'The Amazing Race': Phil Keoghan Defines How Social Media Has Changed the Game

CBS
'Amazing Race 28'

"This season is #OffTheGrid. It's like a giant social experiment," the host tells THR about the CBS show as it heads into Season 28 with a cast of influencers.

The Amazing Race is about to premiere its 28th season, and the globe-trotting show has decided to change things up to embrace the digital age.

The new season of the CBS competition-reality show, which airs Friday at 8 p.m., features teams of social media influencers and host Phil Keoghan explained (and defended) the casting decision during a post-premiere screening panel at the Arclight Hollywood in Los Angeles on Thursday evening.

Keoghan, who moderated a Q&A session with reporters, positioned this season's cast, which ranges from YouTube sensation Tyler Oakley to Marty Cobb (whose flight-attendant demonstration video went viral in 2015), as “an experiment that will hopefully bring social media fans to The Amazing Race to see their favorite media makers.”

“We’re used to controlling our own content, so this was a good experience,” said castmember Joslyn Davis, host of the YouTube channel Clevver, about her experience filming this season of the long-running series. Burnie Burns, the creator of gaming YouTube channel Rooster Teeth, added, “We had to get used to not having our phones — it was kind of refreshing though.”

After the panel, Keoghan spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about his hopes for the game-changing season and whether any plans for a celebrity theme or fan-favorite season are in the works.

When you were thinking about this season and looking at figures within social media, were you trying to find a diverse group like you have here?

That's imperative for any season. The more diverse the better. We put our potential teams out and we look at the short list and we really want to have a mix of older and younger, single, a mother and a daughter, and so on. We want rich, poor, tall, short, smart, fit, not fit. We would do a disservice if everyone was blonde with a six pack. We really pride ourselves, I think, of being the most diverse cast of any of the reality shows. 

What is it about The Amazing Race that keeps you coming back to host year after year?

Well, for me, the writing. Research and writing the scripts. They're constantly changing right up to the last minute so I really enjoy that process. The hosting part I love, but to be honest with you, I love the process of sharing the stories. I think that's what keeps me really engaged is that the teams are so excited. We know that we are sharing the world in a positive light with people all around the world. It's nice to know that we're actually doing something positive like that while also entertaining them. I mean that's sort of what you want to work on. Something that inspires people and makes them feel good as they watch it.

Have you ever thought about doing a season with celebrities?

It's been suggested. I think a season with all celebrities might be a nightmare. I have had celebrities come up to me and say, "I'd love to do The Amazing Race." I always think they have no idea what they're suggesting right now. It's pretty brutal because we shoot 12 shows in 21 days with non-stop action. I think a lot of them would need down time and rest. I don't know though, maybe there are some celebrities out there who would be OK roughing it for a bit.

Which celebrities have approached you?

Neil Patrick Harris mentioned it once. Sarah Jessica Parker, I remember, mentioned it once. I know Ellen [DeGeneres] has mentioned it on her show before. There was a quote from her that if she was on The Amazing Race what she would do. Julia Louis-Dreyfus I know loves the show. Drew Barrymore I think was one. I saw Matthew McConaughey wearing an Amazing Race T-shirt in a magazine. I don't think we'd have trouble getting interest. I think we'd have trouble locking it in. They'd be like, "We have to be gone for how long?!"

Do former castmembers of the show ever come to you or the producers to pitch ideas?

Oh yeah, they come to pitch themselves. I mean, we've had roughly 320 shows, each season has 11 teams of two, that's a lot of people. I keep in contact with a lot of them, but yeah, you can rest assured that they're pitching themselves to come back. I'd love to do a fan-favorite season at some point. I actually suggested it some time ago before it was done on Survivor. I'm not saying it's my idea, but before Survivor executed it I thought it would be a fun idea. I thought, "Why not let the fans track and see who could be potential members of a fan-favorite season?"

It was interesting that last season on Big Brother there were two contestants brought on from The Amazing Race, is that something that could happen again? Would any contestants this season work well?

It's actually happened before. We've had Jeff and Jordan come on. We've also had people from Survivor, so it makes sense that people would wonder about more coming on. On a personal level, I'm less of a fan of that than I am in bringing in some new person with a unique personality. It's not to say it didn't work, but I'm just not as much of a fan of that cross-pollination. I think the shows are so different that to me it's a little confusing. That's my opinion is all.

Talking about reality TV as a whole, there are some shows such as America's Next Top Model that have gone on past 20 seasons to now end. What do you think has made The Amazing Race, Big Brother, and Survivor last as long as they have, and how long do you see them lasting?

I really think it's about the strength of the format. I believe that in terms of sustaining great content, we have a major advantage because our studio is the world. Even on Survivor it's very difficult for them to make the aesthetic of the shows look different from season to season. They rely more on strong format and if it wasn't as strong as it is, then it would struggle because that background element isn't as diverse. Whereas on our show, where you never see anything you've seen before. We make a point that if we do return to a previous location it's for a reason and is referenced. Strong format and great characters are elements that Survivor and Big Brother both have, but I think what we have that they don't, on top of those, is that we have the changing environment. New faces and new places. A lot of other shows put new faces on, but it's the same place. A main part of Big Brother is that house. A big star for our show are the various locations we visit. People will say they can't wait to watch The Amazing Race tonight because they'll get to see different cultures. For these teams, they're so plugged in and online, for them to be so far away from that and on a bridge in the ancient world is extraordinary. The audience is there with them. Most of the time when people see the world in primetime network television, they see the world when something is going wrong. Our show is wall-to-wall what's going on right in the world. When you see this premiere episode in Mexico City, you see a vibrant and pulsing city. You can look at any place and dig into the negative sides of it, that's essentially what the news does, but we're the complete antithesis. We want to find what's positive that we can share with people. A big part of why I feel lucky and honored to be a part of something where I know people come away from it inspired is because we could inspire them to travel to these new places and send a picture that means something.

What would be the idea that you would want to convey to viewers this season?

This season is #OffTheGrid. To me, it's like a giant social experiment. We're living in a time where content is exploding so fast, and to me, at some point the bubble has to burst. Who would've thought that places like Netflix would be creating such strong and amazing content? At the same time that all of that is happening, millions of people are connecting with these so-called ordinary people who are in their bedrooms and houses making huge viral hits. These people have exploded onto the scene. Where it used to be that you had to go through a whole process to get out and connect with people, now Blair can make a video showing how to use a curling iron that will be shown to millions of people. So to take those people who have been through a filter in terms of whether people like them or not and put them into an existing show like this was an interesting experiment. It'll be interesting to see whether the passion they have for The Amazing Race will translate for their followers to come and watch them, or do their followers just want to watch them make beauty tips? I'd like it to be the former and not the latter. I'm hoping that through this, at a time where it's hard to reach new audiences with so much to choose from, they'll love these teams but also realize they love this show. When I hear a 12-year-old binge-watched 10 seasons of The Amazing Race and was probably born after the show even began, I realize that there's a whole audience out there that has never heard of the show. In the clutter of content out there, how are these younger viewers supposed to find The Amazing Race? So this is an experiment to see whether we can reach a new audience by using a cast that has their own audience that don't necessarily watch The Amazing Race. On the flip side, will the viewers that watch The Amazing Race but don't know who these castmembers are go to watch them on their personal channels? I can't tell you what's going to happen, but I'm really interested to see. 

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