we've been around for 15 seasons -- we don't want to repeat ourselves. We do want to be fresh and we do want to be unpredictable. If that means that sometimes there is a tough call like that to make to just change the energy and the dynamic, then that is the decision that we make. The teams raced from that starting line with a renewed and quite different intensity than we've seen in the past. It was a tough call, but it was a wake-up call that I think, 15 seasons in, was coming.
Challenges like the snowman challenge in Dubai and the monkey challenge in Cambodia … challenges where a judge is involved and it's a subjective decision … sometimes it seems like the judging is far too lenient. It especially seemed like that in the monkey challenge, more so than the others, because everyone seemed to just breeze through it. What kind of guidelines do you give the judges, and was there something more to the challenge that we didn't see, or did everyone just really have an easy time with that?
Well … I mean, not everyone had an easy time. Remember Zev had a tough time with that. It was incredibly hot out there, too, if you remember. People were getting really dehydrated. I guess it's a little like the discussions that people have in the Olympics about sports that are judged and not recorded by science. Like, say, a running race is recorded by a stopwatch as opposed to gymnastics, which is judged by people. So we're always going to run into things that are not a science, and there's always going to be a difference between people judging how someone behaves like a monkey, and others judging [how someone does] a folk dance in a particular country. But we obviously don't want to exclude [these types of challenges] just because they are totally subjective, and I think sometimes there's more leniency because of the type of challenge. But we try to be consistent with the teams … have the same standards for each.
I guess you never really know how people are going to [do] with any challenge. I mean, there's a challenge coming up in a future episode where it's a simple challenge of counting. [Note: Phil is of course referring to the bell-counting challenge in Holland.] And you would think: All you've got to do is count. How hard can that be? And there's one team that has tremendous difficulty with that, and many of the other teams get it very quickly. So it is impossible to always make everything totally predictable. In fact, the more unpredictable it is, obviously the better it is for TV. But we never really truly know, even though we test it with different people and different scenarios. We never really know how easy or difficult something is going to be until we put it out there. Sometimes people get stuck on challenges we think they are going to breeze through. They end up being held there forever and we think, "How is this difficult? … I don't understand." [Laughs]
Do you ever personally help test a challenge?
I have. There have been some challenges on the race that I have done years ago … you know, things that I have done over my career. But to be honest with you, when I'm on the road, I really try to focus on what I have to do, and there really isn't enough time for me to … do all the things that I love to do. But I have a whole career of me doing all sorts of crazy things. So trust me, I'm kind of happy to watch them do things I've never done before.
Speaking of challenges: We had the Fast Forward on the race in Dubai. In the past, we've had people needing to shave their heads or drink pig's blood. This one seemed easy by comparison. Shouldn't the Fast Forward be a little more difficult for the teams to get?
Well, it goes back to what I was saying: You don't know what team is going to end up going for the Fast Forward. Now, had that been a team who really struggled with driving a [stick] shift and driving fast, then that would have been a totally different situation. So we don't know if we are going to end up with somebody who is inherently good at a particular challenge. There's also that thing of not knowing how many legs in who is going to be there. So you also have to pick things that are going to be challenging … I guess what I'm saying is that you can't pick something that will be absolutely challenging for every single team in exactly the same way. Like, for somebody to eat some weird food may be the biggest thing in their life. But for somebody else, it may be like, "Ha … forget about it, I can do this … I can swallow this … no problem at all." Unless you were to tailor-pick each of the challenges based on the strengths and weaknesses of a particular team, that would be the only way that you could take a real measure of whether they had to work for something. So there's a lot of luck involved in who ends up actually doing certain things.
Yahoo! TV Blog
Interview With Phil Keoghan of 'Amazing Race': Part II
By Farhan Hashim | Tuesday, November 24, 2009, 6:30 PM
If you missed the first part of my interview with Phil Keoghan, you can read it here.
In the first few seasons, there were Fast Forwards in virtually every leg of the race, which usually meant that a trailing team had a shot, especially toward the end of the race. Any chance we might see a reversion to that format, where there are more Fast Forwards available for the teams?
I think a lot of it is that we have just been honing the format to try to create something that works. We are always futzing and tweaking and I guess the formula that we’ve come upon now is resonating with people. It’s like you don’t want to mess with what’s working, but at the same time, you want to keep it fresh. It’s just evolved into this [format], but I don’t think there’s any reason why we wouldn’t at certain times add. One of the things we did this season is we had a switch-back where we actually go back to a challenge that we’ve had in the past that people really liked … something that really made for great race history and that people have talked about ever since. So [this idea of a switch-back] is something that we want to incorporate moving forward. I think you’ll see different things being added and subtracted as the race continues.
The show has pretty much been all over the world. Is there a location that you haven’t been to that you would love to see the race go to?
I’ve always been very excited about going to Nepal. I’ve had three shoots over there canceled over the last 20 years or so working in TV. I still have a really big dream of going there sometime. It will obviously have to be right for safety and security, but I do hope we get there someday and see Mt. Everest in the background of one of our shots somewhere.
So, seven for seven at the Emmys … that must feel pretty good.
It’s mind-blowing to me. It’s hard to wrap my head around. Umm, yeah, I’m still grappling with the idea that [there are] seven. Sometimes it seems like it hasn’t really even happened. It doesn’t feel possible. I forget that we’ve been on the air a long time. We first went to air in 2001. We’re going into our 10th year. I mean, that’s mind-blowing. I first got hooked up with this production at the end of 2000. It will be 10 years — a decade — this Christmas. That just blows my mind.
