Bertram van Munster
By Mansha Daswani
Published: April 8, 2013
It’s been ten years since the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which presents the Primetime Emmy Awards, began recognizing reality television with the outstanding reality-competition program category. Since then, The Amazing Race has won that honor nine times (it lost out to Top Chef in 2010). Created by Bertram van Munster and Elise Doganieri, the series has been on the air since 2001, following teams of two as they race across the globe and participate in challenges inspired by local cultures, with cameras capturing the bickering and breakdowns along the way. In between his globetrotting adventures to scout for new locations for the series, van Munster spoke to TV Formats Weekly about The Amazing Race’s longevity, the art of producing real reality TV, and maintaining the production quality of the brand’s various international adaptations.
TV FORMATS: The Amazing Race has been on the air for 22 seasons now, with barely a dip in the ratings for CBS—how have you been able to keep the series fresh year after year?
VAN MUNSTER: Passion and imagination! [Laughs] I mean, the world is such a special place and people are just marvelous. You get so much energy and so many ideas when you talk to people, when you look at people, when you see how people live. The ideas never stop coming. And it’s not just me, it’s the entire business: the movie business, the television business, everybody gets ideas from what goes on around them. My canvas is a little bigger than most people’s. A lot of people sit at home and think of stuff, I go around the world. I’ll say, oh, there’s a guy with apples in the back of his car, let me go and talk to him. [That led to] the situation in Azerbaijan, with the apple stand [when contestants had to find one specially marked apple in a car full of apples.]
TV FORMATS: Tell me more about the process you go through to map out each season.
VAN MUNSTER: It’s a lot of work. We lay out a route and usually Elise [Doganieri, co-creator and executive producer] and I do this. There’s logic to the route, it’s not random! Once you’ve seen the race and you put a map on the floor and you say they went from here to here to here, it all makes perfect sense, because a) there are planes going there, b) planes are going on a regular basis, and c) they are safe countries—we don’t go to unsafe countries. Once we lay that out we do some basic research, but we’ve been to these places already so we know a little bit about them. And then I go on the road with a very small team and I start picking [locations]. I go back and forth with Elise in the office—this could fit here, we could do this, etc. And then we’ll do another trip and I take my producers with me and I show them all the things I’m planning to do, and then I present it to the network. Hopefully they like it and then we go do it!
TV FORMATS: What do you look for when you’re scouting locations and devising challenges that are inspired by local culture?
VAN MUNSTER: I lay out all the elements that I see in a city—I take a map of the city and I see where everything is. I see how logistically it all makes sense. Logistics, emotions, humor, all the aspects that are part of a fun reality show—how can we fit them into this 44-minute box? The other thing is, every show is completely different and fresh from the one before. So one day we’re in Bangladesh and the next we’re in London; we go to extremes. We go from Siberia, where it’s bitterly cold, where we have them run a marathon in their bathing suits, down to the hottest place in Africa. Juxtapose all these moments and then tie that in with exhaustion and [the effects of eating unfamiliar] food and not having enough sleep and you get more and more drama and more and more stories that way.
TV FORMATS: What do you look for in potential contestants?
VAN MUNSTER: Everybody wants to be on this show—except for the people who want to be on singing shows. [Laughs] We look for people who are between 21 and 100 years old! It’s laid out in such a way that anybody can potentially win this race, as we have seen over the years. It doesn’t take giant muscles; it takes a healthy person with a good set of brains. You have to be calculating and you have to balance your strengths with your partner’s strengths.
TV FORMATS: In a lot of reality shows today, you can sense that people are behaving a certain way for the cameras. In The Amazing Race, how are you able to capture genuine emotions and reactions? Do the contestants forget that the cameras are there?
VAN MUNSTER: They forget it within the first 2 minutes because of the technique I’m using. [Contestants] are used to cameras but there’s so much pressure on them, they have no time to think about the cameras. If you’re in a studio and you see nothing but cameras and people looking at you, yes you’ll [act for the cameras]. For me, a reality show is [where the] camera is the least visible thing. In other reality shows, the camera is the most visible thing in many ways. It should be completely fly on the wall and that’s how we do it and how we’ve done it for many, many years. It’s effective. The contestants are the most important part. There’s room for all of these other very successful shows, but we have no judges, we don’t make judgment calls on people, we don’t tell them, you’re good, you’re bad—we leave that for Santa Claus! People have to win this race on their own power, whether it’s physical or mental. That’s what makes this show, and also why there’s such longevity in the show. People see that and they realize, I could potentially do this.
TV FORMATS: The whole process of traveling has become much more cumbersome in a post-9/11 world. Have you found that the show has become more difficult to produce against this backdrop?
VAN MUNSTER: No, it’s the same. I mean there are places in the world that you obviously can’t go to right now, that doesn’t mean that the people who live there are bad people. In many ways, the dangers of the world have been extremely exaggerated by people that have to make their money in a different way! I feel perfectly safe in many, many countries and people are very friendly and give the shirts off their backs. They’re fascinated by the way we live and by our approach to life and the can-do American way. People have given our contestants money in Moscow and in Bangladesh, [places where] they have no money and they [still] help. I look at these things from a very positive perspective. Can I look at the dark side of all these things? Yes I can. I think maybe we are too focused on that. Not me. I can go anywhere I want to go at this point in my life. And so can the contestants, and we’ve proven this in over 22 seasons.
TV FORMATS: Versions of The Amazing Race have been produced in a number of territories now. When the discussions about formatting the show first began, were you concerned about how they would stand up to the production quality you’ve set for the CBS version?
VAN MUNSTER: We have a very close working relationship with our distributor [Disney Media Distribution]. And we have very close relationships with the people that produce these shows. Actually, most of the [adaptations], we produce ourselves. Yes, [production quality] is a concern, and people that tried to do it on their own ran into trouble. Why would you do this? We had our troubles ten years ago, why repeat [those same] troubles because you think you know it better?
[The format] has been a huge success. We got the International Emmy for the show we did in Australia, and now in China they produced a version and they’ve won an award for best format adaptation. We all keep a very close eye on each other and we support each other as much as we can.
TV FORMATS: Speaking of awards, your Emmy-winning streak has been unprecedented. Why do you think the Academy continues to recognize the series?
VAN MUNSTER: Every year we say, they’re tired of us! But obviously the Academy really looks at the shows, they don’t just give [the Emmy] to us, they say, these guys really deserve it. Otherwise we wouldn’t win. It is a true reality competition. Everyone can relate to it and everyone can do it.
TV FORMATS: What are some of the other projects you’re working on?
VAN MUNSTER: We just finished The Great Escape for TNT and we have a Bellator mixed martial arts series for Spike and we’re negotiating a bunch of other shows for other networks that I can’t mention at this moment. But we are very busy with really fascinating projects.http://worldscreen.com/articles/display/38690