A. Smith and Co, the production company behind American Ninja Warrior, leads the charge in manifesting the growing sensation that is the show we all love.
When American Ninja Warrior was nominated for an Emmy in 2016, it was a testament to the hard work and talent of the many people involved in Ninja Warrior, especially Kent Weed, one of the show’s executive producer.
Weed has decades of experience creating the reality TV shows that you’re addicted to. As the president at A. Smith and Co productions, he serves as executive producer on all of the company’s projects.
Hell’s Kitchen? Yup. Spartan? Yup. American Ninja Warrior. Heck yes.
Weed’s job as the executive producer means he oversees every aspect of Ninja Warrior’s production. He’s the ultimate behind-the-scenes guru. From casting, to obstacle creation, all the way down to deciding which runs we see and which ones we don’t, Weed’s expertise shapes the decisions and voice of the show.
We had a chance to speak with Weed about the creation of American Ninja Warrior and delve into some of the talking points that have kept the fans buzzing about season eight.
What makes American Ninja Warrior uniquely challenging to produce?
What makes American Ninja Warrior challenging to produce is taking a predominately sports nature project and making it relatable to the masses. Inherently, it’s people running an obstacle course. How does that become appealing to the general population?
For most niche sports, they don’t do very well. They don’t have big audiences. This could be constituted as a niche sport because it’s fairly young in its age. So the biggest challenge is to create a program that is appealing to the masses.
The way we do that is by telling stories. Much the same way the Olympics does. When you watch curling, you’re watching a sport you never watch any other time in your life but the story behind the person who’s doing it makes it very interesting and the outcome more interesting.
How do you feel about no one making it to Stage Four of season eight?
[Drew Drechsel and Daniel Gil made it to Stage Three of the National Finals in season eight, but did not advance to the next stage.]
When you take it in perspective of all the seasons, it took seven seasons for someone to get to Stage Four the first time. So for someone to do it two years in a row would be miraculous. The odds were against it going in.
I’m not disappointed at all. I would have been thrilled if someone had done it, and I would have been excited about it, but I’m not disappointed that they didn’t.
I think the course rose up to the expectations of the athletes, and the athletes were just not quite able to meet that challenge. Which is part of the magic of the show, the magic of the course. And by the way the athletes love that. They love that the course is challenging. They love new obstacles, they love new challenges.
They never get to try the obstacles before they get to do it. It’s their first time on it. Like anything we do in life, the more we practice, the better we get at it. You don’t really have that opportunity here. Just when someone starts getting good at one of the obstacles, or multiple obstacles in this case, we stop and change it, because then it becomes routine. Routine is not interesting.
What are your thoughts around Geoff and Isaac both transitioning away from the show after their success?
[In season seven, Geoff Britten and Isaac Caldiero both made it to the top of Mt. Midoriyama, a first in the show’s history. Isaac did not return to season eight. Geoff announced shortly after his season eight run that he would be taking time away from the show.]
As a fan, first of all, I want to see them do it again, compete. I think that’s the nature of all of us as fans. As an athlete, I respect the decision. You see this in many sports, where athletes, once they reach the pinnacle of their career in sports they retire. We see it in the NBA when they win a ring, when they win the Super Bowl.
We’ve also seen many of those athletes come out of retirement a few years later. Don’t count them out. Maybe not this year or next year but we could see them return. Because I think it’s just too alluring. They love it. It’s in their blood. I think they won’t be able to stay away long.
They may be fine and they may have gotten their fix and that’s all they needed. I think Isaac is a very unique individual. He has a lot of other ambitions that he wants to pursue. But those may lead back to Ninja in the future.
I know Geoff very well too and he wants to spend time with his family. This sport takes a lot of time. It’s a lot of time away from your family.
I respect what they did. I think we may possibly see them in the future. I think what they accomplished was amazing and I think they’re happy with that, and they’re ready to move on to something else or at least take a break.
Jessie Graff obviously changed the game for women in season eight. When did you realize how important her success would be? When she on your radar to do as well as she did?
[Jessie Graff is the first and only woman to complete Stage One of the National Finals.]
