To paraphrase P.T. Barnum, these days it seems as if there's a reality television producer born every minute. But Bertram van Munster would like us to know that he's no copycat. "I've been a part of reality TV all my life," says the mind behind CBS's The Amazing Race. "I didn't just join the gang." Tonight marks the premiere of the show's fourth edition, which once again finds 12 teams (including a pair of air-traffic controllers, a bickering father-son duo and two circus clowns) embarking on a race around the world in pursuit of the million-dollar jackpot. "We have pumped up the challenges quite substantially," brags van Munster. "It's a very wild ride this time, and it definitely tops the first three."
TV Guide Online: Ever since the third Amazing Race ended last December, fans have been chomping at the bit for the next installment. Why has there been such a large gap between series?
Bertram van Munster: All I can say is that we are the producers, not the programmers. I have no control over the programming of the show. That's something CBS deals with and it would be only fair to ask them. I can guess why, but I don't think it's an arena I should go into. They are the programmers and they know what's best. Besides, it may be good to make this a summer show. We had a tough time slot last year [Wednesdays at 9 pm opposite The Bachelor and The West Wing]. This time we're in Survivor's slot, so hopefully we'll get more eyeballs.
TVGO: Logistics must be a problem as well. How exactly do you design the race?
Van Munster: First I sit down with Elise Doganieri [the show's co-creator] and we lay out a route. Then we visit all the locations with our field producers and logistical people. Next we build the challenges; we want them to be local, not something we can do here in the U.S. After that, we go back home and sit around a table working out all the details between the logistical people, the challenge guys and the field producers. Then we send them back out there a few weeks in advance. They're on their post and have prepped the whole thing, and then the production comes flying through like a bullet train. It takes about two weeks of preparation in every location but we are through a country in a day and a half. And everything has to work like clockwork.
TVGO: You taped the fourth edition quite recently. Did world events affect your route at all?
Van Munster: We still had to go around certain places. And I don't mean Afghanistan, I mean other places. I'm very careful in how the course is laid out. As I'm traveling, I get a good vibe of what's going on.
TVGO: Like Survivor, casting is obviously one of the most important elements of the show. How involved are you in that process?
Van Munster: I'm very involved. For our show, the casting process is not just about casting characters. Normally you have a script laid out, whereas we have a route laid out with countries and people and things the contestants have to encounter. So I'm casting also with that in mind: Where are these people going, what are they doing and how are they going to react to it? I'm looking for humor, intelligence and strength, both physical and mental. Of course, I also look for stability; they have to be psychologically strong enough to do something like this. Although people still break down. Anybody that goes to India will break down. (Laughs)
TVGO: So who's your favorite team this time?
Van Munster: I'm going to be very diplomatic about it: They're all my favorite! Still, there are several teams that are quite extraordinary. And I tell you the $1 million is well deserved.
TVGO: Host Phil Keoghan also deserves some credit for the show's success. Fans (and the contestants) seem to love him.
Van Munster: When we met Phil, I said immediately, "That's the guy." He's a very light-hearted and open host with a twinkle in his eye. Sometimes the contestants want to interact with him too much, though. You want to keep your distance as the host of the show, but they hug him and jump on him. Sometimes we set up a table between him and the contestants so they don't jump him all the time!
TVGO: Will we have to wait another six months to see Amazing Race 5?
Van Munster: Let's see how this one works out. I also want to see where the world is going; I was just in the Middle East and there's a lot of stuff going on. This is the kind of thing that has to be taken one week at a time. I certainly hope it's not the last one! I guess we could always go do it in a studio have them canoe in front of a blue screen.