Slow and steady wins the race. Like one of its own contestants gearing up to take on the Warped Wall, American Ninja Warrior’s remarkable success story has been a matter of perseverance, grit, and the determination to be a disruptor despite myriad obstacles in its path. In a sense, the challenge Ninja has faced has come as the result of its own success—to continue to excel as a disruptive force, a dynamo that can’t be stopped.
At the Emmys, which favor acclaimed returning series year after year, it’s difficult for any lesser-known series to make a splash—and it’s significantly more challenging for a series to break into the Reality-Competition space. As executive producer Arthur Smith notes, before Ninja broke through at the Emmys in 2016, the category had been owned for a decade by the same six series, give or take a few slots.
Starting out in 2009 on the “fledgling cable network” G4—and outliving the network that birthed it—the “little show that could” would eventually move to NBC, driving strong ratings and substantially increasing its audience share.
Now the recipient of five Emmy nominations—increasing its take with three noms this year—Smith’s obstacle course program’s continued evolution and growing recognition has only come as the result of uncommonly athletic adaptation. Developing new obstacles year-round while wrangling the series’ traveling circus, as applications to compete have surged to 80,000 a year, Smith’s success with the series has come as the result of fine-tuned attention to both spectacle and story.
It’s been almost a decade since American Ninja Warrior debuted. Can you give a sense of your journey with this series to date?
It’s been such a phenomenal journey for American Ninja Warrior, which continues to be a labor of love for all of us. It started on the G4 Network a number of years ago. There was a gentleman who ran it by the name of Neal Tiles, and Neal Tiles and I worked together at Fox Sports. I was head of programming and production at Fox Sports 20 years ago, and Neil was the marketing guy, and he was airing the Japanese show Sasuke on G4.
He was doing it with subtitles and it was dubbed in, and it was one of the few things that was getting a rating. Neil approached me, and he says, “Listen, I’ve got the show.” And we started kicking around the idea for American Ninja Warrior. “What about Americans competing and setting up our own course here, and Americans going to Japan?” And that was it. That first season that we did with Neil also started to get real numbers for that network.
Then I think it was Season 4 when Comcast had bought NBC, and in an act of synergy, they put the finale [on the air], not ever thinking that this was going to be an NBC series, but more as the showcase of the small cable network show on the big primetime network—and hopefully, it would result in growth. The show did really well, and after that, [NBC President of Alternative and Reality] Paul Telegdy believed in the show and said, “Maybe we should do some more.” At that point, it was half on cable and half on network, going back and forth.
Then, at NBC, it’s been this rock solid show for us. I’m very proud of everybody who works on the show and what we’ve been able to do, because on the surface no one expected an obstacle course show coming from a little cable network to be what it is today, which is a primetime hit. But the show is more than just an obstacle show. We know it’s so much more than that, and that was by design from the very beginning.
While your career has had a strong basis in sports television, you’ve produced a variety of reality series in other spaces, like Hell’s Kitchen. What has fueled your continuing passion for the athletic competition space?
When I was in sports, my favorite thing to do was to tell stories. I loved doing the games and stuff like that, and my favorite assignment was doing the Olympics. I [produced] three Olympic Games, but I always enjoyed the story that went along with the athletic competition. When we first started Ninja, I remember having a meeting with the producers, and I said, “Just like people care about sports that they wouldn’t think they’d care about, like bobsled or whatever, we’re going to make our people care. We’re going to really dive deeply into the story.”
Ninja is the perfect place for that because the obstacle course is kind of a metaphor for life. It’s the perfect avenue to tell you about someone’s story, and why they’re doing it, and why they’re running—and you know watching the show that a lot of the greatest moments are because of who they are and what they represent, not because they completed the course. There’s a lot of victories in trying and a lot of victories in who they are.
Over the course of 10 seasons, how have you endeavored to keep the show fresh? What evolutions has it gone through?
There’s a lot of things that we work on. We’re not a very complacent group here, and we obviously want to keep it fresh. There’s some natural things that are built into the show: First of all, when it comes to the obstacle course, every year you see dozens and dozens of new obstacles, and we do that for multiple reasons. One, we keep it fresh, and two, because the athletes are getting better, and three, because they’re building gyms in their backyards, and there’s Ninja gyms spreading across the country. So, we have to stay one step ahead of them. The last couple years, we even have had viewers submitting ideas for obstacles, which is also great. So, the course continually changes.
Then, there are other elements. In Season 10 we added the 18-foot Mega Wall, where they can go for it and win money. But the other thing that benefits us, because it’s built into the format, is we have new people coming out every year. We have such a great of wealth of people to choose from, and there’s so many great stories to tell. The interesting thing is that with Ninja, we’re always going to have this great mix of the Ninja stars that people want to see year after year, and a great percentage of people who are new.
In addition to the changes you mentioned, you also recently lowered the age limit for contestants from 21 to 19. What has that meant for the show?
It’s interesting. The show’s been on long enough that a couple years ago, we started to hear from people who were 14 or 15 when the show first went on and had been training for this moment. We’ve received so many letters and so many requests to get on the show that we said, “You know what? Let’s lower it this year to 19.” The quality of the 19-year-olds in this current season has been amazing. There’s one called The Kid who’s an elite ninja. He is right up there with the best of them.
And you’re probably aware we’re doing Ninja Junior now for Universal Kids. I don’t want to overstate it, but there is a phenomenon going on right now that started 10 years ago—a little G4 [show] that was kind of niche-y [turns into] this big primetime NBC show. There was clearly something in the DNA of the show that appeals to people.
In your mind, what has set Ninja apart in the reality space?
The funny thing about Ninja, and the reason I believe it works in today’s very fractured multiple-choice environment, is that it has some things going for it. One of the things going for it is that every run is kind of a show within itself. You can watch a Ninja run, you could join it at any time during our two-hour show and get sucked into a story. And it’s satisfying because it kind of resolves itself. So, it’s a very accessible show.
The other part of it is, there are very few shows on television that appeal to the entire family. It’s funny, because we came over from G4, which was a guys’ network. Everyone said, “Oh, this is a guys’ show.” And the truth of the matter is the show is 50/50, men and women. In fact, I think it’s 51-49 women. So it is a show for the entire family.
The show has a lot of unique characteristics that are unlike any other athletic competition. Number one, the positive messages that are out there—the sportsmanship. What other athletic competition is out there where the athletes root for each other? And it’s them against the course, not them against each other. I also can’t think of another American competition where nobody really wins. I mean, we’ve only had two people in the entire history of our show who’ve ever completed Mount Midoriyama.
The other thing I love about our show is the power of the female athlete. What other athletic competition is out there where men and women compete in the same sport on the same night? I think that’s amazing, and we’ve certainly had the growth of the women. It started with Kacy Catanzaro, the 5-foot gymnast. No female before her had ever completed the Warped Wall. Not only had no female ever done it, we didn’t even think it was possible for someone five feet tall to do it. So, she was not only the first woman, she was also the smallest person to do it, and she really opened the doors, kind of like that breakthrough athlete. And now, there’s a number of women who can do the wall.
From a logistical standpoint, what is most challenging in putting this show together?
There’s the story side, there’s the course, there’s the logistics side of it. Obstacle development happens all the time. We develop it in a warehouse, and that’s constant. It’s like a lab, and it’s led by Kent Weed, Anthony Storm and Brian Richardson, three of our EPs, along with the challenge department.
When putting on the show, we are this traveling circus because we move around the country. I can’t remember how many trucks it is, but it definitely feels like the circus has come to town, and we get such amazing turnouts in the city. The building of the course and moving this traveling circus from city to city is no small feat, but that’s part of it.
And of course, there is the safety side of it, and everything is tested. Everything is prototyped. We have a team of safety people. It’s unfortunate when someone cuts themself, but that’s rare. But it is athletics, and injuries are going to happen.
Then there’s the wrangling of the people. There are not too many shows, where during the course of a season, you’ll have close to 900 people compete on the show. That’s a pretty big cast.
The other thing that we’re dealing with—and this is a phenomenon that’s happened over the last five years—is the walk-ons, the people who sleep out there two weeks before to get on the show. It’s outrageous, and we always get a great story from a walk-on. Someone that you’ve never heard of who’s been training, they show up and stand in line, and they get their shot. I love those stories. How could you not?