Fans of NBC‘s American Ninja Warrior are enjoying the show’s 14th season—and there could be 14 more to come based on its popularity. While the original Ninja Warrior became a cult hit, the U.S. version has not only found its own audience, but grown the brand with multiple spinoff series and even its own line of merchandise.
While the current season continues, I spoke with executive producer Anthony Storm to discuss the longevity of American Ninja Warrior, how the show has changed the reality TV landscape, and what motivates him and the rest of the team at production company A. Smith & Co. Productions to keep coming back season after season. Get to know the inner workings of ANW in our interview as new episodes air Mondays at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.
Brittany Frederick: You’ve been producing American Ninja Warrior for almost a decade and a half now. Are you surprised at the longevity of the series, especially when there’s more and more turnover in the TV world in general?
Anthony Storm: I think we are a little surprised. The show was small-ish when we started this thing. It was on a smaller cable channel, at had come from a Japanese format, and what we at A. Smith & Co. Productions have created over the years is literally an international phenomenon. I don’t think anybody could have predicted that.
It has become much more than a television show. It’s a sport with Olympic aspirations and events all over the world. It’s a global phenomenon, and I think it’s safe to say it’s a lifestyle. There are literally millions of people that turned to Ninja as their form of exercise, as a source of community, as a way to connect with people outside of their small social circles. We’re jubilant that it has become what it has and excited to see it continue to grow.
BF: Unlike other reality series, American Ninja Warrior has contestants come back year after year. You’ve also had folks who have come up from the American Ninja Warrior Junior spinoff to compete in the main series. Can you discuss the effect that having those ongoing relationships with competitors has for your team?
AS: It’s fascinating and it’s heartwarming for us, particularly the Junior aspect of it. When we created American Ninja Warrior Junior, we knew that we were going to create a family-friendly program and that it was going to create some opportunities for these younger kids. When we lowered the age limit [for the main series] down to 15 last year—and we’ve continued that this year—it created this bridge from one show to the other and allowed these kids that normally would’ve had to wait four years to showcase their skills an opportunity to prove that they belonged on the big stage.
It’s also given us an opportunity to see them grow. Normally you would’ve seen this huge leap from 15 to 19. Now we’ve been able to see these more incremental growth patterns and to see how much someone can improve in just one year and just how talented they are, that it’s not just a kids’ show. They are just as strong and as talented as the grown-ups.
The aspect of athletes coming back every year really gives the audience and us a chance to get invested. There is something really special about falling in love with an athlete—someone that inspires you and someone that you want to know more about. And there’s a limited opportunity to tell these stories within the course of a single season. When they come back year after year, we get to add layer after layer and know more about them and get even more invested and follow a journey that sometimes takes years and years to culminate.
BF: We talked about this last season, but that puts the onus on you as producers to keep raising the bar to continue to challenge them. Do you feel there’s a point where you’ll have improved the course as far as you can go?
AS: They are catching up. It’s been a real challenge to stay a step ahead of the ninjas. I think the day is coming where they catch us—where the only way to stay so far ahead of them would be to make it impossible. Obviously we don’t want to do that; we love seeing them succeed. We’ll continue to do our best…Some of the changes we’ve made this year have given us a chance to be a little more creative in the way that we challenge them. We added “Split Decision” last year and it forced them to think a little bit more on the course. We got to see inside of their minds a little bit and it created an opportunity to challenge them in more ways than one within the course of six or ten obstacles.
This year we’ve upped the ante a little bit in the way that we have art designed [the obstacles], and that creates a new challenge too. We’ve created a lot more “either/or” opportunities. We have an obstacle this year that we showcased in our premiere called “Carnival,” where they get a chance to create their own destiny and chart their own path. They get to work towards getting an easier path out or a harder path out. Those are the kind of twists that we’ll continue to look for to make the obstacles more challenging and more interesting for the audience.
BF: You’ve also successfully incorporated the entertainment aspect. You’ve had celebrity competitors and people in costumes, but those stunts never feel gimmicky. How have you been able to do that and preserve the integrity of the competition?
AS: I think they don’t feel gimmicky because people are still trying really hard to conquer the course. There are competitors that are more animated than others, but everybody’s there for the same reason, and that’s to hit a buzzer…People come to us with all sorts of incredible costumes and personalities and we try to enhance that in whatever way we can. But the reality is that the show appeals to such a wide swath of people that there inevitably are going to be some crazy people. We embrace that and we look for every way to make the show feel unique and special.
BF: Speaking of special, you’ve had the same commentary duo of Matt Iseman and Akbar Gbajabiamila in the booth for all of American Ninja Warrior‘s tenure. How much stability does that give the series?
AS: It’s special for us. It’s special for the athletes. Matt, Akbar and [correspondent] Zuri [Hall], they’re all in. They’re wholly invested in these athletes as competitors, as human beings. They get to know the people away from the course. They interact with them on set, online and at events. That energy you feel coming back from our hosts is very genuine. And that’s hard in TV—to find the kind of hosts that give you the level of commitment that these three do. They get invested. They give you their hearts. As a viewer, you feel it. I feel it as a producer. It’s very authentic and it really makes the show special.
BF: What kind of influence has American Ninja Warrior had on A. Smith & Co.’s other series? This has become a huge part of your production company overall.
AS: We’ve learned so much and we continue to learn so much about obstacle design and challenge development and all the things that make Ninja Warrior great, and we apply those to many of the shows we do. A. Smith & Co. Productions has become the industry leader in reality competition and these large-scale competition shows. Networks and streamers, they come to us first when they’re looking for these types of shows and our expertise translates across almost everything we do.
And it’s not just the obstacle course design, it’s the storytelling. A big part of the success of the show is the way that we convey these stories and that translates to every form of unscripted television. Getting to do it year after year, we learn lesson after lesson, and we get better and better at what we do. But we don’t take it for granted. We’re honored to do this show. This show means so much to us as a company and as individuals. It’s such a blessing to be involved in this world, to be associated with these people, and hopefully it goes on for many, many more years.
BF: Television consumption has changed drastically over the last few years. Especially with a series like this with a broader cultural impact, how important are live TV ratings to you? Or are there other ways in which you measure success?
AS: The ratings are obviously important. It helps the show come back year after year, and we’re off to a great start. We’re already ahead of last year’s ratings, which is very rare in today’s day and age. We’re still reaching millions of viewers every week. Even the re-airs get millions of viewers every week. Success for us really comes in many forms. The ratings matter. The reaction from our audience matters. The success of the athletes on the course, seeing them grow year after year, matters. It’s not easy to satisfy people for 14 consecutive years. We’re thrilled when we can get return viewers and we get the great feedback that we get season after season.
BF: Are you still as excited about the show in Season 14 as you were at the beginning? Or has your own appreciation of American Ninja Warrior grown and developed as the show does?
AS: This year we have got this new batch of young athletes and some new older athletes that have told stories that we have never heard before. That’s remarkable for us. You would think that after 14 seasons we would’ve told every kind of story there is, and yet in every episode this year there are a handful of stories that touch on subjects we’ve never touched on before. They’re so heartwarming and they’re so inspirational.
You would think that I would be inured to it after seeing so many of these runs year after year. I get so emotional in the booth, even in the edit bay watching them. They’re so poignant and they’re so universal. These people really do represent all of us. When you see yourself in somebody or you see a loved one in someone, and they’re accomplishing something that you know means so much to them, it’s touching and it’s special and it’s the reason we all keep coming back.
American Ninja Warrior airs Mondays at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.