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June 21, 2016

Personal Best

On NBC's American Ninja Warrior, your biggest competitor is yourself.

Sheryl Rothmuller
  • Courtesy NBC
  • Courtesy NBC
  • Courtesy NBC
  • Courtesy NBC
  • Courtesy NBC

“It was always designed to be a show as much about the people as it was about what they were actually doing,” says executive producer Arthur Smith about the popular NBC series American Ninja Warrior.

Like many people, you might have become hyper aware of the sports competition series in 2014 when a poised, five foot tall gymnast named Kacy Catanzaro became the first female competitor to complete a qualifying course and make it up the iconic warped wall, then went on to earn bragging rights as the first female to complete a finals course.

The clip from that run became a viral sensation and has garnered over 12 million views on YouTube.

“That’s really when the show blew up because everybody saw this viral clip of this five foot tall powerhouse going through a course that most competitors—guys twice her size—couldn’t get through, says Brandon Riegg, SVP alternative programming at NBC. “That was a momentum builder and we continue to ride that wave of momentum.”

The series follows competitors as they tackle a series of challenging obstacle courses in both city qualifying and city finals rounds across the country.

Athletes who successfully completed the finals course in their region move on to the national finals in Las Vegas, where they face a four-stage course known as Mt. Midoriyama. The competitor who completes the course with the best time at the finals takes home $1 million.

In the history of this iteration of the show, only two competitors—rock-climber Isaac Caldiero and sports cameraman Geoff Britten—have beat the final course and only Caldiero has received the cash prize of $1 Million last season.

American Ninja Warrior was derived from Japan’s hit TV show Sasuke which aired on TBS.

Cable network G4 originally aired the series as Ninja Warrior, which were cut-down episodes of the Japanese show. While the show was on G4, A. Smith Productions was brought in to develop the American franchise of the show with G4 execs. Over the years, the American version of the show built an audience and became the highest rated show on the network.

“It was kind of the big show on the little network,” says Smith. “And then when Comcast and NBC become one, Neil [Tiles] and I discussed getting our finale on NBC. Through some great act of synergy, the finale aired against Hell’s Kitchen [also A. Smith Production’s show].

Hell’s Kitchen was on 8-10 p.m. and Ninja was on 9-11 p.m. Ninja finished second to Hell’s Kitchen in the first hour and then it won the time period at 10pm. Everybody went, ‘Wait a second, this is a guy’s show.’”

But it’s not a guy’s show. “It has a 54% female audience,” notes Riegg.

“I live in a house with women, 3 daughters and a wonderful wife, and I knew they were into it,” says Smith. “They loved the action. They loved the good-looking guys. They loved the story. It came from a guys' network, but it’s not a guy’s show; it’s a family show. And that was always what I believed.”

Riegg notes that it’s a top 10 show in almost every single demo breakdown: kids, teens, adults 18-49, and adults 25-54.

“Kids love this show,” says executive producer Kent Weed. “The kids bring the moms. The kids bring the dads. And all of a sudden we’ve got the whole family watching the show.” Weed says he’s heard many stories from parents about how kids have become more active after watching the show. Instead of playing video games, the kids head outside to play in the backyard.

It’s also one of the few competition shows where competitors root for each other. “I think the struggles are personal,” says Smith. “They are not competing against each other. It’s them versus the course. They want to be the first, but they appreciate the others.”

Smith recalls a particular event in which walk-on competitor Kevin Bull succeeded in getting through an obstacle that others were having trouble with. “I’ll never forget the shot of the other Ninjas watching; they were flipping out. They couldn’t have been more excited for him. They really are fans of each other.”

This year contestant applications topped 70,000, up 10% over the previous year. Athletes come in all ages, from 20s on up. This season they’ll have a competitor who is in his 70s. “We shoot from sundown to sun up,” says Riegg. “Once we run all 110 people that we guarantee a slot to, we keep running as many people from the walk-on line until the sun comes up.”

Once potential Ninjas find out the show is coming to their city, many of them make a plan to camp out for several days in an attempt to secure a walk-on spot.

One of the other phenomena of Ninja is that current and potential ninjas build courses and obstacles. “We’ve seen them in barns in Alaska,” says Smith. “There are Ninja gyms. They’ve gotten smart. There’s no practice on Ninja; you get one shot.”

This very aspect of Ninja dedication to preparation was parodied on Saturday Night Live this season. Faux contestant Jeff Metcalf, played by Bobby Moynihan, used scraps of wood from his tornado-ravaged house to build a practice obstacle course in what used to be his garage.

The SNL sketch zeros in on a very important part of the show: storytelling. “The stunning visuals of what they are trying to do and the amazing athletic feats that these people perform is fantastic, but to pair that with great storytelling about who these people are; we believe that’s a great combination,” says Smith.

In the first episode of this season, a handsome California cowboy confidently shows off his abs while he works with his horses during his story package. Cut to the competition and you can practically hear the record scratch sound effect as he falls and is disqualified on the very first obstacle, four seconds in.

“Everybody’s on an equal playing field and you never know who is going to succeed and surprise you when you are watching it, which is a great draw for this show,” says Riegg.

“It does take a certain kind of athlete to get through,” says Smith. “The course is set up to really test you in a variety of ways. We see people who don’t look like they are going to be great and they are great. And we see people who are muscular and very fit and not do so well because there are a number of skill sets that are required.”

The show began its eighth season on NBC June 1st and promptly won its time slot among broadcasters. Last year, Ninja Warrior produced 38 hours of the show, specials included. “This year we are doing 31, which is a lot considering it’s an Olympic year,” Smith says.

Season eight will also feature 27 new obstacles and increased difficulty on some old standbys, including the warped wall, which has been raised by six inches.

Comedian Matt Iseman returns to host alongside former NFL player Akbar Gbajabiamila. Ninja Warrior is a co-production between NBC and Esquire Network with Esquire Network airing encore presentations of each episode the night after they premiere on NBC.

The series has spawned specials and spin-offs, including Team Ninja Warrior, which has just announced an order for a second season, airing exclusively on Esquire Network.

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