I read somewhere that there was a little bit of grumbling and people were saying that maybe “The Amazing Race” should remove itself from consideration for next year’s Emmys. You don’t have any plans to do that, right?
No, but I think that one journalist wrote, “Why is it that people have talked about that, but nobody said that about 'Jon Stewart'?”
No, I’m asking you. Why do you think that is?
I think that in the case of reality competition, there are some bigger names that are probably shocked and surprised that they haven’t won yet and I think there might be some grumbling because of that.
But with all due respect to Jon Stewart, what about the bigger names in his category, too, that may be feeling the same way? It’s just weird. I think that there’s a double standard. I don’t understand.
I agree. I think that a show deserves to win as many times as it is deemed to be the best. And I don’t think a show or an actor or actress should remove themselves from consideration just because they happen to have won so many times. I think that if a show wins, then it needs to win against the best that are out there. So I don’t agree with the call to remove the show from consideration.
It was just an interesting point that was brought up by a journalist in the Los Angeles Times who happens to be a fan of “Race.” He wasn’t sure why people immediately jumped to that, but they never immediately jumped to Jon saying he should remove himself.
Exactly, and “30 Rock” has won every year that it has been on and there will be no such call for that show to remove itself from consideration if it continues to win also. I think it has something to do with the category that you are in and there are a lot of big egos in there, and frankly speaking, they’re a little upset that you keep winning. So I think that might have something to do with it.
Well, I think that the reality shows that were nominated are all really good-quality shows. I think the difference between our show and some of the other shows nominated in that category is the content and the way the show is made. I think it is very difficult to compare what is essentially a variety show with a competition element (“American Idol”) with a show that is shot on a world stage. Being in a studio with perfect lighting and where everything is operating like a variety show is a very different thing to judge from a show that is shot all around the world.
The formats are definitely very different, but if you have to judge them all together, I think “The Amazing Race” brings something to the table that none of the other shows really do. I think that’s part of the appeal of the show. It is a premise that remains very compelling for viewers.
I think reality in itself is a very interesting genre because it covers so many different aspects of television … what we call reality. If you look at the highlight reel of reality television at the Emmys, they put clips in there from some of the more wild and outrageous reality shows where they have to bleep out the swearing and there’s yelling and screaming and there’s everything from cable shows to network shows . It covered the entire genre of reality — good, bad, and indifferent stuff that people love, love to hate, and everything in between. But if you look at the packages for drama or comedy … they only showed the best of drama and the best of comedy. I wouldn’t say that when they cut those packages of reality that they focused on putting the best of reality [in there]. There is such a discrepancy between [reality shows]. The best dramas sort of filter out and it’s pretty easy to discern what the best [ones] are. There’s a certain quality to them … and people talk about them.
When it comes to reality, one of the things that I get from people all the time is “I don’t like reality, but I like your show.” Nobody would say, “I don’t like drama, but I like your [dramatic] show.” You know what I’m saying? Because I think that good drama is good drama. I think the same thing can be said about reality, but a lot of times the worst of a particular genre can taint an entire type of television. I think that reality encompasses such a broad range of material that it’s going to take people a while to realize that there is actually quality reality television. When some people hear the genre of reality television, they immediately think of the worst, most despicable piece of reality television [they’ve] ever seen … which is sad because they don’t think of that when they think of drama. They don’t go, “Oh, drama, I’ve seen some really bad drama shows.” They think of the best of them.
I think that the shows nominated in [the best reality competition program] category do represent the best of reality and I’m hoping that people who may have not been fans of reality or have a particular opinion about what reality is may sample some of the better reality shows and go, “You know there is some worthy programming here.” I think we have a long way to go to convince some people.
I think that it seems to be catching on. The Emmy wins definitely help and your audience is growing. And some of the other shows — “Dancing With the Stars,” “American Idol,” “Survivor,” and “Project Runway” — continue to do well and stay strong well into several seasons. I think that part is catching on and people are beginning to realize that there is a niche group of reality shows definitely worth their time.
I do think that. It is something that is going to take a little time for people to understand, that you can’t broad-stroke reality television. It’s impossible, just like it’s impossible to broad-stroke and say all drama is good or all comedy is good. There’re some comedies that really suck, and the best of them are really hilarious and so far ahead of the worst that you would never think of them in the same light. I think people are only getting used to it now that there’s some reality that sucks, and fortunately there is some stuff that’s good. [But] it’s subjective because it comes down to what people want to watch. There’s lots of reality shows that I don’t particularly care for but I know people really like, and you have to respect that. [It’s] also about choice and giving people a choice in what they want to watch.
So if you were paired with another reality TV host to compete on “The Amazing Race,” who do you think you would do well with?
[Laughs] That’s a good question. I wouldn’t want to go on a race with anybody. [Laughs] I like to watch. Yeah, wow, I know Tom [Bergeron] very well. I worked with Tom for five years over at Fox. I worked with Jeff [Probst] over at Fox for five years. So I know both those guys very well. Both are smart guys and I get along well with both of them. So I could see that working. I don’t know Ryan [Seacrest], but I have a feeling that we’d do all right, too. Heidi [Klum], wow, I think I would probably be too distracted, she’s so beautiful. [Laughs] And I’d feel at any moment like Seal [Heidi Klum’s husband] might come around the corner: “Hey, Phil.” [Laughs]
Check back next weekend for the third and final part of my interview, in which Phil discusses the disastrous performance of some of his colleagues when they served as hosts for the 2008 Primetime Emmy Awards show. I’ll follow that piece up with my thoughts on this latest season of “The Amazing Race” and an assessment of the final three teams.http://tv.yahoo.com/blog/interview-with-phil-keoghan-of-amazing-race-part-i--818