Not your kid's play area

An inside look at ABC's new 'Wipeout' obstacle course

The "Wipeout" set looks like the world's largest playground.

Candy-colored ramps, rope swings, slides and bouncy big balls. You know it's a complete mirage. You know the course is treacherous, specifically designed to make runners face-plant, and that most parents wouldn't let their kids anywhere near it. Yet from a distance, your inner adolescent wants to run straight down the launch ramp.

ABC's "Wipeout" is shot on a sprawling ranch in Santa Clarita, Calif. The crew is readying 16 hours for a second season in the summer with a new array of obstacles to trip up contestants.

"We changed 95% of the course, but we kept the Big Balls," said executive producer Matt Kunitz, referring to the show's signature inflated obstacle. "We want it to be like 'The Price Is Right,' where we're constantly changing the course but sometimes bringing back favorite games with new twists."

The secret to the show's comedy, Kunitz said, is to avoid having contestants fall straight down.

"The Big Balls -- we never knew they were going to be great," he said. "With them you get an uncontrollable fall. If somebody falls straight into the water, it's not interesting. If somebody falls and ricochets off something, it's funny."

This past summer, it was reality shows that were falling uncontrollably, though broadcasters didn't find much amusing about it. "Wipeout" was the only new title to break out. Nowadays, such a success usually means that the show immediately would be drafted into service filling a slot in-season. But ABC elected to save the show until the summer -- aside from counterprogramming the Super Bowl on Feb. 1.

"I prefer that," Kunitz said. "We don't want to burn out. We did 39 hours of 'Fear Factor' one year. I'd rather have 16 hours and run for many years."

Another shakeup for the second season: no helmets, so viewers can better see contestants' faces. When asked if that means increasing the danger, Kunitz said the softness of the course's surfaces prevents the sort of injuries a helmet protects against.

"We spend hundreds of thousands on foam," he said. "This is like nothing that wouldn't happen in a backyard game of touch football."

Still, insuring the contestants isn't cheap. The company pays roughly $2,000 to insure each person who runs the course.

"Wipeout" may not look it to the casual viewer, but it's one of the more expensive reality shows on television. Along with the equipment, there's a special effects crew, stunt team, medical team -- 300 people working on the series.

"Any stunt show is expensive, but we're still one-third the cost of a scripted show," Kunitz said.

The show's success has had one potential spoiler -- a lawsuit from a Japanese broadcaster claiming that the format for "Wipeout" was knocked off from several previous obstacle-course programs, shows that air in the U.S. under the titles "MXC" on Spike TV and "Ninja Warrior" on G4.

Kunitz points out he and fellow executive producer Scott Larsen's background producing shows such as "Real World-Road Rules Challenge," "Dog Eat Dog" and "Fear Factor" -- all series with physical competitions.

"I challenge you to find producers who have more experience doing stunt-based shows." Kunitz said. "We thought it was time to bring back a show like 'Fear Factor,' only more family oriented, and that became 'Wipeout.' I don't believe anybody can claim to own the idea of doing an obstacle course."
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