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Finally, A Real Race

This year, no reality series has a lock on the Emmy. And nobody has to eat any worms.

September 12, 2007|Denise Martin | Special to The Times

No one is searching for pirate's booty or competing with a dozen other women for Mr. Right. There are no aspiring karaoke superstars and no one gets fired.

In fact, since the inception of the Emmy Award for top reality competition series four years ago, only one show has ever won -- for being more of a National Geographic travelogue than today's typical cutthroat elimination show.

CBS' 11-seasons-old "Amazing Race" sends its contestants globe-trotting in hopes of winning a cool $1 million. Teams of two fly to faraway locales to follow clues, complete stamina-testing and sometimes stomach-churning challenges, and overcome roadblocks while attempting to be first to arrive at the final destination. The series' most recent season sent competitors to places ranging from Mozambique, where they had to set trained rats loose on a hunt for land mines, to Hong Kong, where some had to duck out of the way of real kung fu fighting.

"Race" is impressive not only on the technical production front -- the show has landed trophies for picture editing and cinematography as well -- but also as great drama, in which the journeys of winning and losing teams are both immensely relatable and always surprising.

Those handicapping the category agree that the series will be tough to beat, even while it is up for a fifth trophy. "It'll probably be the same old thing," says David Lyle, chief operating officer for Fox Reality, a channel devoted to airing reality shows from various networks all over the world. "I can't see that it will change. I suspect 'Amazing Race' will win it again."

Of course, "Race" creator-executive producer Bertram van Munster agrees wholeheartedly. "I think voters in the Academy [of Television Arts and Sciences] recognize that this is a complicated and probably the most ambitious reality show ever created in terms of locations and logistics alone," he says. "We're always trying to set the standard."

This year, "Race" will face off against other popular series, "Dancing With the Stars," "Project Runway," "Top Chef" and the ratings behemoth "American Idol."

Magical Elves, the production team behind the Bravo hits "Runway" and "Chef," was surprised by the nominations for both series, each of which is watched by a fraction of the audience that watches the other three contenders. "We definitely feel like the little engine that could," says executive producer Jane Lipsitz.

While "Race" boasts the resources necessary to conduct a jet-setting global competition, "Runway" and "Chef," with a mix of amateurs and professionals competing in tests of ability, have had to be a bit more creative with their limited funds, a challenge that has worked out for the best.

"We didn't have the money to build a studio to shoot 'Runway,' so, out of necessity, we hit up design schools. We wound up finding the elements that made the show: Parsons the New School for Design and Tim Gunn," Lipsitz says of the school's former chair of fashion design. He is now the chief creative officer for Liz Claiborne.

Despite the smaller audience, it's easy to see why "Runway" and "Chef" are in the running. Both series emphasize craft -- casting colorful folks with real skills -- while giving viewers the razzle-dazzle of a high-stakes competition. The prizes coincide with that mission: "Runway" finalists all land shows during New York Fashion Week, while the "Top Chef" gets featured in the prestigious magazine Food and Wine, in addition to winning cash to help launch a restaurant.

"What we wanted to do was create competitions that were true to the world of fashion and food," says Magical Elves executive producer Dan Cutforth. "The most important thing is for the shows to be authentic and credible. If that wasn't the case, it would be making TV to make TV. We want these shows to have a purpose."

The same can be said for nominees "Idol" and "Dancing," which barely show the contestants offstage, save for minutes of rehearsal footage. "Idol" winners get a lucrative recording contract, and several have gone on to Grammys and multiplatinum albums, while the winning B-list celebrities (who are paired with ballroom dancing pros) get bragging rights and, at least temporarily, resuscitated careers. In a sense, the shows are the purest form of reality competition -- the contest element stands alone. But that's not to say that casting isn't as crucial as it is on any other prime-time series.

Van Munster says the show does its best to get a balance of interesting teams with real desire. "But then we turn them loose and we have no idea how they will behave," he says. "Our heart rates go up with the start of each season."

Cutforth adds he and Lipsitz learned early on that "the story will happen without us having to manipulate it. Audiences can tell when something is cooked up. And usually the truth is much better than the fake drama any day."

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