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

Last Updated: June 9, 2015 @ 8:13 AM

“American Ninja Warrior” has been stealthily rising in the ratings in its new, earlier timeslot this summer on Mondays.

Through two telecasts thus far this season, NBC’s summer reality competition series — 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). Moreover, the show has seen a 28 percent increase in total viewers compared with 2014 (5 million).

It’s impressive growth for a show that started out in Japan as a challenge only for hardcore athletes, fitness buffs and cross-fitters and first aired in the U.S. on the G4 network in 2009.

So how did “American Ninja Warrior”  climb (and jump, and swing, and balance) to such ratings 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 on the sofa, it encourages them to actually get 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 said when asked about the show’s constantly changing obstacle course. “They go on YouTube, and they figure out a way to build it … in their backyard. And they master it.”

American Ninja Warrior

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 and energizes the competing ninjas. He believes that enthusiasm translates through TV screens.

In the end, though, it’s all about the individual stories. Everyone needs a champion to root for.

Weed noted that NBC, which began airing portions of the competition in 2011 before taking over all broadcast rights last year, is getting a “good bang for its buck” with his sleeper hit.

While the producer declined to share the show’s budget, which he insisted was in line with other reality competitions, he noted that per-episode costs were well amortized since NBC has a sizable 36 hours of “Ninja Warrior” scheduled this summer.

Since revenue is directly tied to ad sales which is directly tied to TV ratings, let’s dive deeper into the numbers.

American Ninja Warrior

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 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 shows 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, it’s safe to assume it will have six straight years of bragging rights.

Weed believes “American Ninja Warrior” could work year-round but unlike many showrunners does not see his show’s summer programming slot as a death sentence. “Summer is ideal,” he said.

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