We’ve known Jessie for a number of years and we’ve always been impressed with her abilities. She had a problem with her knee a couple of years ago. She came back last year and did really well.
The thing that makes Jessie unique is that she’s very smart. Not that everybody is not smart, but she analyzes the obstacles. From last year to this year, she analyzed specifically what she needed to train for, which was lunges and sprints. Burst training. The things that she felt were missing in her approach to the course, and that would help her get through Stage One for example. She needed more cardiovascular workouts. She found that, like Meagan [Martin], you were tired by the time you got to the Warped Wall. It’s so demanding and so draining.
So she needed to find a way to build up her wind, her breath, and her stamina. The day she showed up on the course in LA this year, it was like “Whoa. This girl’s come to play.” She didn’t look tired. She didn’t look winded. She had done her homework and she had dedicated herself to it and it showed up on the course.
I think mentally she was really well prepared this year too. One of things I don’t think gets talked about enough is how much of a mental game it is. Anyone can do these obstacles. Anyone can do any one obstacle by itself. And most people could probably do the course on any given day. But when you put it on with the lights, the audience, there’s a lot more going on.
It’s like being a performer on “The Voice.” It’s one thing to sing in your shower. It’s another to sing in front of an audience and step up to perform. So I think nerves get the best of people too. It’s a very mental game and I think Jessie has really found a way to conquer that and find that stillness in her when she runs the course.
When she ran in LA we said this is amazing. It’s looking to be a great year. But you know, it wasn’t just Jessie. It was really the year of the women. We’ve never had more females do as well as they did this year.
In Philadelphia we had four females get to the finals on their own merit. Competing head to head on the same course as all the men. I think it’s because they’re methodical in how they treat the course. They’re not necessarily stronger, but they can be smarter at times.
What are your thoughts around keeping the course exactly the same regardless of height, gender, or any differences in the competitors?
I think there’s a big difference between gender and physical dis-similarities. What we try to do is to make the course even and fair for everybody. I think regardless of size and shape and gender. The gender doesn’t really play into that. If you put gender aside, some obstacles you really need to be taller to complete them, so what we’ve done is really taken that into consideration.
Kacy [Catanzaro] is a good example. But we have men who are five foot tall too. There’s certain reaches, there’s certain differences that the body physically can’t do because they’re shorter, so we’ve created a way to adjust those obstacles for height.
The Body Prop is one example where you have to horizontally put your hands on one board and your feet on the other and traverse that all the way along, across the water to make it to the other side just using your hands and feet. So it’s a very core heavy, intensive exercise. But you get to choose the distance that you have your hands and feet between. You have three options.
Any time we design an obstacle that is similar to that in characteristics, we make adjustments for it. We say “Listen, the jump is too far for someone that’s five foot tall. So let’s adjust this so that maybe they can reach its peak just as easy at a six foot person.”
That’s about the only variable that we take into consideration is height. We don’t want it to be unfair because you’re shorter.
We have some really tall people who run the course, like basketball players, and we don’t adjust it down for them. They may be great on the Warped Wall because they don’t have to run very far to get up it, but it becomes a disadvantage on other obstacles too.
We set a mean distance for it. There’s some balance obstacles. If they have to stretch too far with their feet then we’ll adjust it. We always take that into consideration when we measure distances.
We’ll test it too. We’ll prototype it. We’ll prototype it with someone Kacy’s size, or we’ve even tested them with Kacy to see what her wingspan is and what her distances are when she’s running. You’d think it would be like, “Oh she’s only five foot, she can’t.” But when she’s running it’s almost like six feet when she takes strides. We test everything and prototype everything to find out those things to create as much of a fair playing field as possible.
This season we learned a lot more about the obstacles through the digital series “Crashing the Course,” and that there’s a ratio of successes to failures that you’re looking for while designing obstacles . What is that ratio?
I don’t know that we have an exact number to it. Ultimately, we like to see about 25% of people succeed on the Qualifying course. 25% is a good finish. But you can’t predict anything because anything could happen on any given day. I think that with the easier obstacles, the percentage making it past is more than ever. I don’t think there’s an exact number because the obstacles are different. It’s hard to compare apples and oranges.
