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

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

“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.