Coast to Coast with “Focus Rally: America”

February 24, 2011 · By Michael Andersen in Interviews, News, Update 

Like many red-blooded Americans, the idea of going on a cross-country road trip has an undeniable allure for me. I have fond memories of piling into the car for family vacations, and years of watching road movies have convinced me that there’s no better way to experience personal growth. I’m also a fan of living vicariously through reality television, so it’s probably no surprise that I’ve been hooked on Focus Rally: America ever since I wrote ARGNet’s first article on the game. The reality show features six teams of two as they travel across the country, competing in challenges for a chance at $100,000 and a 2012 Ford Focus. So far, the teams have danced in a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, shot hoops with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban in Dallas, and engaged in aerial acrobatics in Arizona. They even held a singing and songwriting competition, providing the hilarious footage below.

Focus Rally: America offers viewers the opportunity to vicariously follow contestants via livestream from their cars in between daily episodes posted to the show’s Hulu channel. Viewers can interact more directly by chatting with the contestants online or solving puzzles. While most puzzles typically consist of solving 3×3 slide puzzles and answering trivia questions, a few have involved talking contestants through solving the Tower of Hanoi puzzle, explaining tangrams, submitting photographs to Facebook, and even making an air freshener for the car. Since the Focus Rally website tracks the GPS locations of contestants, some fans have met up with teams on the road to cheer them on. And for one event in Texas, fans were invited to join the contestants for a cook-out challenge. Players can even vote for rewards and punishments for the various teams, ranging from hotel room service to a parrot costume the Red Team will soon be sporting on the road.

I spoke with Elise Doganieri, one of the Focus Rally producers and co-creator of The Amazing Race, who noted that “typically with a reality show, you don’t want people to know what the contestants are doing or where they’re going, but this is the complete opposite: you want people to know where the contestants are and see what they’re doing so they can cheer them on and help them.”

Some of the most compelling content has been coming out of the daily live streams. The Focus Rally website is set up so followers can only watch the livestream for their team. According to Doganieri, “because it’s a competition for the online followers also, we wanted to set it up so that once you’re committed to a team, you were with that team . . . and you helped them in every which way that you possibly could online.” The strategy has worked for me, as I’ve eagerly watched Clayton Early and Adam Lustick, two members of the Harvard Sailing Team sketch comedy troupe, driving as Team Blue over the past few weeks. With the help of a livestream broadcast from the inside of their car, I watched the duo sing an impromptu song to Adam’s girlfriend for her birthday, swapped brain teasers with the pair over twitter, and listened attentively as the two recounted their daily adventures. Although I can only speak for my own experience, casting worked hard to ensure that each team would provide a similarly fulfilling experience. Doganieri said, “one thing that we really wanted were two people who were really socially vibrant, because this is an interactive web series.”

Maintaining the show’s frenetic posting schedule is a challenge, with six live feeds simultaneously streaming out of the cars, camera crews following each of the teams, and videos of challenges often going up on Hulu the same day the footage is captured. However, the biggest challenge Doganieri claims the production crew has faced is the weather: “it’s a very long drive, and it’s been a very snowy, cold winter. We have a lot of snow that the contestants have encountered that we weren’t expecting in certain parts of the country.”

The live feed performance has been spotty in places as the drivers go through areas with lower cellular coverage and some of the rally rules needed to be amended to better ensure the safety of all participants. Now that the rally has reached its midpoint, it appears as though players, contestants, and the production team have developed a groove and things are going more smoothly. There’s still ample opportunity to catch up on the Hulu videos and enter the competition for a chance to win a Ford Focus of your own.

Go to the Focus Rally website to join, and visit the forums at SlickDeals.net for help on the daily puzzles and challenges. There’s still more than two weeks of action to come.

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