‘American Ninja Warrior’ Crowns First Ever Winner After 7 Seasons

Variety 2014

By: Laura Prudom

After seven seasons and thousands of competitors, NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior” finally crowned a winner, after not one, but two competitors completed the fourth and final stage of the challenge for the first time in the show’s history.

Since the series began in 2009, no athlete had ever progressed past the third stage of the competition, but in the season seven finale, both Geoff Britten and Isaac Caldiero finished the seemingly impossible course. Britten completed Stage 4 first, but Caldiero subsequently beat his time by 3.6 seconds, enabling him to win the challenge and the $1 million grand prize.

The series is based on Japanese competition series “Sasuke,” which has run for 31 seasons since 1997. Only four competitors have ever completed the course and achieved “total victory” in the Japanese version of the show. The “American Ninja Warrior” season finale was held in Las Vegas, and the course consisted of four stages and 23 total obstacles. The competitors had to successfully complete all three stages before tackling the ultimate Stage 4 obstacle, Mt. Midoriyama, which stands at 8-stories tall with a 75-foot rope climb. Britten and Caldiero had 30 seconds to scale the rope and hit the buzzer.

“Winning this event always seemed impossible,” Caldiero said. “As the first American Ninja Warrior I want to use this opportunity to inspire the world to find your impossible and conquer it.”

Caldiero is a 33-year-old rock climber and busboy who honed his skills by building replicas of Stage 3 in his back yard, while Britten is a 36-year-old sports cameraman.

“American Ninja Warrior” is executive produced by A. Smith & Co. Productions founders Arthur Smith and Kent Weed (“Hell’s Kitchen,” “Wizard Wars,” “Ellen’s Design Challenge”), along with Brian Richardson and Anthony Storm.

An encore of the finale airs Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET/PT on the Esquire Network.

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NBC Orders ‘Spartan Race’ Competition Series From ‘American Ninja Warrior’ Producer

Deadline Hollywood 2014

Written by: Denise Petski

NBC is teaming up with Spartan Race and A. Smith & Co Prods, producers of the network’s summer hit American Ninja Warrior, on new competition series Spartan Race (working title).

Described as the ultimate in team competition, Spartan Race (wt) features friends, families and co-workers working together and pushing each other to their mental and physical limits as they race across specially designed Spartan courses engineered to test their determination, endurance, and will. Teams of five — comprised of two men, two women, and an elite Spartan athlete — will battle over mud, water, and fire for a chance to win a large cash prize. Casting is currently underway.

“This will be the definitive team competition,”… “an action-oriented show aimed at families”, executive producer Arthur Smith told Deadline. We’re currently working on building the quintessential course, with an emphasis on team building. You will only be successful if your entire team is successful.” Smith said details are still being worked out, but “the show and the course is unlike anything that’s been done before.”

Spartan Race is the world’s leading obstacle race company with more than 1 million global participants and more than 120 events in 20+ countries. A. Smith & Co’s Kent Weed will exec produce with Smith, along with Anthony Storm.

American Ninja Warrior, a strong summer ratings performer for NBC, was recently renewed for a fifth season.

Read More: http://deadline.com/2015/08/nbc-spartan-race-competition-series-american-ninja-warrior-producer-1201506930/

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'American Ninja Warrior' Renewed at NBC

Hollywood Reporter

Written by Lesley Goldberg


NBC is staying on course with American Ninja Warrior.

The reality competition series has been renewed for a fifth season on the network and eighth season overall, the network announced Thursday at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour.

The series, hosted by Matt Iseman, Akbar Gbajabiamila and new addition Kristine Leahy, has continued to reach new highs in its current season. This week's installment collected 2.1 million total viewers among adults 18-49 — its highest rating in more than three years — and 7.2 million total viewers, a series best. Overall, ANW is averaging a 2.2 rating and 7.1 million total viewers. The series produced by A. Smith & Co.'s Arthur Smith and Kent Weed and exec produced by Brian Richardson and Anthony Storm, ranks as the No. 1 show on Mondays across the Big 4 among adults under 50 and total viewers. The series is up 10 percent year-over-year in the demo and 23 percent among total viewers.

In addition to Leahy, this season also saw the prize money double to $1 million as the search to find a competitor able to defeat the 80-foot Mount Midoriyama in the course's grueling finals continues. In six seasons, ANW has not produced a winner.

