Let’s start with what will eventually happen on NBC’s American Ninja Warrior season 14: an “end result” that was “something that’s never happened in the history of American Ninja Warrior,” its showrunner revealed to me.
Only three people have ever finished all four stages of the finals course, and just two have won the $1 million prize. Will there be more finishers this year? Will one of the new teenage contestants win that million? Or is it something less predictable than that?
As I did last year, I interviewed Anthony Storm, the showrunner and executive producer of American Ninja Warrior for its production company, A. Smith & Co. Productions.
While he did give that teaser, he did not spoil the outcome of the season, and he also offered a lot of behind-the-scenes insight into how the NBC reality competition comes together, including about the editing, why there are bigger and more elaborate obstacles this season, and whether the show will ever again tour the country with its qualifying rounds.
Will American Ninja Warrior return to multi-city auditions?
Prior to season 12, American Ninja Warrior traversed the country, filming qualifying and semi-final rounds in five or six cities. In 2020, that changed, with the show filming an entire, abbreviated all-star season in St. Louis.
Last year, American Ninja Warrior (NBC, Mondays at 8) filmed all its qualifying episodes in Tacoma, and it’s doing the same thing again this season, but in San Antonio.
“We first went to St. Louis out of necessity,” showrunner Anthony Storm told me. Now, though, “it’s a combination of, yes, it did work for us, but also, it felt a little easier to just bring everybody to us.”
That ease was in part due to COVID: “It just got a little harder to fly all over the place and take a chance on being in all these airports, and possibly losing crew members and possibly losing athletes—all of the challenges you face now when you move around,” he said.
“We found a great venue in the Alamo Dome that was big enough to house our monstrosity, and had enough space for us to have all of our teams, all of our crew,” he added.
Plus, it was “central enough” to bring people in.
In the past, some contestants would travel to cities where the show was holding auditions, but for season 14, the show paid for everyone’s flights and hotels: “We take care of all of their travel and accommodations now,” Storm said.
American Ninja Warrior was in San Antonio for about three weeks, including set-up (“we’ve got to dress this huge cavernous venue and make it look like a TV set,” he said) and testing of obstacles.
But filming was only about a week: a day each for five rounds of qualifying competition, plus a special that will air in the future.
The show will move on to Universal Studios in Hollywood for the semi-finals, and then to Las Vegas for the national finals, as usual.
Storm said that ANW “may go back to the old model” someday, because “we still enjoy traveling and getting to go to all these different cities and environments.”
Do teenage contestants have an advantage?
American Ninja Warrior season 14 is the first season for which teenage contestants can apply. Last season, they were recruited, with the help of American Ninja Warrior Junior and coaches.
“We’d hand-selected those people for season 13; for season 14, yes, we we did see an influx of admission permissions from younger people, unsurprisingly,” Storm told me. “There were some real revelations. We pulled in a couple of people from Ninja Warrior Junior, and we tried to grab all the top people from the regional competitions.”
This year, contestants also include “some kids that had competed on Ninja Warrior Junior and hadn’t really performed that well,” Storm said, but had improved as athletes since then.
When I interviewed Anthony Storm last summer, I asked about whether anything had to change to accommodate younger people, or younger bodies. The answer was: not really. The only real change was that those contestants had to have a parent or guardian with them at all times.
When we talked last week, I asked Storm if teenage contestants have an unfair advantage, because I am nothing if not contrarian. Seriously, though: I was curious because of how many of the finishers in this year’s first two episodes were teenagers, and how they seemed to dominate when so many of the older and returning contestants floundered.
Last year, Storm said, “Even our legal department was wondering, Do you need to make this fall shorter for the teenagers? Is everything safe enough? Boy, were we wrong about that. It was the other way around.”
Why are the teenagers performing so well? I asked Storm for his theory, and he said it may be “fearlessness, which you alluded to; they’re willing to put themselves in more precarious positions. When we were all that age, we felt immortal, we didn’t really understand pain. And when you haven’t been hurt a lot, you’re a little more reckless with your body. So they may have that factor in their favor.”
“To be frank, they may have a little more time to train,” he said. “Some of them are living in the gym; after school, they go directly to the gym for hours. The grown-ups, so to speak, have responsibilities, so they get their work in when they can. It is a bit of an advantage to not have a full time job and possibly a family.”
How does American Ninja Warrior decide difficulty of obstacles?
Some of the newer obstacles this season have been giving American Ninja Warrior contestants a hard time, with people dropping off before they even get near the warped wall.
I was curious: Does the show track how easy or difficult an obstacle is? And do they have a sense of how difficult it should be?
“We do,” Anthony Storm told me. “I have a full spreadsheet with the success/fail rate of every obstacle that we’ve ever had on the course, and I refer to it very often.”
They also know how often they want people to fall into the water.
“We have ideal numbers for us—what percentage of people we would like to succeed and fail on different types of obstacles,” Storm said. “To give you broad numbers, early on the course the first couple hours because we want the majority of people—75 to 80 percent of the people—to get through it because we want to see them do the latter part of the course. And further down, we want those numbers to almost flip. We want the fifth obstacle, the ninth obstacle to be extremely challenging, so that it’s really difficult to get that buzzer, and only the best athletes can.”
Are obstacles ever adjusted during competition?
There’s also less-scientific tracking of American Ninja Warrior’s obstacles.
“We’re also eyeballing it, and seeing what part of it looks too hard or too easy,” Storm told me. “What may we have misjudged a little bit when we fine tuned it for competition? If we’re going to bring it back, are we going to make any minor adjustments to get it to the place where it’s where we really want it to be? I watch every run with a with a very discerning eye: Was this obstacle constructed and refined properly for the way we want it to perform?”
The producers will make adjustments to obstacles—but not, of course, during a night of competition.
“We would never adjust anything during the competition,” he said, but “if we’ve bring an obstacle back for a second night, and it really didn’t play in a way that felt satisfying, we may make a minor adjustment to that so that it feels right for the viewer and for the athletes.”
Why are obstacles more elaborate this season?
As I told Storm, in the past, the obstacles mostly all looked alike: metal trusses, red bars to grab onto, a pool of water below. But in season 14, there are some radically different obstacles.
Carnival, for example, is decorated with stuffed animals that fall down along with the thing athletes have to grab on to. What drops down is based upon which slot the contestant can maneuver a ball into. It’s a carnival game—but one that requires an insane amount of grip and upper-body strength.
Having all of the qualifying rounds in the same venue, the Alamo Dome, allowed American Ninja Warrior’s production to do more with the obstacles, which is why many of them have a more distinct visual look and feel than before.
That “allowed us to spread our wings a little bit artistically,” Storm told me. “Not having to build something up and break it down over and over again allowed us to hunker down and build things on a little grander scale.”
In addition, he said the producers were “making a concerted effort to try to get as many of the obstacles a real visual identity as we could. Carnival is a perfect example. It started in the field as just a little either/or obstacle. … The more we played with it, it started to feel a little bit like a carnival game, where you wanted to get it into this slot or that slot. We kept referring to it as skee-ball for a while: you try to roll the ball into the small hole to get the big prize. If you don’t get it in there, ultimately it goes in a bigger hole to get a smaller prize.”
“As that grew into this sort of tilting bar with a ball on top and these slots,” he added, “we started to talk to our art department about what can we do to really give this some personality. The name Carnival helped inform a lot of the artwork, and our department did an incredible job creating that big top feel. The stuffed animals, we actually pulled those together in the last minute.”
Elsewhere on the course, Split Decision features a serpent-like course with spinning pieces, all part of a dragon’s body and tail.
Storm told me that the challenge itself was suggested by a viewer via American Ninja Warrior’s obstacle design contest.
“It was just a simple balance obstacle where stepping in the right places, go you across; in the wrong places, you don’t,” Storm said. “It had the shape of a snake, so we thought, Well, what can we do with that? What if the only part of the snake was in the pool, and the rest outside? And the tail spilled over the pads?”
Overall, Storm said, “it’s really been fun for us to dig our teeth into these in art treatments and creating these really unique obstacles that really pop on TV and help you remember—sometimes it’s hard to remember the name of an obstacle, even a few minutes after an episode ends. As you said, it’s like a bar and a rope or whatever, so it’s the bar/rope thing.”
Among season 14’s new obstacles is “Despicaballs,” which is a crossover with NBCUniversal’s Despicable Me franchise, and its new film, Minions: The Rise of Gru.
“We let them take over an obstacle, and have some fun on our course, and it really turned into a really playful, spectacular episode with some amazing stories, and all sorts of fun Minions aspects as well,” Storm said.
That obstacle will be in the June 27 episode, along with new obstacles “Shattered Panes” and the space-themed “Final Frontier.”
Did Drew Drechsel’s arrest affect American Ninja Warrior?
Over its 14 seasons and more than 12 years on the air, American Ninja Warrior’s popularity and success has turned some of its contestants into celebrities.
I wrote about that back in 2017, interviewing two of them on location in Daytona Beach: How American Ninja Warrior created stars like Jessie Graff and Drew Drechsel.
In 2020, one of those stars, Drew Drechsel—who was nicknamed the “real-life ninja” and ran a series of ninja-themed gyms—was arrested. The Department of Justice said he “sought to have sex with a minor girl and traveled to New Jersey with the intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct with that minor.” Drechsel was edited out of the all-star season.
I asked Storm if Drechsel’s arrest has changed how the show casts or prepares its contestants.
“That’s a fair question. We do talk to the athletes,” he said. There’s “a sexual harassment seminar before they come to set. It’s a critical component of the preparation process. So there’s a lot of education in proper behavior and etiquette.”
“We’re a little bit more rigorous in the way that we evaluate our athletes,” he added. “That said, you’re talking about an individual and not someone that is representative of the community. I think it’s extremely unfortunate that Drew did use his celebrity in that way. But we never saw it as something that was indicative of a pattern. It’s just a really unfortunate situation with an individual that made some really bad decisions and hurt people.”
Because competitors very possibly will suddenly become famous, Storm said the producers “do go out of our way now to educate and to talk to the athletes about the positions that they’re in, the positions they may be in, and the best way to behave when they’re in those situations.”
How does American Ninja Warrior decide who to focus on?
The editing of reality TV shows is easy to criticize (I know! I do it often!) but very challenging to actually do (just look at the work a reality TV story editor does).
So I knew I was asking a complicated question when I asked Storm about how American Ninja Warrior decides which contestants it will focus on in each of its two-hour episodes.
Who gets a bio package? Whose run is condensed into a quick recap?
“The reality is that every episode has its own mix,” he said. “Within those two hours, we’re trying to do our best to, [first], represent what took place in that night of competition properly: How many finishes were there? How difficult were each of the obstacles? Was there a progression where people started to figure out the course over time? How did the course play, and how did the competition play out? That’s obviously a critical part of the decision-making process.”
The story elements come next. “How many of these people have brand-new stories that are really exciting for us to introduce?” Storm told me. “Let’s look at the premiere, for example. Christopher Harding Jones has this really wonderful, touching story about losing his father … [and] Christopher’s appearance on the show is the epitome of his father’s legacy. Then, lo and behold, Christopher hit a buzzer. So that’s a no-brainer. That’s a story we want to tell. He’s a kid that we fell in love with, and the result was amazing. Those are the types of stories that are absolutes for us.”
“Then we’ve got some of our returners that the audience is really excited to see. Vance Walker, for example had such an incredible rookie season,” he said. “Do we need to do an entire package on Vance? Probably not, because we did a lot of stories on Vance last year. We’re trying to touch on the stories that we want to tell, the stories that we feel compelled to tell.”
The producers are also “trying to show some diversity,” Storm said. “When we cast the show, we cast people from all walks of life, so we want to make sure they’re all in there, too.”
There are some one-off moments that also get screen time: “an incredible fall, an incredible save, or a really funny exchange and Matt and Akbar. [If that’s] really worth showing, but the run in and of itself wasn’t a great three minutes, and there’s not much of a story to tell, that goes into what we call a fast forward: something that we tell them 30 seconds, while we were away.”
Another consideration is how long a contestant lasts in the competition. “As you mentioned, some of the people are going to be coming back to the semi-finals and maybe even the national finals, and so we’ll have an opportunity to tell those stories further down the line,” Storm said. “We’re trying to balance that. Do we want to do a Flip Rodriguez package in qualifying or semis, or do we hope that he’s going to make it to Vegas so we can tell the story there? We don’t have time to tell three stories for everybody. Where are we going to tell their one or two stories?”
American Ninja Warrior’s post production involves a lot of “difficult decisions. We marinate over these choices for a long time,” Storm said. “But ultimately, we’ve tried to do our best to satisfy what the viewer wants, and what the competition requires.”