Phil Keoghan Phil Keoghan

wants to make one thing very clear about the new all-dating season of : It's still the same show.

The 26th season, which premieres Wednesday with a special 90-minute episode, pits six pre-existing couples -- including New Kids on the Block's and his partner Harley Rodriguez -- against five pairs of "blind date" couples who will meet at the starting line. But that's the only twist.

"Just to put our fans' minds at rest, we're not changing the format of Amazing Race," Keoghan tells TVGuide.com. "I don't want you to think this is the Family Edition format change that you saw all those years ago. It's The Amazing Race as you know it. However, for the first time in Amazing Race history, 10 singles are going to meeting at the starting line for the first time and they will be going on the most extreme blind date ever. ... You will still see Detours and Roadblocks and Pit Stops and people traveling. We know the format works well. We just mixed up the theme."

But why? And how did the show go about casting and pairing the singles? And is Keoghan a Blockhead? He answers our burning questions.

Had you been wanting to do an all-dating season like this for a while?
Phil Keoghan:
Well, the idea had been pushed around by fans for years. There are a lot of applications that we've gotten over the years that have come from singles [saying], "I don't really have anybody to race with, but I'd really like to go on the race and maybe you can pair me up with somebody." ... We do really listen to our fans and what they say. We listened to our fans after Season 8 when they said, "Don't change the format." Some fans thought, "Oh, my God! They're changing the format. It's becoming a dating show." Don't worry, it's not a dating show now. It's the race as you know it, but you'll see people racing while dealing with, "Do I like this person? Do I think they're attractive? Do I think there is a potential for a relationship after this?" I just want to make it clear to fans we are not changing the format. ... When we put the word out, we were able to go back to some of the singles that had been applying over the years and we were able to reach out to some singles that we found through casting.

Did you consider doing all blind date couples or do you feel the pre-existing couples were necessary?
Keoghan:
My personal feeling is that it's more interesting to watch pre-existing couples competing against 10 singles so there's something to compare. Will the newly dating teams be able to out-compete the pre-existing teams and vice versa? It's a different type of relationship because newly dating couples might be on their best behavior for a while because they genuinely like each other. They're only with each other for 21 days max, but they're going through that period where they're on their best behavior. Or, if they don't like each other, they're on their worst behavior. It was so that it wasn't the same flavor in terms of the relationships and that there was a balance and we have something to compare.

What was it like playing matchmaker?
Keoghan:
We found people that we felt would be a good match. However, even when your best friend lines you up on a blind date ... sometimes screws it up. Afterward, you go, "Are you serious? You really thought I'd like Bob?" And your best friend goes, "I thought you guys would be perfect!" ... It's important to say that as hard as we tried to come up with the perfect matches, who's really an expert in coming up with a perfect match? There's a reason that match.com and these websites don't always work. It's hard to find that perfect somebody. We've done our best. I can assure you that we are not claiming to be perfect matchmakers because it's too hard. You will see there are connections with some people and they are instantly attracted to each other from the first moment they stare into each other's eyes.

Bickering couples are a staple of the show and a lot of fans hate them. You could've theoretically paired incompatible people on paper for the drama.
Keoghan:
I would say on paper, if you look at it, we tried to match people up with their likes and dislikes, and what they want in a mate. Quite frankly, it's much more interesting if we are able to get through the end of the race, a newly dating couple wins and they also find love. We wouldn't want to lessen our chances of having that story. That story, to me, is more interesting than if we put people together just because we thought they'd be volatile and we didn't get a match, but we got all this crazy stuff going on. I think it's really cool if we're in the long term able to say, "We were able to match these people up, we captured the moment they feel in love, we captured this extreme blind date around the world, and they won." That's better than "They hated each other. They were eliminated in the third leg because they just couldn't stand to be around each other."

You could wind up with a better track record than The Bachelor after this.
Keoghan:
[Laughs] I think it speaks to how hard it is to find a perfect match when you look at The Bachelor, where they have all the time in the world to facilitate love. That is the show. They send them on dates and do these romantic dinners. They just woo each other. We're not a dating show. This is not exactly the most conducive place to start a relationship when ... you're jet-lagged and grumpy. This is almost the antithesis of how to meet somebody on a dating show. I think on a dating show, you have to facilitate love and allow people to dress up and get romantic and do all that.