The series made headlines last season when Kacy Catanzaro became the first woman to climb the show's famed 14-foot Warped Wall — twice — in clips that went viral. The fan favorite saw her effort to return to the Las Vegas Finals shockingly end during the qualifying stages this season, though there's still a chance she could be invited back as a wild card. 

The season finale airs Sept. 14 with a special three-hour event from 8-11 p.m.


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Ellen DeGeneres’ Top-Rated Series Returns to HGTV


By: Business Wire Staff

Ellen’s Design Challenge, which ranked as one of the highest-rated series in HGTV history, returns to the network in January 2016 with several surprise guests joining the judging panel and more of HGTV’s popular builders and carpenters stepping up to assist the contestants in their bid to win a $100,000 cash prize and the opportunity to see their work featured in HGTV Magazine. First conceptualized by television icon Ellen DeGeneres, one of the world’s most popular and influential stars, the furniture design competition from Telepictures adds more competitors and jumps from six to nine episodes, including a fun, 60-minute special that captures humorous behind-the-scenes moments. During its first season run on HGTV, Ellen’s Design Challenge delivered more than 12 million total viewers and consistently ranked as a top 10-rated cable program for the Monday 9p-10p time period among A25-54.

Produced by Ellen’s production company, A Very Good Production, and A. Smith & Co. Productions in association with Telepictures, the sophomore season of Ellen’s Design Challenge promises additional inventive challenges that allows competitors to showcase their ingenuity and creativity as they sketch, design and build extraordinary furniture to avoid elimination. Potential competitors can visit http://www.hgtv.com/shows/be-on-hgtv/ellens-design-challenge-is-looking-for-a-few-good-furniture-desi for details on how to be considered for season two of the competition.

“I’m so excited to be doing season two of Ellen’s Design Challenge. We have a new motto this season: Watch Ellen’s Design Challenge, where the furniture stays together longer than any couple from The Bachelor.”

“Ellen has unparalleled star power and universal appeal, so it was a thrill for us welcome her to HGTV in 2015,” said Kathleen Finch, president, HGTV, DIY Network and Great American Country. “With the resounding success of season one behind us, we are pleased to bring Ellen back to our air and our teams are completely focused on making season two even better. Additional episodes, big, fun surprises and the special look behind-the-curtain are only a few of the elements that will have America buzzing about season two of Ellen’s Design Challenge.”

Executive producers for Ellen’s Design Challenge include Ellen DeGeneres, Jeff Kleeman of A Very Good Production, and Arthur Smith and Kent Weed of A. Smith & Co.

Read more here: http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20150615006288/en/Ellen-DeGeneres%E2%80%99-Top-Rated-Series-Returns-HGTV#.VX9BikbkrRt

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Amateur Competitors Try to Beat World-Class Athletes on Special 'Beat The Champions'


Written By Sara Bibel

The fun and games have just begun as FOX gives amateur athletes with big egos and big dreams the chance to BEAT THE CHAMPIONS, a new competition special in which everyday athletes are epically mismatched against some of the world’s best athletes – four-time Olympic Gold Medalist Missy Franklin, Super Bowl champ superstar Rob Gronkowski and six-time NBA champ Scottie Pippen.

To level the playing field, the champs will be faced with increasingly absurd and hilarious handicaps, while the amateurs will be given increasing levels of assistance to beat their elite competition – whether in the water, on the line of scrimmage or on the hardwood. The greater the assist needed by the contestant, however, the less prize money awarded.  Over the course of three rounds, competitors will have a chance to win more than $100,000.

Will these disadvantages be enough for the amateurs to BEAT THE CHAMPIONS? Find out when the one-hour special, hosted by comedian Finesse Mitchell, airs Tuesday, June 30 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX.