So there’s a balance obstacle, right? Balance obstacles take out more people in some cities than others. So what we’ll do is say “Okay, we’re going to lose 20 people on this balance obstacle out of the 100 that run the course.”
And then we’ll say “There’s a fairly intensive upper body obstacle, and we know that after doing three obstacles, they’re going to be tired. And not all the athletes are strong enough in the upper body to make it past this, so we’ll probably lose 25 people on that one.”
It’s not an exact science yet. It’s more of a feeling because we’ve been doing it for so long. We have a team and we’re able to just analyze it. We do analyze it. We want it to be hard enough for the really good athletes to make it challenging, but not so easy as that just anyone could make it through.
We are looking for American Ninja Warriors after all. It creates interesting dynamics between the athletes. They work hard because they know they have to be stronger and do better and have special techniques. Different skill sets to achieve it.
A lot of the things we do with the obstacles now are more technique based. Strategy based. That’s the new direction we took last year, is designing obstacles that require technique and strategy. They actually have to use their brain now too. It can’t just be keep your L’s and you’ll be fine.
Keep your L’s yes, but you have to pick your path now. If you go the wrong path, you’re going to have to go twice as long and it doesn’t matter how strong your L’s are, you’re going to run out of energy at some point. So there’s many elements that come into play as we look at each obstacle.
Even established people fall on the steps. Are you kidding me? There’s still people falling on the steps? But people do.
I would have lost a bet. I never would have bet in a million years that Geoff [Britten] would have fallen on the steps on Stage One. It was like “What just happened?” And it’s because he rushed. He got ahead of himself. The obstacle is not hard. It’s just if you don’t know where to put your foot down you miss a step and you’re a goner.
Do you think the audience is becoming impatience for another win?
I don’t know. I don’t feel it. I don’t feel they do. I feel like they’re satisfied. I don’t think that the athletes are disappointed. I think they feel like “You know what? We got close.” New course. It would have been an amazing achievement to make it again. It was an amazing achievement the first time last year.
But I don’t feel like there’s disappointment. There’s excitement to try and find that next American Ninja Warrior. Who’s going to be next? Who’s going to make it? It’s that tough you know? It’s unlike any other show where you have to have a winner every year.
How do you balance the American Ninja Warrior TV audience’s broad interests with those of the niche Ninja Warrior lovers? One group goes crazy over Jessie Graff, the other wants more of a pure sport. Do they both play a part in the development of the show?
When we put the show together, we always like to have returning athletes that have big fan bases. But we’re always really interested as much in the new people. Josh Levin. Daniel Gil came out of nowhere last year.
The new stars that rise up too and join the group. I think it’s a mixture. It’s a mixture of finding the new stars and nurturing the ones that are still popular. Whether it’s Flip, or Brian Arnold, or any one of them. There’s so many really good people out there running and they all have fan bases.
It’s ultimately a combination. I think we service both.
How do you make decisions about runs that are shown and runs that are not shown?
There’s no clear directive, or “Here’s the beats that you need to hit to get on the air.” I mean, Jessie Graff is going to make it on the air because she’s got a huge fan base. Your heroes are always going to be on the air. New, rising star rookies that do well will usually make it on the air.
Pretty big wipeouts usually make it on the air. Big falls. People like to watch big falls. It’s entertaining.
Interesting stories. Stories that are relatable to the audience play a key part in that. It’s a combination of those. We juggle all types. It’s not easy. We have 120 people who run [in each Qualifying city], and we can only fit about 10 runs an hour. 20 people on the show plus the fast forwards. It’s brutal.
It’s a shame but we’ve had people who’ve run the course maybe three times and have not been on the air yet. Either their story isn’t unique enough or they fall on the third obstacle and it’s not that interesting. They don’t have any fans. There’s not much to go on. Not much content. Not much meat of the story.
One of the things we’re trying to work out with NBC is to be able to post those runs on the Internet, so everyone can show their friends at least. It’s just very time consuming. We’re hatching a plan to try to come up with a way to service those people who don’t make it on the air.