There's the Date Night reward, which is a prize.
Keoghan:
Right. Those are not part of the race. It's not a task; it's a prize. It's something they get to enjoy and will be able to share that with fans online.

There's no all-female team for the first time ever, ironically coming after a season when only the third all-female team won. Was that just how the casting shook out?
Keoghan:
Yeah. It was just the way the cast came together, the mix of singles and who we felt were the most interesting to watch. We do have a newly dating gay couple. Every season, obviously, we can't cover every type of relationship, but we did pretty well covering quite a few types of dating ones.

Are you a big New Kids fan?
Keoghan:
[Laughs] Not a big fan. I was not really into boy bands. I'm a little older. I was more into Red Hot Chili Peppers and Seal than I was into the boy bands. I'm excited. Jonathan is the nicest guy. When Jonathan came into audition, you could tell he was a fan of the show. He was nervous. He even said to us, "It's crazy. I've performed all my life. I've performed in front of 10s of thousands of people and I'm so nervous now sitting here talking to you guys because I wanna do this so bad." ... It was so endearing. He's got no ego. He's so relaxed with his fans, with his relationship. It was a real pleasure to have him. I don't know what I was expecting, but on some races, you think, "I can definitely go have a beer with them after the Race" and there are some where you go, "If I have to go have a beer with this person, that's alright too." [Laughs] I want to get to know him more. He just seems like a real interesting guy. He's so self-deprecating. Just being a fan of the race, his passion really came through. He was doing it because he's a super-fan. He wasn't doing it to relaunch Older Kids on the Block or something.

I like that CBS employs 60 percent of New Kids on the Block.
Keoghan:
Isn't that crazy? I can only say that Les Moonves must be a huge New Kids on the Block fan.

Maybe Julie [Chen] is too.
Keoghan:
Yeah, maybe Julie. Maybe [when] they're on vacation or they're at home, they're just blasting the old CDs. Maybe they have private concerts.

Then we definitely need to get invited to those. Did you notice any specific dynamics between the blind date couples and even the pre-existing ones by the end of the race?
Keoghan:
What you notice is there's another layer. [The pre-existing couples] react to the stimulus of where they are, what they're doing based on years of being together. You can see a pattern through the season where they're reacting to things certain stimuli the same way. One person always does the directions, the other drives, like that. They've established a way of being together. But with the newly dating couples, in 21 days, you see a total transformation, where they're tiptoeing around each other -- "I don't know if I'm better at directions than you are" or "I don't know if you should do the swimming challenge." You're find out about each other at the same time you're deciding who's gonna do what. That process, if you look at it on the first leg compared to the last leg if they make it there, that dynamic has changed in a way the pre-existing relationships might have not at all. It's a more dramatic transformation with the newly dating couples.

What else can we look forward to? Were your predictions ?
Keoghan: Yes, my predictions turned out really bad once again. You're not surprised. [Laughs] I did pick one of the teams that went through toward the end of the show, but every other prediction I made was wrong. I was constantly surprised. I think viewers will be too. Right out of the gate, just seeing how they deal with the first challenge, which is this mud run they have to do, which is right at the starting line. Then they're on a plane, flying to Japan. I said to all the newly dating couples [after the first leg], "Have you ever been on a blind date where at the end, you're on the other side of the world 18 hours later?" That's what makes it really interesting. Then they go to Thailand, which is always beautiful and exotic, and into Europe and then we get to Namibia. The contrast of Europe, where you see such beautiful architecture, such history, and all of the sudden you're standing in the middle of the oldest desert in Namibia all within one leg with people you've only known a few days -- that's what I love about the show.

The Amazing Race 26 premieres with a special 90-minute episode on Wednesday at 9:30/8:30c before moving to its regular timeslot on Friday at 8/7c on CBS.

(Full disclosure: TVGuide.com is owned by CBS.)

Check out our behind-the-scenes footage from last season's start line: