When American Ninja Warrior returns to NBC and Esquire’s primetime lineup for its eighth season on June 1 and 2, respectively, it will do so with an estimated 500 competitors looking to become only the second “American Ninja Warrior.”
For six consecutive seasons, the obstacle course competition series – a U.S. adaptation of acclaimed Japanese format Sasuke, produced by A. Smith & Co. Productions– had yet to see a challenger complete all four stages of the grueling Mount Midoriyama finals course in Las Vegas to achieve “total victory” and walk away with a cash prize.
Enter Isaac Caldiero and Geoff Britten in season seven. The two contestants would be the first to finish Ninja‘s Stage Four – a 75-foot rope climb in under 30 seconds – in the three-hour season finale, grabbing an audience of 6.1 million viewers. Caldiero would eventually be crowned Warrior champion and awarded a US$1 million prize, edging out Britten by a slim 3.6-second margin.
“It’s kind of unusual for American television, that there’s no real winner,” Arthur Smith, CEO of A. Smith & Co. Productions, tells realscreen.
“[Mount Midoriyama] always has to be that somewhat unattainable thing and that’s what makes the moment when they actually do it so unbelievable.”
As the show – which is also a copro between NBC and Esquire – continues its ascent as a heavy-hitter in sports entertainment, contestants have become hurdle-savvy, building their own obstacles and launching Ninja-inspired gyms around the country. As such, with more than 75,000 applicants for the forthcoming series, the “hardest obstacle course in the world” needed to be just that.
The Tinopolis Group-owned A. Smith & Co. typically experiences a demanding Ninja off-season from September to June with obstacle tweaks and inventions. But this time around, with two newly minted champions, the research and development that went into preparing for season eight was unlike any other, says Smith.
The forthcoming series – which premieres on June 1 at 8 p.m. EST/PST on NBC and at the same time on June 2 on Esquire – will see contestants across Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Los Angeles facing 28 new obstacles, including a Warped Wall that’s been extended by six inches and an altered finals course.
“The obstacle course that we build is massive,” Smith explains. “It’s bigger than a football field and the one in Las Vegas is four football fields, so there are a lot of logistics in putting them together. There’s a lot of testing to make sure they’re safe. There’s a warehouse where the obstacles are all prototyped. They’re all tested and we’re making sure that they’re safe.”
In addition to the logistical challenges of filming in different American cities are the complexities of transporting and setting up the colossal structures.
“It’s kind of like the circus is coming to town,” Smith muses.
What makes American Ninja Warrior appealing to viewers is that it mixes visually striking obstacles and high-octane physical feats with authentic and compelling family-friendly stories.
“There’s a lot of layers to Ninja but at the end of the day, we hear this all the time: ‘I watch it with my kids, I watch it with my family,’” Smith explained. “That’s why we’re doing 30-plus hours on NBC this year in spite of the fact that NBC has the Olympics.”
The U.S. broadcaster last year commissioned Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge, which premieres June 13 at 10 p.m. EST/PST before moving to Thursdays at 9 p.m. EST/PST on June 23.
While Ninja is man-versus-obstacle, Spartan is a test of teamwork, with competitors carrying fellow teammates on their backs to conquer the mile-long obstacle course in the backwoods of Georgia.
Teams – which consist of a wide range of contestants from a generational family team of farmers to an over-40 team – will help each other along the outdoor course as they ascend The Slip Wall, dive through narrow passage ways in The Dunk Wall and complete myriad other physically demanding challenges before they’re able to cross the finish line.
“If you’re a selfish but great athlete, you probably won’t do well in Spartan,” Smith explains. “You really have to be looking after your teammates.”
While Spartan’s concept and challenges may be distinct from the American Ninja Warrior staple, one common denominator remains, says Smith: if you’re going to be in primetime, the series – regardless of its genre – has to tell a good story while showcasing great competition.
Elsewhere in A. Smith & Co.’s production slate is Esquire’s Team Ninja Warrior, recently greenlit for a second season; Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen, which will return for its 16th season this fall; as well as FYI’s Teenage Newlyweds, TNT’s Dunk Kings, BET’s Inside the Label and HGTV’s Container Homes.
The firm is also in development on an estimated 30 series with forthcoming projects including Acting Out on MTV, in which the stand-up routine of 60 comedians is acted out; and dating game show Dating Games on TV One, in which three teams of contestants earn money by guessing what will happen next on a date.