Watch/Share a short video of Rob Gronkowski, Missy Franklin and Scottie Pippen introducing BEAT THE CHAMPIONS here: https://youtu.be/Z-3oICrpsLU

With his record-breaking talent on the field, and larger-than-life personality off the field, Rob Gronkowski has become one of the biggest names in football. After setting the school tight end records for single game, single-season and career receptions, yards and touchdowns at the University of Arizona, he was drafted by the New England Patriots in the second round (42nd overall) of the 2010 NFL Draft. In an unprecedented 2011 season, he set the all-time records for Most Touchdown Receptions and Receiving Yards by a Tight End in one season with 17 TDs and 1,327 yards. After an injury-plagued 2013 season, Gronkowski has returned to form as one of the NFL’s elite tight ends. In the 2014 regular season, he had 1,124 yards, which lead all NFL tight ends, and his 12 touchdowns (tied for most among NFL TEs) helped lead the Patriots to a 12-4 season (Best in the AFC). His stellar season continued into the postseason, during which Gronkowski officially captured his first Super Bowl Championship after he went for 68 yards and a touchdown. Off the field, Gronkowski is known as a fun-loving and friendly figure with a generous heart. Through the Gronk Nation Youth Foundation, he and his brothers host events in order to raise money for the benefit of various youth charities.

Missy Franklin is a four-time Olympic gold medalist and multiple-world-record-holder in the sport of swimming. She became a household name during the 2012 Olympic Games in London, where she won four gold medals and one bronze medal. She followed her Olympic success by winning six gold medals at the 2013 FINA World Championships in Barcelona, becoming the most-decorated female swimmer in history at a single World Championships. In her two years competing at the University of California Berkeley, Franklin earned four individual NCAA titles and helped the school win the 2015 NCAA Women’s Division I Swimming and Diving Team Championship. In 2015, she was also named a Global Ambassador for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, which utilizes the power of sport to address social problems through a global program of sports-related community development initiatives. 

Considered one of the best small forwards of all time, Scottie Pippen was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team eight consecutive times and the All-NBA First Team three times. He was a seven-time NBA All-Star and was the NBA All-Star Game MVP in 1994. He was named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history during the 1996–97 season, and is one of four players to have his jersey retired by the Chicago Bulls. He played a key role on both the 1992 Chicago Bulls Championship team and the1996 Chicago Bulls Championship, team which were selected as two of the greatest teams in NBA history. During his 17-year career, he played 12 seasons with the Bulls, one with the Houston Rockets and four with the Portland Trail Blazers, making the postseason 16 straight times.  Pippen is also the only person to have won an NBA title and Olympic gold medal in the same year twice (1992, 1996). He was a part of the 1992 U.S. Olympic “Dream Team,” which beat its opponents by an average of 44 points. Pippen was also a key figure in the 1996 Olympic team. He is a two-time inductee into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (for his individual career, and as a member of the “Dream Team”). The Chicago Bulls retired his number, #33. His college, University of Central Arkansas, retired his number, #33, as well.

“Saturday Night Live” alumnus Finesse Mitchell will next be seen in the cable comedy series “Brothers In Atlanta.” He recently appeared in “Ron White’s Comedy Salute to the Troops,” with all proceeds benefiting the Armed Forces Foundation. He also was a member of the “2013 Shaq All-Star Comedy Jam” tour. Mitchell has made numerous television appearances, including “A.N.T. Farm” and “Centric’s According To Him & Her.” Born and raised in Atlanta, GA, Mitchell graduated from the University of Miami and is a distinguished member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity. He is a former student-athlete who was a walk-on for the University of Miami’s national champion football team, Miami Hurricanes.

BEAT THE CHAMPIONS is produced by A. Smith & Co. Productions. Arthur Smith, Kent Weed, Frank Sinton and Jonathan Singer serve as executive producers. Like BEAT THE CHAMPIONS on Facebook at facebook.com/BeatTheChampions. Follow the series on Twitter @BeatTheChamps and join the discussion using #beatthechampions. See photos and videos on Instagram by following @BeatTheChamps. For more information on BEAT THE CHAMPIONS, please visit fox.com/beat-the-champions. 

Read More at: http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/2015/06/12/amateur-competitors-try-to-beat-world-class-athletes-on-special-beat-the-champions-tuesday-june-30-on-fox/416894/

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Scottie Pippen, Rob Gronkowski and Missy Franklin Challenge Fox Viewers to ‘Beat the Champions’

The Wrap 2014

By: Tony Maglio


Ever thought you could take NBA great Scottie Pippen one-on-one?

Fox intends to let select amateurs test themselves against current and former top athletes Pippen, New England Patriots player Rob Gronkowski and Olympic swimmer Missy Franklin on new summer special “Beat the Champions,” which will be hosted by “SNL” alum Finesse Mitchell.