What do you think is driving that continual growth of the show season after season?
I think it’s the message that the show tells. I think it’s a very positive message. It’s a very family oriented show in the message that it sends. Work out. Healthy lifestyle. Family. Train. Follow your goals. It’s all positive messaging.
More than that it’s getting families together. It’s getting kids watching this thing and all of a sudden their father is watching, catching a piece of it, and a week later he’s out in the backyard working out with them.
It’s bringing families together. I think that’s really part of the reason it’s doing so well and why it’s growing. It’s generating a lot from the kids. From the ground up. I have two young ones. I have a five year old and a seven year old and all their classmates talk about it all the time. It’s huge. And they all go to the gyms where they have the Ninja courses. Ninja camps over the summer. They get the parents interested in it first. I think it’s a reverse thing. The kids get the parents. They start to watch it and they can’t look away. It’s exciting.
I also think the reason it’s growing is because of all the new people who keep coming every year. It’s not old. It feels fresh because there’s new stories every year. New obstacles. New courses. It stays fresh. What are they going to do this year? We gotta see. What are they going to change? What’s new? Who are the new people? It doesn’t feel old.
I think people sit at home and live vicariously through it. Many times when someone is on like a swinging obstacle, where they’re swinging back and forth, I’ll be sitting on the couch with my kids and all of us are shifting left to right. We’re all swinging with that person on the TV. I think people do that at home. They live vicariously through the show.
It’s fun. It’s good family fun.
What are you working on right now to prepare for the upcoming season?
Right now we’re in the stages of deciding cities. We’re basically scouting cities and putting together a list of cities that we’re going to go to. We’re going to go to new cities every year. We’re basically looking at new cities for this next season.
We will be returning to LA Universal Studios. That we know we’re going to do. Then there’s going to be four other cities. I don’t know what they are yet. But I can tell you we have about 20 that we’re looking at. That’s what we’re going to be doing the next two months, scouting them.
We may revisit a city that we’ve done in the past that was very popular. The great thing about the cities is that as the show has grown, they’ve grown to in their support of the show. They open their arms up to us and welcome us. It’s fantastic. The support has been amazing.
So the cities is one part of it and we’re also starting the obstacle designs. Every year we come up with 26, 27 new obstacles. We’re starting that process too. We’ll have three new obstacles per city. Mount Midoriyama won’t have as much adjustment because of how it played last year. The obstacles were new last season, so I don’t think they need to be totally redone for next season. That part is happening too.
Staffing up. The normal process that goes with putting together a show. Primarily it’s designing the obstacles. Figuring out what obstacles we’re going to do this year. Which ones we want to bring back from previous seasons. Finding the cities. Locating the cities. Laying out how we’re going to show the cities. Our road trip. Basically March through June. Then we will design the courses.
That’s the last thing we do is plug all those obstacles into positions in courses. You know the first obstacle. The third obstacle is usually a balance obstacle. The fifth obstacle is usually an upper body obstacle. The wall is the wall. They have their positions. So we’re designing obstacles and plugging them into courses.
Then the casting is starting soon too. We start casting pretty soon. Where we basically send out the casting call. We got over 50,000 applications last year. That will happen the same time we’re doing the city search. We get the applications going. There’s videos that are sent and then we have to go through a lot of videos to choose 100 in each city.
We’re going to start casting earlier this year. How much early? It’s going to be in the next couple of weeks I would gather.
What do you enjoy most about producing American Ninja Warrior?
There are times when I’ve been on the course during a shoot when everything comes together perfectly. All the hard work pays off. The first thing that comes to mind is Orlando last season [season seven].
I remember standing on the sidelines watching how the course played. People fell where they were supposed to fall. People completed what they were supposed to complete. The energy and the crowd was fantastic. Sam Sann was the only one to make it up the Invisible Ladder. 48 year old guy. You can’t write these stories.
When the story just evolves right in front of you after all your planning and hard work and guessing and strategizing, and then it just pays off. That’s totally rewarding. Also when the Ninjas come up to you and are just so thankful. They’re so grateful. You feel like you’re doing something good.