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Reality shows run their own 'amazing race' to win viewers

The rash of unscripted TV shows using amateur performers ("reality TV") is as much a sign of how worried network executives were last spring about possible writers' and actors' strikes as it is evidence that the genre has any true, lasting power.

The fall schedule is full of the latest versions of reality TV, at least 20 shows on the six networks alone. The best that can be said about them is that the pressure to compete in this new genre is pushing producers to become more creative. At least the landscapes are getting more interesting, as the shows strain to stand out from the crowd.

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The Amazing Race (CBS, 9-10 p.m., Wednesdays) manages to look downright classy in comparison with the recent feature film "Rat Race." Viewers are taken to exotic spots such as Zambia and South Africa.

On the other hand, Lost (NBC, 8-9 p.m., Wednesdays), in which groups of strangers are plopped in the middle of nowhere, while showing contestants at a loss in a foreign land, bogs down with their bickering. The series does reward viewers who hang in there, though: The players and locales change every three weeks.

The Mole (ABC, Fridays, 8-9 p.m.) returns Sept. 21, while Fox's Love Cruise (Fox, 9-10 p.m., Tuesdays) launches a Caribbean setting for its high-seas dating game.

And if all this isn't enough, there's always The Runner (ABC, Mondays), due early next year. Nobody knows where the runner will actually run, but maybe that unknown travelogue will be bait enough.

When will the onslaught of reality shows wane?

"Reality television is starting to look a lot like heroin," says UPN president and CEO Dean Valentine. "You know, a really quick high [in the ratings], and then a really long, long low. Then you need another fix again."