Here’s how Fox will level the playing field: “The champs will be faced with increasingly absurd and hilarious handicaps, while the amateurs will be given increasing levels of assistance,” the network explained.

But there’s a catch, of course. The greater the assist needed by the contestant, the less prize money awarded. Over the course of three rounds, competitors will have a chance to win more than $100,000.

Swimmer Franklin owns four Olympic gold medals, ex-NBA star Pippen won six titles with the Chicago Bulls, and the Patriots tight end known as Gronk has a Super Bowl ring.

“Beat the Champions” is produced by A. Smith & Co. Productions. Arthur Smith, Kent Weed, Frank Sinton and Jonathan Singer serve as executive producers.

Read More at: http://www.thewrap.com/scottie-pippen-rob-gronkowski-and-missy-franklin-challenge-fox-viewers-to-beat-the-champions-video/

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Inside ‘American Ninja Warrior’s’ Stealthy, Steady Climb to Surprising Summer Hit

The Wrap 2014

by Tony Maglio

“I’d always wanted to be at 8 o’clock,” executive producer Kent Weed tells TheWrap of the NBC competition’s new night-leading timeslot

“American Ninja Warrior” has been firing throwing stars through its summer Monday night competition and somewhat stealthily rising year-over-year in its new, earlier timeslot.

Through two telecasts thus far this season, the sudden self-starter — now at 8 p.m. — is averaging a 1.9 rating in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic and 6.4 million viewers overall, per Nielsen’s Live + Same Day measurement. That’s a 12-percent increase in the key demo versus the first two weeks last year (which yielded a 1.7). That’s not bad at all, but is eclipsed by the show’s 28-percent increase in total viewers compared with 2014 (5 million).

So how did the NBC reality competition — which started out in Japan as a challenge only for hardcore athletes, fitness buffs and cross-fitters — climb (and jump, and swing, and balance, etc.) to these heights, despite a new, easy-to-miss timeslot with no lead-in? It’s all about family, executive producer Kent Weed told TheWrap.

“I’d always wanted to be at 8 o’clock, even last year,” he said. “After having dinner, it’s something the whole family is going to sit down and watch: the father, the mother, the sisters, the brothers and the kids.”

Weed has heard as many stories of kids introducing their parents to his reality series as the inverse. And he believes that his broad-appeal show not only brings families together at the sectional, it promotes them actually getting off of it and working out together too.

Of course, some fans get into mimicking what they see on TV more than others — and those men and women are the ones who make his job hard.

“Every time we build an obstacle, the ninjas build it at home,” Weed explained when asked about the constantly changing course. “They go on YouTube, and they figure out a way to build it … in their backyard. And they master it.”

Speaking of the crazy course — the antagonist to the ninjas’ heroics — there are a few other factors helping ratings swell alongside the sheer size of the hurdles. Weed credits an upgraded look — which includes a new graphics package and artwork — and a more visually arresting architectural design to the tricky track and its obstacles.

The live audience is bigger this year too, which Weed said creates more excitement on set, energizing the ninjas beyond any prior year’s adrenaline rush. He believes that enthusiasm translates through TV screens.

In the end though, it’s all about the individual stories, as he told us several times during our Thursday phone conversation. Everyone needs a champion to root for.

While Weed’s always evolving the ever-growing gauntlet, and taking it on the road can’t possibly be cheap, the producer promised TheWrap that NBC is getting a “good bang for its buck” with his sleeper hit.

That’s another reason “Ninja Warrior” is so beloved at NBC: its relatively reasonable budget, which the producer didn’t go so far as to outline for us, but he insists is in line with other reality competitions. More importantly, Weed has amortization on his side; considering NBC has a sizable 36 hours of “Ninja Warrior” this summer, that order keeps per-episode costs in line.

Since revenue is directly tied to ad sales which is directly tied to TV ratings, let’s dive deeper into the numbers we have thus far for 2015.

The unscripted competition actually grew from its May 25 season opener, which had a 1.8 demo rating and 5.9 million total viewers — pretty darn strong for Memorial Day. The following Monday, “ANW” rose to a 2.0 and 6.9 million viewers overall.

The second episode’s overall audience was its biggest ever, topping Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance” and ABC’s “The Bachelorette” by both main measurements. Episodes 1 and 2 were also the top-rated show of their respective evenings.

