Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Amazing Race: Yield, U-Turn, and Lame Variants

As we continue to stretch The Fabric of Reality, I felt it prescient in the wake of some maddening news about the upcoming second season of The Amazing Race Australia to analyse exactly why the Yield, the U-Turn, and variants there of have not worked - and never will work - on the race. Because apparently nobody in production has seemed to twig yet that they aren't popular with fans AND they're a mess from a race design standpoint.

The Yield, introduced in The Amazing Race 5, was instantly unpopular with fans as it came across as a poor substitute for the Fast Forward. Both had very similar basic concepts - a race power that a team could only use once to try and ensure their safety in the game - but where the Fast Forward was an extra task that allowed the team using it to gain a head start, the Yield allowed the team using it to disadvantage a team behind them by forcing them to stand around like hockey goons while an hourglass dripped away. Part of the problem is that in the preceding four seasons the show had always prided itself on not being one of those reality shows that relied on contestants fighting with each other in order to be entertaining, and this sudden decision (combined with a reduction in the number of Fast Forwards) felt at odds with that. Even the contestants noticed this, and while the Yield actually appeared in each of the first eleven legs of the race, it was actually shown in just four episodes and was only ever used ONCE, at the very last opportunity. So, why wasn't it used? Was it just general hatred of the idea, or were there design issues from the beginning. I'd argue both. Fifteen seasons later people are still refusing to use the similar U-Turn (discussed below) on moral grounds, while almost every Fast Forward in the same time period has been attempted, so clearly people still don't like the concept for whatever reason. It's hard to tell if tinkering with it will help alleviate the design issues, but I suspect from the efforts made so far that getting the basic "screw another team to help yourselves" idea to work on this particular show is a bit like trying to polish the proverbial turd.

The first main problem noticed was that people didn't want to be the victim of a "revenge attack" after using the Yield. To try and avoid this, the number of Yields present during the season was drastically reduced to three for The Amazing Race 6, and to two just two seasons later after further non-use in The Amazing Race 7 (in turn caused by such a revenge Yield actually happening during its final usage in season six). And, yes, it did work to an extent. In seasons eight through eleven, there were seven shown Yields, all of which were used. However, thanks to the design of the legs the Yields were placed on, only one Yield in its entire seven-season history ever succeeded in causing a team's elimination. Since the reduction after season five, there were thirteen shown Yields. Five of these were on predetermined non-elimination legs and a sixth was on the first half of a two-episode leg, meaning none of the Yielded teams was ever going to be eliminated. Of the remaining seven, one was on a leg with the infamous "eat two kilograms of meat" Road Block that was designed to invoke quitters (thus making the Yield worthless), while all but two of the rest were directly before tasks heavily reliant on random luck. One of those was ruined when the first team to arrive stupidly decided they'd rather win a prize than have a guaranteed place in the finals with the oldest, slowest team in Race history, while the other was the Yield's only success.

The second and third problems the producers attempted to fix were actually done simultaneously in The Amazing Race 12. Firstly, to avoid those pesky non-eliminations and luck challenges ruining the intended effect, they were only placed on legs where a team was to be eliminated AND where the tasks required actual skill to complete. Secondly, because this is a race and watching people standing around is counterproductive to the entire concept, the hourglass was replaced with making the team complete a U-Turn by backtracking to the Detour (always the previous task) to complete the other option. Unfortunately, the two solutions cancelled each other out. Yes, the increased likelihood of elimination made it more likely the U-Turn would have an effect, BUT it was only a few weeks ago (almost nine full seasons since its introduction) that a team eliminated in a leg with a used U-Turn wasn't U-Turned themselves, meaning that for basically that entire time it's been a total anticlimax whenever it has appeared. So what's made the U-Turn so hard to survive? Mostly, it's the need to complete the second Detour option. As a U-Turned team must travel from the Detour to the U-Turn, then back to the Detour, then back to the U-Turn sign, then to the next task (often in a crowded, busy city), the Detour tasks themselves can't be too time-consuming to complete. If neither task is quick, then the U-Turned team will fall too far behind and is doomed. If the tasks are unbalanced, everyone will pick the quick option, and the U-Turned team will again be screwed. If both tasks are inconsequential enough to overcome, then you might as well not bother having a Detour at all. Likewise, if the Detour is the final task before the Pit Stop there's almost no chance for them to make up the lost time, and the same issues arise.

Rather than fix this issue the moment it was obvious, the next tweak made was to try and avoid the "revenge attack" aspect (which led to the U-Turn's non-usage in The Amazing Race 13) even more by making it possible for teams to U-Turn without having to identify themselves. Because it totally matters if a team who's going to get eliminated anyway knows who to blame. The actual idea here is kind of sound in concept, but it really wasn't the fix needed, and it doesn't actually fix any of the pressing issues.

Finally, in The Amazing Race 17 we got an attempt to fix the anticlimactic episodes by allowing two separate teams to U-Turn others at the same time (instead of only one per leg). And while something needed to be done, this... is not going to help at all, from a strategic standpoint. Put simply, once the first U-Turn is used, there's no logical reason for anybody except the U-Turned team themselves to use the second U-Turn when they arrive. But that doesn't fix the anticlimax; in fact, quite the opposite. If the first U-Turned team is already in last place, there's nobody they can U-Turn, and they will fall even farther behind. If they U-Turn a team they know is behind them, it just means that instead of having a main bunch with one team significantly behind, there's a main bunch with one U-Turned team significantly behind them, who in turn is likely to be significantly ahead of the second U-Turned team by the end of the leg unless they happen to arrive at the U-Turn sign in a footrace. And as the U-Turn by design can't be the first thing after teams are bunched together, that's both incredibly unlikely and an impossible situation for the producers to force.

More to the point, and to bring the actual reason for this post back into focus, the Israeli version recently attempted to tweak the Yield and U-Turn by making the decision of who is delayed the result of a vote conducted at an earlier point in the leg. This twist is apparently being incorporated by the same producers into the Australian version. And there are so many problems with the idea, I don't even know where to begin. The smart strategy decision is, obviously, to U-Turn the team in last place. But having to vote before the Detour just makes it impossible to gauge where people will be in the pack at the U-Turn, and these same producers have openly admitted casting for people who aren't familiar with the show, which will likely lead to personal grudges taking precedence over the actual substitute logical decision of trying to get rid of one's biggest threats. Especially considering the last season of The Amazing Race Australia was basically ruined by the order teams were eliminated - with basically the most fascinating team booted each time until we were left with three bland pretty teams who really had no business even being cast reaching the final - it seems like the stupidest possible decision to give teams an outlet to essentially vote for the team they want to eliminate each leg. The bland teams will likely just skate through unless they dominate every leg (in which case, said domination will almost certainly negate most if not all of the time loss), and we'll have the same problems that resulted in the show basically losing half its audience by the finale last season. And that's even before you consider how Australian audiences have reacted in the past to shows with cast voting - The Hot House? Australian Survivor? Both versions? The voting eliminations during the first season of Masterchef? There's a reason none of them lasted. I'm going to attempt to explain in a future post why reality formats and twists seem to work in different markets while they completely fail in others, but that's a story for another day. In short, though, here voting for a U-Turn is both a bad idea for the format itself and, more importantly, not going to work for an Australian audience.

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