NBC’s American Ninja Warrior returned for its 13th season recently and it has something new for even the most die-hard fans of the competition. ComingSoon spoke to Executive Producer Anthony Storm about the show’s growth, competitors such as Kacy Catanzaro finding success elsewhere
New episodes of American Ninja Warrior air Mondays at 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT.
Tyler Treese: I remember watching the localized version of Sasuke, Ninja Warrior came out and I was such a big fan. Then there was American Ninja Warrior, and what’s been really cool over the years is just seeing it grow in scale. It’s just become this behemoth that is hard to compare to what it initially was. Looking back on all these years, what’s the biggest thing that sticks out to why this has been successful, and did you ever imagine it being this big?
Anthony Storm: Yeah, I mean, I think we saw that explosion between Season 6 and 7. Initially, the growth came from the success of the women in Season 6. Kacy Catanzaro had two remarkable runs hitting the buzzer for the first time and then completing the final course. They both went viral and I think that was a big part of the initial growth. And I think that the growth subsequent growth is season by season and year by year growth. It’s just a result of the show continuing to tell these incredible stories, the athletes continuing to reach remarkable heights and we’re constantly refreshing the obstacles in the course. Some of the rules and challenges that we put in front of them, and we get a new influx of athletes from all walks of life. I just think that it’s just got such broad appeal. It appeals to people of all ages, genders, all sorts of very diverse audiences and I think that a new audience is finding it year after year. So I think it’s still got room to grow.
I’m glad you brought up Kacy because she’s doing some really cool stuff in WWE NXT now. American Ninja Warrior can really be a launching pad for these athletes for a whole new career. If she didn’t do American Ninja Warrior, she never winds up in NXT. How cool is that?
It’s amazing. You know, I think you can look at Kacy. You can look at Jessie Graff, who’s become one of the top stuntwomen in Hollywood. Meagan Martin is now going to be broadcasting the rock climbing event from the Olympics for NBC. So many of our athletes have used their exposure on Ninja as a springboard to really fantastic careers. They keep coming back and competing too, which is what we love because we love seeing them and getting to see them challenge themselves in our sport too. We love it. We love seeing them excel in all walks of life.
So this season lowered the age limit to 15. What was the thought process of that decision?
Well, it started by seeing, you know, we have another show American Ninja Warrior Junior, which by the way we’re doing a new season of, it’s coming back and it’s going to be on Peacock starting in September, and American Ninja Warrior Junior, crown champions in all different age groups. The highest age group was 13 and 14. And so those 14-year-olds by the old rule where our age minimum was 19, were now going to have to basically sit on the sidelines for five years. We got a sense from watching them on the American Ninja Warrior Junior course, and then a year later, seeing them in local competitions, we had a sense that they could be competitive on the big show and we were excited to see that. It felt like an opportunity. One to give them a place to showcase their skills. It didn’t seem to make sense to make them to sideline them for five years. We love seeing new faces, boys, girls that have proven themselves already on the junior show and your local competitions that can put our veterans to the test. Of course, we’re always just looking for ways to refresh the show, so this one made sense on all levels.
I really like is that contestants can choose between obstacles. It kind of has a strategic element to it. So it adds another layer to it. How did you come with that? Because it’s an interesting addition, and now we’re seeing like the smarts of the contestants tested as well.
For years we’ve been exploring the idea of creating alternate pathways on the course. Having the ninjas choose an obstacle where they can go left or they can go right. It can go high, they can go low, and it took a lot of research and development and a lot of groupthink. We finally landed on this idea where, which we call split decision, where when they reached the balance obstacle, they actually get a choice of two balance obstacles. The reason we chose that is that the balance obstacle is always the one that gets in their head, even the elite, and just get really scared when they reach a balance obstacle, cause anything can happen no matter what kind of training you put in, no matter how strong your upper body is or your grip is, or, um, whatever you’ve done to prepare yourself, anybody can fall in a balance obstacle.
So we thought, why not add another element and other components of that balance obstacle and make them think when they got there as well. The great thing about split decisions is that some of them may have faced some of these balance before and then they get a choice of, “If I felt here before, do I want to conquer my demons and try it again? Or do I want to avoid that all costs because it’s been in my nightmares every day since.” If they do fall on whatever one they choose, there’s that added element of possibly regretting for another entire year, “Did I make the wrong choice?”
All industries are having to deal with COVID and we’re kind of almost at the finish line, but we’re still seeing productions have to stop. How has your show really handled the whole pandemic here and making sure it’s still safe for everybody to compete?
It’s a challenge. Every production has faced similar challenges. There’s a lot of protocols in place. Of course, we’ve done proper social distancing. Everyone is masked. Everybody is tested. Nobody comes to the set without a negative test. That’s crew, cast, everybody. We’ve gone above and beyond all of the mandated safety measures and it makes it more challenging to produce a television show without a doubt. But just like the athletes rise to the challenge on the course, we rose to the challenge that COVID presented us and, and we’ve been able to do it successfully. We’re very proud of, of the shows that we’ve been able to do it in a very taxing environment.
If somebody liked the show before and they kind of fell out of it, why is this a good season to jump back in?
It’s really a unique season. I mean, between the teenagers and the split decision, by the way, there’s an entirely different split decision in the second half of the year when we get to the semi-final where it’s late in the course position nine, which is the next to last obstacle they get to choose between the traditional challenging upper body and grip obstacle, or an incredibly hard balance obstacle. So if you’ve got no grip left and you don’t think you’re going to get through that ninth obstacle, you can try a balance obstacle that very few people have been able to get through before in the past. So it gives them one glimmer of hope, which is another exciting thing to look forward to. So I think these new challenges, these new twists that we’ve put this season, plus this influx of incredible talent is teenage boys and girls that are bringing a whole new energy and pushing our veterans and making them work for it. And the new stories that they’re telling. They come from incredible backgrounds. So, we really haven’t had a season like this with new talent, new age groups, um, new twists on the course. Even if you’ve seen a lot of seasons before, you haven’t seen one like this, so I really recommend it again.