But it’s not like “Ninja Warrior” was weak last summer. It was up 18 percent in the main demo from 2013 and 7 percent in total viewers. That growth was good enough to be summer champ NBC’s second-biggest series, behind only mega-hit “America’s Got Talent.”

Thanks to those two strong reality series, NBC will likely win another summer — which would make it five in a row in the main demo. And with the Summer Olympics coming to the broadcaster in 2016, let’s just call it half-a-dozen years straight.

While many showrunners still see summer as a death sentence, a holding pattern until cancelation, Weed — who believes his show would work year-round — wouldn’t trade his TV show’s season for the world. At least, so long as it’s on NBC.

“Summer is ideal,” he summed up, likely with a suntan and a smile. (Note: TheWrap cannot verify that Weed was either tan or smiling.)

“American Ninja Warrior” airs Monday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.

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TV One's Award-Winning Series 'Unsung' Returns on June 3

The Chronicle

By: The Chronicle Staff

TV One’s award-winning series Unsung, returns with an all-new season of hitmakers and game changers starting Wednesday, June 3rd at 8PM/ET. This season is filled with trailblazing artists that dominated the charts, pushed the boundaries of their genre and inspired legions of fans with their legendary sound. Viewers will be able to reflect on the lives of innovative, soul stirring singers of the 60s and 70s including Ike Turner, Otis Redding and the Godfather of Go-Go, Chuck Brown as well as return to hip-hop’s golden age with Kid ‘n Play, DJ Quik and Xscape. In a special episode, Unsung Revisited, viewers will receive an update on artists, including Full Force, Zapp & Roger, Sylvester, and Miki Howard, who following their features on the series, have experienced profound changes to their lives and legacy.
Wednesday, June 3, 8PM/ET - Ike Turner
Ike Turner was the controversial musical genius, credited with recording the first rock and roll song, and the creation of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, a show like no other. They catapulted to fame with hits like “A Fool in Love,” “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” and their classic re-creation of ‘Proud Mary” while showcasing Tina Turner’s astonishing stage presence and unique tone. However, Ike was haunted by emotional traumas from his childhood, and his obsession to control ultimately destroyed his band, his marriage, his reputation, and his life.
Wednesday, June 10, 8PM/ET - Otis Redding
From Georgia farm boy to singing legend, Otis Redding changed the face of soul music and left the world with one of the most popular songs in modern music, "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay." Before that, he recorded and co-wrote over twenty top ten hits, including "I've Been Loving You Too Long," "Can't Turn You Loose," and the anthem that ultimately became Aretha Franklin’s own signature song, "Respect."  His electrifying performances altered the entire trajectory of 60s music, then at the age of 26, Otis died in a plane crash while in route to a performance.
Wednesday, June 17, 8PM/ET - DJ Quik
DJ Quik became one of hip hop's most legendary rapper/producers of the 90’s with classics like "Tonite" and "Born and Raised in Compton" that continue to get airplay today. This prolific producer has crafted hits for artists as varied as Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Shaquille O'Neal and Tony!Toni!Tone!. DJ Quik rose to great success despite surviving a life filled with hardships including his days growing up in the notorious streets of Compton, to battling depression, serving jail time and even putting his equipment on sale to retire from the hip-hop game. Today, the self-proclaimed “Americaz Most Complete Artist” continues to thrive on and off the stage.
Wednesday, June 24, 8PM/ET - Chuck Brown and the Story of Go-Go
The undisputed Godfather of Go-Go music is the renowned Chuck Brown. Growing up in the impoverished nation’s capital, Brown, found himself in prison for eight years after a murder conviction. Brown turned his life around and emerged as a guitarist and singer who helped craft a genre that blended the sounds of funk, blues, salsa, gospel and soul into “the beat” which is now Go-Go. Early pioneers like The Young Senators, Black Heat and Trouble Funk developed a signature style that reflected Washington, D.C.’s African American culture, while inspiring second generation bands like The Junk Yard Band, Rare Essence, and Experience Unlimited (aka E.U.).
Wednesday, July 1, 8PM/ET – Unsung Revisited
In this unique episode, Unsung revisits four artists – Full Force, Zapp & Roger, Sylvester, and Miki Howard – to uncover how their lives have been affected by the award-winning series.  The story of Sylvester, the legendary singer who died in 1988, was resurrected on Broadway thanks to a producer –alongside Sheryl Lee Ralph – who was moved by his Unsung profile. The Troutman family reveals how their family dynamic changed after discussing the tragic deaths of Roger and Larry Troutman. Miki Howard depicts her new life as a jazz and R&B singer after her career was revitalized by her episode. And the George brothers, Lou, B-Fine, and Paul Anthony, discuss the latest chapter in Paul’s courageous fight against the disease that nearly cost his life and the joyful album it inspired.
Wednesday, July 8, 8PM/ET – Xscape
In 1993, Xscape rose to the top of the charts with three platinum albums that included number one hits “Just Kickin’ It,” “Understanding” and “Who Can I Run To?” Composed of sisters LaTocha and Tamika Scott and classmates Kandi Burruss and Tameka “Tiny” Cottle, they formed a sisterhood as strong as their sound.  As a group, Xscape frequently struggled for respect as their raw talent took a backseat to the music industry’s emphasis on looks and glamour.  By their third album, their sisterhood had imploded. Since their breakup in 1998, attempts to reunite the group have failed with lingering bitterness and deep seeded anger playing out on public forums.   
Wednesday, July 15, 8PM/ET – Kid ‘n Play
Kid 'n Play exploded on the rap scene in the late 80's and redefined the game with their fun loving party anthems like "2 Hype" and "Rolling with Kid 'n Play.” Additionally, they established a look and style that crossed age and color lines.  After starring in the cult classic hit film "House Party," they became media sensations, appearing in TV commercials and their own Saturday morning cartoon. When their squeaky clean image lost favor to emerging hard core rap artists, they found themselves on the outside of the business. The rise and fall of fame carried a sobering cost for their personal lives as well. Recently, the lifelong friends decided to reunite and bring the fun back to the party.  
Unsung is narrated by actor Gary Anthony Williams and is Executive Produced by Arthur Smith, Kent Weed and Frank Sinton of A. Smith & Co. Productions for TV One. Mark Rowland is Co-Executive Producer. Lamar Chase is Producer and Jubba Seyyid is Executive in Charge of Production for TV One. D'Angela Proctor is Head of Original Programming and Production for the network.  

