May 23, 2014 12:00pm PT by Lesley Goldberg
No Winner? No Problem: How 'American Ninja Warrior' Stands Out From the Reality TV Pack
NBC's American Ninja Warrior may be the best reality competition series on TV that hasn't produced a single winner.
After five seasons, the series adapted from the Japanese format Sasuke has seen thousands of aspiring "ninjas" competing through a roster of insanely named obstacles that test not only their athletic skills but their mental prowess as well. At the end of their multiple-city journey -- which includes qualifying rounds and four increasingly challenging stages -- is 80-foot Mount Midoriyama, the pinnacle of the competition that no American has ever successfully defeated, and a cash prize of $500,000.
Olympians, professional athletes, rock climbers, parkour runners and fitness buffs -- men and women of all ages and backgrounds -- spend 364 days a year training for their one shot to compete, many of which end in mere seconds on ANW's trademark first obstacle: the Quintuple steps. So what's the appeal?
"It's the stories of the people that separates us: how people overcome adversity to achieve their goals. Whether they're doing it for a friend who is ill, a mother that had breast cancer or whether it's a personal achievement they're trying to overcome -- weight loss, beating drugs or alcohol -- it's personal human achievement, and it's something that audiences can identity with," executive producer Kent Weed tells The Hollywood Reporter during a visit to the Venice, Calif., qualifying round in mid-March.
It's there that hundreds of aspiring ninjas line up for hours for an opportunity to be one of the few walk-on competitors on the show's sixth season. This year, Weed says, the show received more than 3,000 video submissions -- more than double the 1,200 who sent in video recordings sharing stories of physical challenges and often including amazing footage of just what the human body is capable of doing with the right training. At the Venice qualifying round, about 100 will have the chance to run the course with only 25 accepted. Producers, he notes, are always looking for a combination of story and skill -- but personality certainly doesn't hurt if it's backed up with physical prowess.
Among this year's class of ninja hopefuls is a gymnast who ended up breaking both ankles and tearing both of his Achilles tendons and was told he may never walk again. He was back training while in boots and had to retrain himself how to walk. He used it as one of his motivating factors to get to ANW. Previous seasons have featured soldiers who survived horrendous accidents and more stories that tug at the heartstrings of the hosts, producers and, ultimately, viewers.
After segueing from G4 to NBC, ANW has grown every season. The series has expanded from 12 hours during its first run on NBC to 18 the following season. Season six will take up 26 hours of the network's summer schedule, with repeats continuing to run on Esquire. The show has also grown in the U.S. for NBC -- last summer it averaged a 1.6 among adults 18-49 and about 5 million total viewers. The series will expand to five cities this year, including St. Louis for the first time. Each city will feature new obstacles that keep competitors -- many of whom construct replica courses in their backyards -- on their toes.
"As good as formats like American Idol and Dancing With the Stars are, I think they have an expiration date," Weed notes. "Every reality show has an expiration date, and at some point, people will say, 'I've seen it. I get it,' and they get tired of it. But something like this is still fresh and new; it's the serious version of Wipeout, and it's very real. You are rooting for these guys to succeed because you want them to. You see yourself on the course."
While shows like Idol, The Voice and Dancing all must rely the judges' decisions, competitors on ANW control their own destiny. "Their fate lies in their hands," Weed says. "The results are with them, and some of the best stories kill us. We've had these amazing stories, and we'll do a three-minute profile package, and they fall on the second step. Your heart just goes out to them, but thankfully it's not like the Olympics, where you have to wait for years. You can come back in a year."
And that's just what Brent Steffensen has done. He's one of the only Americans to come close to the mythical Mount Midoriyama and has been a Ninja Warrior staple since season two. Over the years, Steffensen has seen his star rise as obstacle course racing has become one of the fastest-growing sports around. He believes the show offers much more than reality competition entries like The Voice, Idol and Dancing. "It's very different in that it requires a diverse background," he says. "You can't just be a rock climber or a gymnast or a parkour guy; you have to have a lot of different skills to even come to the course. … You've got to be pretty well-rounded to do obstacle courses."
This year, Steffensen will again go head-to-head with his girlfriend, aspiring ninja Kacy Catanzaro, and says the camaraderie between competitors brings something to American Ninja Warrior that many other reality competition series lack. "There's some competitiveness, but it's all very friendly," he explains. "It's everybody against the mountain. That's one thing that's super cool about Ninja Warrior."
Catanzaro says women are continuing to make strides on the challenging courses and hopes that this is the year that a female competitor will complete Stage 1. She says the show, whose audience is primarily female, helps inspire women of all ages to get out and train. "American Ninja Warrior is so fun that you don't realize how taxing it is on your body when you're doing it and how taxing it is when you're training leading up to it," says Catanzaro, who frequently trains alongside Steffensen.
As for co-host Matt Iseman, he believes part of the show's appeal is that nobody has ever won it. "We weren't sure if the American public was ready for having a show where there was no winner. Everyone says, 'Who won this year?' Nobody. Nobody completed the course," he says, noting the show's diverse pool of competitors helps it appeal to a broad and diverse viewership.
"Idol has lots of beautiful people, and the age range is more limited," says Iseman, who pulled a hamstring trying to get up the show's trademark Warped Wall and went head-first into the water when attempting the jump hang. "With ours, we have Grandpa Ninja -- 55-year-old Kelvin Antoine -- who is out here with his grandkids, doing the course alongside 18- and 22-year-old parkour phenomenons. We have Navy SEALs and pro athletes, but the majority are average people -- milkmen, accountants, schoolteachers -- who somehow find time to have a family and train for this. I think it's hard not to root for them. Once you hear the backstory for somebody, you start pulling for them. Then when they go out on the second quad step, you're bummed."
American Ninja Warrior returns Monday, May 26 at 9 p.m. on NBC.