It was inevitable that Producer Michael McKay from Melbourne-based production company ActiveTV would produce The Amazing Race Australia.
Active became involved with the second season of the US version when they raced through Sydney and Coober Pedy and again in season four in Queensland.
That lead to him producing The Amazing Race Asia (now approaching its fifth season) and two versions of The Amazing Race Israel, both licensed from Disney.
McKay says other editions of TAR, including China and Latin America, travel within their own regions.
“I think I’m still the only person outside of the US who has done a genuine travelling version of the show,” he says.
“We work very closely with the broadcaster and map out all the challenges and what we’re planning to do. But there is no one single market in the Asian version so we have all sort of different racers, different religions and so on.
“You have to be careful about the challenges, such as swimwear challenges –all sorts of different things come into play with different cultures and customs.
“I guess that set us up well for the Israeli version and then in turn with a Muslim team in the Australian version. I was quite comfortable with that because it was something I was very used to.
“The Asian one airs right throughout the region on the AXN Network so that goes through Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Korea and the Philippines.”
It also airs in New Zealand. Neither the Asian nor Israeli editions have aired in Australia because ActiveTV wanted an Amazing Race Australia, although SBS was keen.
“At one stage they wanted to buy the Israeli one and I said ‘It’s in Hebrew.'”
For the Australian version, US creator-producer Bertram van Munster served as a Consulant with McKay.
“When I was planning a new episode I would put it all together, send it up to him, we’d talk through it on the phone and then we would send it onto the network,” he says.
“Seven were terrific. I mean obviously we have got a lot of experience and they trusted us which was great. I actually really enjoyed working with Seven, it was just a terrific. I sound like their PR bloke, but they really were.”
McKay is very hands on with the Race, personally scouting every location and testing every challenge. The Amazing Race Australia does use some challenges that have appeared in The Amazing Race Asia, but they were designed by ActiveTV in the first place.
“We virtually can’t take anything from the American version because a lot of the Australian viewers have seen it, but not in the Asian or the Israeli version. So where we have done challenges before and then they have worked I wasn’t afraid to use them in the Australian version,” he says.
The route for the show was developed after talks with Seven programmer Tim Worner and Head of Production Brad Lyons. McKay says he kept asking himself which destinations would excite Australians.
“The world is a big place, but I also had a route for Series Two in the back of my mind, so we just talked with Brad and Tim about the sort of places that we would all like to go.”
Does that mean a second season is official?
“No, not really but I am an optimist!” he laughs.
McKay would also like to see Aussie racers travel through America at some point.
When Seven announced the series, it attracted enormous online buzz, including chatter, rumours and discussion about applications. ActiveTV was so inundated with applications it extended the deadline to allow people more time to complete video submissions.
“At our offices it was just box after box, every conceivable place was taken up by applications and it was really at the upper end of our expectations,” McKay explains.
“The application for the race is deliberately time consuming and difficult. It is not an application that you can just fill out in 30 seconds, and you’ve got to do a three minute video so it is deliberately the hardest show to apply for.”
In keeping with the diversity of the show, casting director Priscilla Yeo arrived at a mix of couples, singles, siblings, friends and relatives of varying ages, genders and religious background. Somewhat surprisingly, there was no gay team.
“Obviously the show is very gay friendly and it’s won awards overseas for that but what we didn’t want to have was a token gay couple. Really it was just the way it worked out in the series but we just didn’t want to be going down that road for the sake of it. We didn’t want to go down any road for the sake of it,” he explains.
“I love this cast. I really do love it. I think it has got lots of little surprises in it. I love the “Big W ladies” –it took me 10 seconds to see they were great.
“Every team has got a story. Luke felt that Jeff walked out on him when he was 15 when he really needed him most. And Jeff by his own admission felt that he was probably not the best father in the world to Luke. So they just saw this as an opportunity to reconnect. I guess viewers will see how well that goes. But it was certainly cool for Jeff to come out and say ‘Look I have got a lot of making up to do with my son and this is how I would like to do it.’
“Even the surfing guys are so laid back it’s hysterical and I think there is a lot more to Sam and Renee than just the obligatory blonde models. Renee is such a tomboy it’s a funny combination. I am really proud of the cast.”
When it comes to liaising challenges and gaining camera access in airports, the show’s reputation opens up all sorts of doors.
“The support we get from around the world in all these different countries is fantastic and it makes you really proud to be part of the format because you know it is coming with respect from people. Sacred locations are often happy to allow you in and to me that comes with the format and the number that they’ve done over the years,” he says.
But McKay declines to elaborate on some of the behind-the-scenes aspects of the show, such as whether seats are pre-booked on flights for racers and camera crews.
“There are a few details on how we shoot and we do travel logistics that I am not allowed to (talk about) because of the format,” he admits.
“But we monitor the flights, we try to work out when we are putting the race together all the different flight possibilities but sometimes they still manage to surprise us.
“I will say though it is like doing a live sports event rather than a typical Reality show.
“There will be times when a team is going four hours in the wrong direction and then they have to go fours back again. So you know right from the outset it is probably eight hours added to your production day. And the host has to stay until they get back and there’s probably a knock on effect to the next leg as well.
“But there’s nothing you can do about it. You’ve just got to wait for them to go four hours one way and four hours back. So from that point of view you have got to have a zen-like quality because there is no point in getting hysterical about it.”
A volcano in Indonesia proved the most hazardous component of the current season, playing havoc with the flights.
“But this is sort of like the Olympic Games of Reality so there are always challenges.”
The Amazing Race Australia airs 8:30pm Mondays on Seven.