Read more at: http://www.charlestonchronicle.net/95897/2152/tv-ones-awardwinning-series-unsung-returns-on-june-3

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Ratings: NBC’s ‘American Ninja Warrior’ Returns Strong

Variety 2014

By: Rick Kissel

NBC was the broadcast leader in key demos Monday thanks to a nice return for “American Ninja Warrior” and an OK start for another alternative series, “The Island.”

According to preliminary national estimates from Nielsen, “American Ninja Warrior” averaged a 1.8 rating/6 share in adults 18-49 and 5.9 million viewers overall to stand as the night’s No. 1 series in both categories. It was up 12% (0.2) from the show’s year-ago premiere, which aired from 9 to 11, and matched the show’s season finale of last summer. “Ninja” was followed by the series premiere of Bear Grylls’ latest show for the network, “The Island” (1.2/4 in 18-49, 4.0 million viewers overall). The survival series came in right between NBC’s two unscripted series launches of last summer (a 1.0 for “Food Fighters” and a 1.4 for “Running Wild with Bear Grylls”).

Preliminary 18-49 averages for the night: NBC, 1.6/5; ABC, 1.4/5; CBS, 0.8/3; Fox and Univision, 0.7/2; Telemundo, 0.4/1; CW, 0.3/1.

In total viewers: ABC and NBC, 5.3 million; CBS, 5.1 million; Fox, 2.3 million; Univision, 2.0 million; CW and Telemundo, 1.1 million.

Read more at: http://variety.com/2015/tv/ratings/ratings-nbcs-american-ninja-warrior-returns-strong-1201504858/

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The Evil Geniuses Behind American Ninja Warrior

Mens Journal

by Gavin Edwards

For a second, Eric Bivoino hangs in midair. He's young, fit, and trying not to land on his handsome face. Bivoino, a part-time stuntman, is in the middle of a challenge that the makers of the TV show American Ninja Warrior call Downhill Pipe: Hanging on to a steel bar, the warrior slides like a human roller coaster down two curved metal rods and then launches into a predictable vector. He's supposed to grab a rope and swing to safety. But even though his hands reach out for the dangling rope, it remains just past his grasp. Bivoino lands on the ground with a heavy crunch.

