'Sasuke/Ninja Warrior' Seen as Blueprint for Japanese TV Format Success

Sasuke/Ninja Warrior - H 2012

The obstacle course show that produces few winners has become a global hit

As Japanese TV networks and other rights holders step up efforts to push Japanese formats overseas amid a shrinking domestic market, the success of extreme obstacle course show Sasuke/Ninja Warrior is something of a case study in taking local content global.

Sasuke/Ninja Warrior content has so far been screened in 157 countries, and local versions are now being made in Malaysia, Singapore, Sweden and Turkey, with a Vietnamese production announced recently.

As TIFFCOM, the content market of Tokyo International Film Festival, opens Tuesday, exhibitors will no doubt be dreaming of one of their properties going on to be shown in more than 150 countries, while buyers will be hoping to uncover the next Sasuke before anyone else.  

The first 77 competitors challenged – and failed – to conquer the notoriously demanding Mt. Midoriyama obstacle course in 1997, with the program produced by Monster 9 and shown by Tokyo Broadcasting Systems (TBS). Only a handful of competitors have ever finished the Japanese course in the 30 times the whole competition has been run.  

Read more No Winner? No Problem: How 'American Ninja Warrior' Stands Out From the Reality TV Pack

The three-hour programs, with the occasional six-hour special, became a hit in Japan and when production company Monster 9 later went bankrupt, TBS bought out the rights to the show.

Edited 30-minute versions of the show began airing in Asia in 2005, with its first appearance in the U.S. coming in 2006 on cable channel G4 under the name Ninja Warrior. As it grew in popularity in the U.S., G4 held marathon weekend screenings, and by 2007 an American Ninja Challenge was held to select two representatives to compete in Japan's original Sasuke.

The U.S. version American Ninja Warrior was born in 2009, making its way to the broadcast network of G4's parent NBC in 2011, where it has continued to score strong ratings' since despite skepticism about U.S. audiences taking to a show with a distinct lack of winners.

Twitter: GavinJBlair