35 Seasons In, The Amazing Race Still Stands Out Among Reality Shows

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Summary

  • The Amazing Race revolutionized reality TV by taking contestants on a global race and setting up filming in each country along the way.
  • The show’s core setup has remained the same since its debut in 2001, with teams racing around the world and completing challenges to reach their next destination.
  • The logistical challenges of filming the show are immense, involving coordination with local representatives, organizing travel for contestants and crew, and ensuring the safety of the production team.


In the ’90s and early 2000s, reality TV was in its heyday. Broadcasters were still figuring out how the relatively new genre worked. Would viewers really watch an unscripted show about real people? As it turns out, yes, they would. Some of those earliest hits also became the longest-running and most iconic, such as MTV’s The Real World and The Challenge. Broadcast networks also got in on the craze, with CBS launching hits that still run today, Survivor, Big Brother, and The Amazing Race. The Truman Show experimented with the then-new format, unknowingly predicting 24/7 live streams in the process.

In those early days, long before today’s oversaturation of reality content, networks didn’t necessarily need to take big risks to make their shows stand out. Viewers would tune in just because of how different they were from anything seen before. However, CBS wasted no time ensuring that their early endeavors would be remembered, with The Amazing Race being one of the best reality competition shows.

Filming a group of contestants in one set location wasn’t enough. Instead, the show took its players on a massive race around the globe, setting up filming in each country along the way. 35 seasons in, and this formula remains mostly unchanged. So, how did this daring innovation set The Amazing Race up for long-lasting success? Let’s take a look.


The Premise of The Amazing Race

While individual seasons may vary slightly, the core setup of the show has remained mostly the same since its 2001 debut, with no need to change its overall format. A group of 10–13 teams of two race around the world, visiting several countries in the process. At each stop within a given country, teams must complete a challenge or set of challenges to get the clue to their next destination. Some country visits only last a single episode, while others may span multiple. Typically, whichever team is last to arrive at the country’s designated “pit stop” after completing every challenge is eliminated from the race.

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Along the way, teams can earn an “express pass,” which allows them to bypass a certain challenge to make up time. They also might be “u-turned” by a vote from the other teams, requiring them to complete two challenges when they would otherwise only choose one. While most tasks require both team members to participate, some challenges designated as “roadblocks” are only for one member. However, these shortcuts are not necessarily utilized every season. When the race is down to three teams, those final three complete one last leg of the race for the $1 million grand prize.

The Worldwide Logistics of The Amazing Race

As one can imagine, the setup and behind-the-scenes reality TV factors involved with planning the show are crazy. The crew must organize which countries the contestants will visit. Then, they work with local representatives to set up filming and challenges in specific locations within the country. Travel is coordinated for the contestants, crew, and host Phil Keoghan. It’s estimated that up to 2,000 people may be involved with the production of any given season.

While most travel involves public transport, private chartered flights were organized during the pandemic to reduce the risk of infection. The crew must also work around any risky or conflict-ridden countries. That’s why countries like Russia, China, and certain Middle Eastern and African nations are not currently featured.

Logistical issues do come up in filming. Production of the thirty-third season was suspended when COVID-19 broke out and couldn’t resume for almost two years. Some teams were not able to return to the race as a result. The first season finale – which aired in December 2001 – reportedly considered using the top of the World Trade Center as the finish line before another location was selected. Though filmed many months earlier, seeing that on TV so soon after the attacks would have been incredibly jarring. On top of that, Mother Nature can be unpredictable. You never know the weather conditions you may have to contend with halfway across the world.

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Each team has a set of minimal supplies they may bring with them for the race, which does not include electronic devices. They may be given local currency to purchase supplies for the challenges if need be. Travel accommodations must always include crew members. So when teams book two plane tickets, that’s likely some fake TV magic. They book more – usually four – tickets offscreen to include the crew.

Crew members must also ensure that the locations with clues and challenges are not interfered with by locals. Keoghan and his team must coordinate with the camera operators following the racers while also staying ahead of them and ensuring the following challenges are set to go. Crews test the challenges before filming to ensure they can be completed in a reasonable amount of time. When teams pick one of two challenges, the two options must be comparable in difficulty and time. So, managing all these moving parts across multiple countries is no small feat.

Why The Amazing Race Stands Out 35 Seasons Later

No reality show before or since has attempted the scale of filming undertaken by The Amazing Race, though other countries have launched their own versions. Australia, Canada, China, France, Israel, Ukraine, Vietnam, and many more adopted the format for themselves. It’s clear that viewers still respond to the daring setup, as the thirty-fifth season aired in fall 2023, with the thirty-sixth set for spring 2024.

Unlike most reality shows, especially reality TV series we love to hate that are filled with unnecessary drama, The Amazing Race gives viewers a chance to take in new international culture and scenery every week. The show’s visited every continent except Antarctica over the last 25 years, and there are no plans to stop any time soon. This revolutionary show hooked viewers at the dawn of reality TV and continues to do so today because it’s unlike anything else. All 35 seasons of The Amazing Race are available to stream on Paramount+.

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