'American Ninja Warrior' EP 'Hopeful' This Season Will Produce First Winner (Video)
Arthur Smith gives THR a preview of the tough competition's new obstacles and reveals why it's OK if there isn't a champion crowned yet again.
Is this the year someone will finally be crowned the first winner of American Ninja Warrior?
The series, airing again this summer on both NBC and G4, features what is called the "most difficult obstacle course ever created." Since 1997, only three competitors have scaled the final challenge -- known as Mt. Midoriyama -- in Japan's original version, titled Sasuke. But American Ninja Warrior, which first launched on G4 in 2009, has yet to produce a winner. (If someone does finish the final course this season, they'll take home a $500,000 cash prize in addition to bragging rights.)
The Hollywood Reporter was on the Venice, Calif., set for the filming of the first qualifying round, where executive producer Arthur Smith (Hell's Kitchen) revealed the new obstacles this season, weighed the chances of the show producing a winner and explained why it's OK if there isn't a champion this year.
The Hollywood Reporter: What's new on the course this year?
Arthur Smith: Ninja is a phenomenon, and it's so great to see how this little show that was on G4 has become this really big deal. Last year was our first time on NBC in a big way because the first time we were on NBC, they just aired the finale, two years ago. And last year, there was 12 hours, and this year, we're doing 14 hours on NBC and 10 hours on G4. So we have made a number of modifications to the course, which is different than last year. There are five new obstacles that no one has ever seen before. The other interesting thing that's happened is, we're in Venice, this is the first of four cities that we're going to be going to to see who qualifies for the Mt. Midoriyama finals in Vegas. But each of the courses is dramatically different. Last year, we changed one or two obstacles in each location. This year, we're changing four or five obstacles at each location. So for viewers, it's going to be great because every week you're going to tune in, and it's not the same course/different city, it's different city/different course.
THR: Why did you decide to change it up so much?
Smith: So many great obstacles have been developed in the "ninja" category, and we just thought I would be fun for people to see different things. Last year, we took our first step in doing it all across the country and these regionals, and things like that, and this year, we just decided that it would be more interesting for the viewers to watch, and so that's the way it worked out. And then there's Vegas; Vegas is going to be insane. This course (in Venice) is a little bigger than a football field. The Vegas one is four football fields. It is so massive, with this amazing multibillion-dollar backdrop of the Strip, so it's going to be quite exciting.
THR: What are some of the new obstacles this year?
Smith: We have the swinging nunchuks, which is kind of crazy because you're on two nunchuks suspended over water, and you've got to be able to move yourself over to other set of nunchuks, and it's quite hard. We had a lot of testers run the course, and they seemed to be struggling at that. That's probably the most difficult first test, and then things get harder. The warped wall is the classic that's always been there, and that's always challenging for some people. For some people, it's a psychological thing, and there is definitely a technique on how to do that one. The hardest thing about the show is they don't get to practice; when they go on the course, they're running it. We know a lot of guys have been running this course for years -- they've built obstacles in their backyards at home to practice themselves, which tells you a lot about their dedication. Another interesting thing is the age requirement is 21 years of age, so we have a group of 21-year-olds every year who have been counting down since they were 17 years old. They've been watching the show for five years, working for it, training for it; we always have someone like that. This year, we have somebody running the course who is our oldest competitor -- 67 years old. Last year, we had somebody we called "Grandpa Ninja" who was in his 50s; this guy is 67.
THR: How do you come up with the obstacles?
Smith: A lot of them are based on the original Ninja Warrior (aka Sasuke) from Japan. We modified some of them, but we usually start with some of obstacles they've done over the years and either duplicate them or modify them.
THR: Why do you think a show that might not produce a winner is still appealing to viewers?
Smith: To me, the great attraction of the show is the variety of the people who run the course and why they run it. That's what so interesting, and I think that's what makes American Ninja Warrior a broadcasting show as opposed to a niche cable show. We've had such unbelievable stories. We had a gang member who was shot multiple times and lying in the hospital for six months saying, "If I survive this, I'm going to run Ninja Warrior." We've had people who were 300 pounds saying, "I'm going to drop the weight and run Ninja Warrior." It's been a great goal for people, and they're not running against each other, so there's a lot of camaraderie between the people. It's really them vs. the course. … They're not doing it, really, for the money. They're doing it for the love of Ninja, which is quite exiting. It's funny how in some ways this is not like any other American show because there is no winner. And this year, we may not have anybody finish, but people still love to watch. To use an old television reference, it's like, you know, nobody ever got off the island on Gilligan's Island, but you still watch it. But this year there's a really good chance someone will win.
THR: Who is the ideal person to run the course?
Smith: You have to have great grip strength, great arm strength, great flexibility -- all those things. The interesting thing is the big muscular guys have a really difficult time because they're too heavy. The average height, 5'7" to 5'11", with a slightly slim build -- those are the ones who have the most success. There are people who break those rules, but that's the prototype.
THR: What do you look for when you're casting the show?
Smith: We look for a combination of things: We want great athletes, people who we believe we can make it. It's athletes first, stories second because this is the most difficult obstacle course. But we always allow for a certain amount of walkups. Last year, there was a youth pastor from Dallas; he came with his youth group of 20 kids and they were saying, "You should run." And he goes and stands in line and got the chance to run the course. He completed the qualifying course, made it to the regional finals, made it to Vegas. It was a great story, and we will have some great walkups again this year. Those are the underdogs. We also have a lot of gymnasts and stuntmen; those guys are usually the best. Every so often, we'll have a lawyer who's a fitness buff, or professional football players, or Harlem Globetrotters -- it's a wide spectrum. And then we have the guys who dress up and are crazy. We had a guy dressed up as "Captain NBC" last year. And then there are people in cat suits. It make for a very colorful group.
THR: What are the odds someone might actually finish the final course in Vegas this year and win the competition?
Smith: Last year, we had somebody go farther than an American has ever gone before. Brent Steffensen, who had 70 of his family members in Vegas [Steffensen also returns for another shot at the title this season]. He had the biggest contingent and went the farthest, so maybe that's a lesson for other people -- bring a big contingent and you'll go far [laughs]. But Brent and people like Brent and others who did really well last year are gunning for it. There are guys who have attempted Mt. Midoriyama four or five times. The course that's in Vegas is an exact duplication of the course in Japan. We worked with Japanese engineers to build that course. I'm hopeful; because of the growth and popularity of show, we had people lining up early and driving 12-15 hours to run it the course. I overheard one guy saying, if he doesn’t get on [in Venice] -- he's trying to walk on -- he's going to Baltimore; if he doesn't get on there, he's going to Miami; if not there, he's going to Denver. This guy is determined to get on. I think our growth has produced a bigger field [of competitors], and people are more dedicated, so maybe this will be the year of the first American Ninja Warrior. Only three people in history of Sasuke have done it our of three or four thousand. It's a tall order.
American Ninja Warrior returns at 8 p.m. Monday on NBC. The show also airs at 9 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays on G4. Watch a preview and an interview with Steffensen below.