CBS' The Amazing Race can't match the ratings success of American Idol, Dancing With the Stars or Survivor, but it has outshined all of them in claiming trophies: Race has won the Emmy for best competition-reality series for six straight years, ever since the category was created.
Now, with a 14th edition that kicks off Sunday (8 ET/PT), the series is making several subtle shifts in its formula, which might corral more travel-hungry viewers.
"The show has been on the air for eight years; it needed a new coat of paint," executive producer Bertram van Munster says. (Last season averaged 11.2 million viewers, down 5% from the previous cycle.)
Gone are the lengthy scenes at airport ticket counters as contestants jostle for available flights, a frequent complaint of fans. Cameras will linger longer on the breathtaking scenery that's the show's hallmark.
And in cosmetic fixes, Race's route will be updated with Google maps, the show will sport new graphics and a new opening sequence, and the musical score will get a tuneup. "We had a little too many cymbals crashing," van Munster says.
In all, this 12-episode season travels 40,000 miles in just 22 days, a week shorter than past editions. Racers begin in Los Angeles and hit their first pit stop — Stechelberg, Switzerland — in Sunday's premiere, after they've wrangled 50-pound wheels of cheese down a steep hill.
Then they traipse across Europe and Asia, stopping in India, China and Thailand, before hitting the finish line on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Along the way, the show treks for the first time to Romania and Siberia, where contestants endure a 13-hour ride on the Trans-Siberian Railroad and face a major snowstorm.
"When you go from Siberia, where it's bitter cold, to India, which is unbearably hot, that's a shock," van Munster says. "We really wore these people out."
This season's racers are a more diverse lot: The show's 11 teams include Luke Adams, 23, a deaf college graduate from Monument, Colo., who travels with his mom, Margie, 51.
"We had to work a little harder because I can't hear," said Luke in a telephone interview interpreted by his mother, who noted that their choices were limited in some challenges. But "I'm a big fan and I've been watching since Season 1, and I really wanted to be the first deaf person on the show."
Also on the chase for the $1 million prize: a brother/sister team of Chinese-Americans with Harvard law degrees; a pair of former NFL cheerleaders; two flight attendants; diminutive stuntmen brothers; and Mike White, a screenwriter (School of Rock) and actor (Chuck & Buck) who travels with his gay activist dad, Mel.