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Behind the Scenes of 'The Amazing Race' and Its Social-Media-Star Season

Host Phil Keoghan says taking away Internet celebs' phones for a month is a "social experiment" that's paying off.

Robert Voets

If you tried to tune in for “The Amazing Race” on CBS last night, you would have caught a basketball game instead. That’s business as usual for a TV network, which sometimes has to preempt its regular schedule for special events like the NCAA March Madness tournament.

But that preempting might seem strange to the fans “Race” is trying to reach out to this season: The young and tech-addicted who follow its social-media-star contestants such as Tyler Oakley and Korey Kuhl, Zach and Rachel King and Sheri and Cole LaBrant. All of the teams were culled from places like YouTube, Vine and Instagram.

Robert Voets

With a couple weeks off until the rest of the season airs (resuming on April 1), “The Amazing Race” host Phil Keoghan made some time to check in with Re/code.

(Disclosure: I was a longtime fan of the show, but lapsed for many years. I only got back into watching this season because I’m rooting for Burnie Burns and Ashley Jenkins, a team from the comedy-gaming site Rooster Teeth.)

For the uninitiated, “The Amazing Race” pits several teams of two people in a race around the world. Each episode sees teams tackling physical and mental challenges in exotic locations, which must be completed en route to some unknown destination; whichever team reaches that destination last is usually eliminated. Whoever wins the last leg of the race gets $1 million.

Keoghan described this season’s Internet-y twist as a “social experiment” that had to walk a fine line between bringing in new viewers and not alienating the existing viewership. That meant casting teams that could be entertaining even if you saw them as complete strangers, he explained.

“There’s a lot of hardcore fans who were like, ‘Why are you doing this? They’re celebrities!,'” Keoghan said. “It’s such an ambiguous word, celebrity.”

The season premieres for the past few years of “The Amazing Race” have garnered around six million viewers, according to Nielsen, and that held steady this year.

However, Keoghan said the social media season is introducing the show format to young people, who may not have been born when season one premiered in 2001. He had anecdotally heard from several fans who were binging the first few seasons online after discovering it recently.

“People who love Zach King have been hearing about this show Zach King’s on, and they know what ‘The Amazing Race’ is,” he said. “How they come to ‘Race,’ it may be a slow burn.”

 Contestant Matt Steffanina, one half of a YouTuber team
Contestant Matt Steffanina, one half of a YouTuber team
CBS / "The Amazing Race"

Show contestants must give up their phones and laptops during the race, which was shot in 12 episodes over 21 days this season. Keoghan said that was actually a selling point for some teams; one contestant, YouTuber Blair Fowler, admitted to “phantom-texting” with her hand because she was so used to having a phone on her.

I asked Keoghan if the chemistry between him and the racers was different this year, since so many of them were accustomed to performing and entertaining on camera. He said no, because social media stars often got famous by being authentic and learning how to reach people without a studio that might puff up their egos.

“Yes, they’re professional because they get paid to make content, but they didn’t go through some system,” he said. “The technology has facilitated the opportunity for them to connect with other ordinary people.”

So, what does Keoghan watch online when he’s not on the “Race”? He said he binges shows like “House of Cards” and “Game of Thrones,” and uses YouTube to watch clips of shows such as “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” (especially Oliver’s New Zealand flag rants) and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”

“I don’t know if you saw ‘Ellen’ the other day — ‘Damn, Daniel!’ Did you see that?” Keoghan asked. “When we started ‘The Amazing Race,’ that was not possible. There was no place for Damn Daniel. Is Damn Daniel now a celebrity? He’s known by millions of people around the world. Does that mean he’s a celebrity? I don’t really know how you would define that.”

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