"I already answered that. Pay attention."
This is a pretty classic line to hear from Trent Eaton, usually over a bullhorn, addressing a group of Ninja men and women who most people would probably deeply avoid upsetting. (All those muscles...)
But if you're the Challenge Producer on American Ninja Warrior, which Eaton happens to be, you're the one person who can terrify any Ninja Warrior. See, Eaton has this whistle, and when he blows it, the course turns that red color of doom and that Ninja's shot at Mount Midoriyama is over for at least a year.
This places the challenge producer in quite the position of power. Aside from just crushing dreams, Eaton facilitates the American Ninja Warrior obstacles through a variety of sources, including the network, NBC, the production company, A.Smith & Co, and the rigging company, The ATS Team. His job is to make sure everyone is on the same page and moving things forward as the obstacles go from design to reality, from testing to competition. Eaton recruits testers to try the obstacles, writes the official rules and then, enforces those rules during competition (That’s where the terrifying Ninjas comes into play).
Eaton has vast experienced in the art of putting reality show contestants through the wringer. His 16 years in the television industry have been singularly dedicated to being a challenge producer. He’s created, supervised, and facilitated challenges on shows like ‘Survivor,’ ‘The Amazing Race,’ ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’ and ‘Big Brother’ to name just a few. There’s also an unconfirmed rumor that he once played a robot on a major network TV show.
From the outside, creating reality TV show challenges can look pretty basic. It looks like someone just thought of the worst thing possible, and voila, you have an obstacle course or challenge.
Eaton offers a different perspective on the creation of challenges. It’s more of an exercise in psychology. While American Ninja Warrior doesn’t have the relationship building that take can place on a show like ‘Big Brother’, how people feel and react to an obstacle is a huge part of the challenge process. He's trying to create opportunities to expose weaknesses, but also create a path of success for those that can spot it. Yes, he might spend some time thinking how to mess with Ninjas, but he’s also thinking about to find those Ninja heroes we all love so much.
Eaton might look like a Ninja-enemy at first. After all, the first time you meet him, he’s probably sternly reading rules to Ninjas or testers, or sending a Ninja packing. But he's got a soft spot for the competitors, and says he doesn’t enjoy sending anyone home. Eaton is careful not to learn the back stories of the Ninjas to prevent him from becoming biased in any way. It’s way harder to disqualify someone who you know is facing an immense personal hardship.
We managed to grab Eaton for a few minutes before testing began to figure out how he got into producing challenges and what keeps him there.
Why are you a challenge producer?
“I come from a very athletic/ teaching background. My dad is a big sports guy. He was a P.E. teacher and strength coach. My brother is a football coach now, and a he’s a high school counselor. My sister is a P.E. teacher for 6th grade. And I played sports throughout my life. So that’s what I really connect with and that’s what challenges are. It's creating games for people to play in a fair way. The only difference is you’re filming it and letting the world see it instead of just a classroom or sporting arena or whatnot.”
So what are you doing a week before an American Ninja Warrior taping begins?
"A week before taping begins, I’ve basically started collecting testers. So in this city [Philadelphia] I have over 300 people on a list and those testers come from all variety of sources. A lot of guys that were on the show that didn't make the show. Guys that were on the walk on line. Just big fans of the show that never had the time commitment. People who applied for the show, people who didn't make the show. I am getting in contact with them, making sure they know how they can help out and be available to test the course before we run it. And I do a bunch of other stuff too."
What’s your least favorite part of the job?
"There’s a lot of coordination and communication that has to come together. It’s a self inflicted kind of least favorite thing. I take my job very seriously and the people involved in it, which means I’ve become kind of neurotic about answering emails, getting back to people because I want it to go as smoothly for everyone as possible.”
What’s the best part of your job?
“There’s a lot of answers to that, seriously. One of the best parts of my job is it’s allowed me the ability to go see a lot of different towns and cities. Like in the US alone, seeing how differently people live, and seeing this architecture. And different lifestyles across the US. So that’s really cool.
Another cool part of my job is all the people that do compete on the show, and all the people who test the show. They’re genuinely a really good group of people. They're super fanatical about the show. And it’s nice to be around people who have that much passion for something in life."
If you’d like to see Eaton holding court over the Ninjas, check out his appearance in ‘Crashing the Course.’
More on how American Ninja Warrior is made
- 5 things you should know about the team that builds the courses
- The ATS Team is coming up with new American Ninja Warrior obstacles right now
- Behind the scenes where the obstacles are born
- Meet the green hats, the people in charge of the American Ninja Warrior course
- The past, present and future of the company at the core of the course
- The other insanely cool things the company the makes the course are doing
- Get your hands on the course as a tester
- Jen Hansen has the coolest job on American Ninja Warrior
- Meet the man dedicated to destroying Ninjas
- What you need to know about being an audience member
- 5 surprises from the American Ninja Warrior production trailer
- How many people does it take to pull off an episode of American Ninja Warrior?