Van Munster & Doganieri's Amazing Race
Husband-and-wife duo racking up Emmys
By Jim Benson -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/25/2005 8:00:00 PM
Bertram van Munster's trophy case is getting crowded. The executive producer of CBS' The Amazing Race just collected his third consecutive prime time Emmy, along with partner Jerry Bruckheimer, for Outstanding Reality/Competition Show. He can put it with the seven others the show has collected since 2003, along with a Producers Guild Award it earned earlier this year.
Race, which starts its eighth edition Tuesday, is a runaway hit—which means van Munster can be very selective about the projects he chooses. “Taking on a lot of business is easy, but taking millions of dollars from the networks and failing is not what I want to do,” he says. “If I take their money, I have to be 100% sure that I'll be successful.”
Such caution might sound odd for a guy who has built a show based on risk-taking. But Race is a very personal thing to van Munster and his wife, Elise Doganieri, who have painstakingly built the franchise since they brainstormed the concept four years ago.
Van Munster is, in fact, scouting around for the next reality hit. Although Jonathan Littman, who runs Bruckheimer's production company, says they're not necessarily looking to do more reality, they are eager to work with van Munster again. “If Bert comes to us with something, we'll probably do it,” Littman says.
Raised in Holland
Growing up in Holland, van Munster tried his hand as an assistant director but found life more interesting as an apprentice cameraman for Fox's former news service, Movietone News. But it was commercials that paid the bills; he made at least 2,000 before moving to the U.S. in 1970. After directing at National Geographic, he landed at Fox's Cops, which he calls “storytelling in a very chaotic, fascinating atmosphere.”
It was around then that van Munster first encountered Doganieri, who ran a graphic-design company. He asked if he could use a painting for a pilot he was shooting. Although they couldn't agree on a price, they did end up having dinner at a mutual friend's party. The two became husband and wife in 2000 and co-creators of Race shortly thereafter.
Challenged by van Munster to come up with an idea for a reality show, Doganieri recalled a nightmarish post-college trip she took to Europe with a best friend. The pair got so angry with each other that they went off in different directions. Van Munster took Doganieri's globetrotting concept, with its unfamiliar locales, foreign languages and makeshift modes of transportation (including planes, trains and donkeys), and made it an around-the-world race with the winner taking home $1 million.
The tension between travel-mates is the show's heart, van Munster believes. “There's going to be fireworks,” he says. “You know, 'The hell with you, I don't want to listen to your nonsense anymore.' It's inevitable. We can all relate.”
CBS raced to buy Race, but when the 9/11 attacks hit a week after its launch, some wondered whether America was ready for a show centered on anxiety and travel. Race nonetheless built a loyal following, starting out with 8 million viewers. Its base included CBS executives, Emmy voters and critics—who liked the idea of a “classy” (their oft-repeated descriptor) reality show, with less backbiting than many others.
Ratings have exploded since then. The seventh edition averaged 13 million viewers, with 16 million for the season finale. At the Emmys Sept. 18, Race's three-peat win of its category's top prize put it in the elite company of stalwarts like Frasier and The West Wing.
Van Munster, who's also looking to acquire TV stations in Hong Kong, South America and Eastern Europe, laid the groundwork for Race years back, buttressing his producing credentials with Paramount's weekly syndication adventure series, Wild Things, from 1997 to 2000. While creating that catalogue, he established solid relationships with governments around the world, which helped the couple gain entry to those countries on Race—as well as for ABC's acclaimed documentary series Profiles From the Front Line, about American soldiers in Afghanistan.
With permanent offices in Africa, Asia and South America, Race has a 2,000-person production company, Earthview. Sharing co-creator titles, the couple works out budgets, logistics and creative aspects in mapping out a five- or six-country route—never going to the same place twice—for each of the two installments per season. As Doganieri and her old friend ended up doing, the couple travels separately during the months-long production process.
Doganieri credits Race's success to their odd-couple relationship. Because he's from Europe and she's from New York, they see the world differently. Also providing different perspectives is a significant age difference, though neither will say how old they are.
But van Munster and Doganieri are not total opposites. They share a strong wanderlust, are unafraid to express their opinions and are passionate about their work. While some married couples finish each others' sentences, that's not the case with this pair. Says Doganieri, “We just talk over each other.”
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