In this nondescript warehouse a half-hour north of Los Angeles, Bivoino is testing the Downhill Pipe for possible use on American Ninja Warrior. The show — the nation's top-rated obstacle-course competition and a summertime hit for NBC — needs to test its aspiring ninjas and surprise its viewers with a constant barrage of new challenges. For the 2015 season, premiering this month, the producers have brought in stuntmen, parkour experts, and former competitors to test-drive dozens of new obstacles (kept top secret so no aspiring ninja can get an edge). The obstacles need to have just the right amount of difficulty — the goal is for only 20 percent of contestants to finish the preliminary courses held in six cities across the country. Ultimately, only 24 new obstacles will make the cut. So on this February afternoon, the top brass watch Bivoino's every twitch like they're judges at an Olympic diving competition.

"We have to keep up with the ninjas," says Kent Weed, who's been the show's executive producer since it started five years ago. He's wearing a green polo shirt and has the mien of an aging surfer. "The minute we create a new obstacle, the ninjas build it in their backyards and you see it pop up on YouTube. So we have to stay fresh." Weed, a veteran producer of reality game shows like Hell's Kitchen, used to test every obstacle himself — the last barrier against anarchy in the ninja world — but he gave it up after a serious eye injury. He will still jump in if he thinks an obstacle is too easy: If a reality-TV producer in his fifties can handle it, he reasons, then it's obviously not tough enough for the ninjas.

American Ninja Warrior originated in Japan, where, under the name Sasuke, it's had 30 competitions since 1997. (There is also a U.K. spin-off, and dubbed versions of Sasuke are syndicated worldwide.) Thousands have climbed ropes, scaled walls, hoisted themselves up "salmon ladders" — in which contestants use a single movable rung to lift themselves a foot at a time — and balanced on increasingly unstable surfaces in an elaborate four-stage obstacle course. In 2012, the show was adapted for NBC's prime-time schedule. Now contestants take on a preliminary course in regional competitions while striving to advance to the finals in Las Vegas, where they face off against the final challenge, dubbed Mount Midoriyama.

This year, 40,000 people applied to be on American Ninja Warrior. About a quarter of them submitted videos showing off their skills at clambering up walls and swinging through homemade obstacles. (The show has launched its own fitness craze: There are now gyms all over the country specializing in Ninja skills and obstacle courses.) Roughly 800 contestants are chosen to compete in the qualifying rounds. "We see a lot of stunt people, former athletes, and ex-military," says J.J. Getskow, the show's lead course designer. "We don't want to put something out there that everybody just walks through."

So far, the show has debuted more than 100 obstacles. Before arriving, contestants have no idea what course they will encounter, so they train to be ready for anything. "There's a lot of different physical attributes necessary to be a ninja," explains Anthony Storm, a co-­executive producer. "Speed, agility, balance, upper-body strength, grip strength. Each obstacle tests one or some of those." Grip strength is the show's X factor: It's not something athletes typically focus on improving, but it's essential when you're swinging above a water tank or holding on to a polyurethane ring with your fingertips.

Despite the element of surprise, producers do have a semi-set pattern for sequence. The Quintuple Steps is always first, the Warped Wall sixth, and Salmon Ladder eighth. "And for the second obstacle, we generally have some not incredibly taxing upper-body challenge," Storm says. "That one is about separating the athletes from the wannabes. Almost everyone can physically get past the second obstacle, but if you're nervous, you're probably going to fail it."

Here at the warehouse, Bivoino picks himself up and returns to the start of the Downhill Pipe, where he is lifted high above the ground by a forklift. He launches himself down the slope again — and this time Bivoino nails the timing, grabs the rope, swings forward, and hops onto a platform for a victorious dismount.

"Did you feel like you were actually finding the rope?" asks Storm.

Bivoino nods, doing an instant replay in his head. "I had time," he reports.

The toughest obstacles get reserved for the finals in Las Vegas — in six seasons, no American has reached the end of the course, so no one has yet claimed the $500,000 prize for finishing. Producers would love for someone to win, but they aren't about to make the obstacles any easier to see the first American make history by topping Mount Midoriyama.

"The first time I scaled the Warped Wall and hit the buzzer, I went to my knees and cried like a little girl," says Joe Moravsky, one of last season's top contestants. "Because of that moment, I feel like I've lived."

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