Wednesday, 5 January 2022

The Amazing Race 33, Episode 1

USA - London, England (U.K.)

Maybe you’re not sure if you are ready for travel, much less for international travel, long-haul flights, or a trip around the world. But the new season of The Amazing Race is a chance to explore these ideas and clarify our own (revised) travel goals, plans, and expectations.

Broadcasts of The Amazing Race have resumed after a hiatus of more than a year — with changes, some yet to be revealed, prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. This renews the question this TV series has always raised: “What, if anything, can I learn about real world travel from a reality-TV show?”

This isn’t the first time that reality has interrupted the “reality” television of The Amazing Race. The first season of the TV race around the world, starting and ending in New York City, was filmed in March and April of 2001, and the first episode was broadcast on 5 September 2001. After 9/11, the second episode, scheduled for broadcast on 12 September 2001, was postponed for a week while CBS television executives debated whether to cancel the show.

This time, of course, the delay in filming of a new season was due to COVID-19. Season 32, filmed before the pandemic in 2019, was broadcast in 2020. But filming of Season 33, which began in February 2020, was interrupted by the pandemic after only three legs of the race. The cast and crew were sent home. Location filming, under modified conditions and with a drastically modified itinerary, didn’t resume until September 2021.

This week’s two-hour season premiere, taking the racers from their homes in the USA to London, was filmed before the pandemic began to affect travel in most of the world. So it provides a reminder of what travel was like in the B.C. (“Before Covid”) era, rather than any indication of what world travel is like now or will be in the future, D.C. (“During Covid”) or A.C. (“After Covid”).

Where and how we can or will be able to travel, or want to travel, during and after the pandemic? What will be different, and what will go back to the way it was? What new and different services and products for travellers will be available, and which will disappear (or have already)? What will change about air travel? Surface transportation? Accommodations? Food and drink for travellers? How we interect with locals and other travellers? Where we go? What we do? Will there be an “after the pandemic”, or an indefinitely continuing “new normal” of life and travel?

I look forward to thinking about these questions in the context of The Amazing Race 33, even if my crystal ball remains cloudy. But to see how the TV producers have addressed these issues, we’ll have to wait a couple of weeks for the episodes later this season that were filmed in September 2021, after the cast and crew were vaccinated.

In the meantime, the only things that have really changed from previous seasons in these first pre-pandemic episodes of The Amazing Race 33 are the advertisements. Changes in advertisers and ads on “The Amazing Race” provide clues about the thinking of providers of travel services and other businesses.

The online travel agency Travelocity (a division and brand of Expedia), has for many years been the lead sponsor of “The Amazing Race” on CBS-TV in the USA. This season, Travelocity has pulled its ads. A product placement for Travelocity in the first episode (a prize for the pair of racers who finished first in the initial leg) had already been contracted for and filmed, so it was included. But there were no other Travelocity ads.

Also notably absent from the roster of advertisers on the first episode (although perhaps less conspicuously) was American Airlines.

The entire season premiere double episode took place en route to, and in, London, making it a two-hour advertisement for travel to American Airlines’ most profitable non-U.S. destination. American Airlines has more flights to London from more U.S. gateways than any other U.S.-based airline. Putting members of the cast of “The Amazing Race” on AA flights to London from gateways across the USA (even nonstop from Charlotte) served to further highlight AA as the airline to fly from the USA to London.

Nothing has been confirmed publicly, but I assume that the TV producers arranged these flights for the cast in the expectation that they could sell AA on a product placement and perhaps additional advertising. But after the start of the pandemic, AA chose not to advertise these flights, some of which had been cancelled and others of which were being flown with too many empty seats to be profitable. So there were no shots of AA planes or the AA logo on this episode of “The Amazing Race”, and no mention of American Airlines in Phil Keoghan’s voiceovers. Most of the “recovery” in air travel (and travel generally), not just in the USA but in other countries, has been in domestic travel. International flights remain difficult to sell, and apparently AA doesn’t think it’s worth the price of national TV ads to even try to sell its most important intercontinental route.

Travelocity was replaced as lead sponsor for this season of “The Amazing Race” by another, older, division of the Expedia group, VRBO (“Vacation Rentals By Owner”). I can’t tell whether Expedia had already committed to the sponsorship, but substituted VRBO for Travelocity after the pandemic began, or whether it was an independent ad purchasing decision. But however it was arranged, it clearly reflects the shift in patterns of travel. Travelocity’s profits come primarily from bookings of traditional hotels, while VRBO is a rental and sublease platform for owners of seasonal and resort houses, condos, and timeshares. Some of these properties also are listed on Airbnb.com and/or Booking.com, but timeshares not so often. Many people who buy a timeshare — a permanent right to an apartment, condo, or suite at a resort for a certain number of weeks every year — find that they aren’t using some or all of their weeks. Subletting a timeshare slot the owner isn’t going to use is sometimes much cheaper than booking a similar rental unit at the same resort or property for the same week. Other timeshare sublet platforms include Redweek and Koala.

At least on the broadcast I watched (KPIX-TV, over the air in San Francisco), there were no other travel-related ads in the first episode of The Amazing Race 33. That says something about the market for travel services not having “recovered”, but it may also say something about the state of retail sales and advertising in general. It’s hard for anyone outside the advertising industry to know for sure, but it looked like CBS and KPIX couldn’t find many advertisers willing to pay to target viewers of “The Amazing Race”, but instead sold many of the commercial slots in the remnant market to advertisers willing to accept placement on any (prime time) show in exchange for a discounted rate per viewer.

There are already signs of new business models for travel services emerging out of the pandemic. Whether or not their ads show up in broadcasts of “The Amazing Race”, I’ll be reporting on some of them in future columns. Stay tuned!

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 5 January 2022, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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