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Executive Producer Anthony Storm on Ninja Warrior’s changes and yes, THAT rule

One of the showrunners since season six, Storm has seen the show develop through its milestones.

Over the nine years that American Ninja Warrior has been on the air, it’s gone through many changes. Once a small but beloved show on a small but beloved channel, Ninja Warrior has experienced an epic growth spurt that’s turned it into the powerhouse summer program we know it as today.

One of the key crew members who’s seen the show go through many of those changes is Executive Producer and showrunner Anthony Storm. As with any evolution, there’s going to be some growing pains. One of Storm’s responsibilities is to make sure Ninja Warrior navigates those waters as smoothly as possible.

We reached Storm by phone to talk about his experiences helping to guide Ninja Warrior into its adulthood.

Responses are lightly edited for length and clarity.

You have a vast background in sports television. What drew you to that genre?

AS: I grew up a huge sports fan here in Los Angeles. Dodgers, Lakers, Raiders. I went to college thinking that I wanted to do sports TV play by play. I went to Northwestern University and I called a lot of games for radio and TV. A little bit of TV, but mostly radio. I realized I was better at producing than I was at calling the games. I was able to score some great internships when I was in college. HBO Sports in New York. One for KCBS here in Los Angeles, where my boss was Keith Olbermann. I was able to parlay those into some jobs immediately out of college working for HBO at Wimbledon and for NBC at the Olympics. I loved every minute of it. Really never looked back.

A. Smith and Co. took over ANW in season two. Is that when you joined the program as well?

AS: I joined in season four, only in post production. That was first season the show got regular airings on NBC. There were showrunners already in place and they asked me to come help out in post when they felt a little short handed. Then in season six, Arthur (Smith) and Kent (Weed) decided to make a change and asked me to come, along with Brian Richardson, and be the showrunners moving forward.

L-R: Akbar Gbajabiamila, Kent Weed, Arthur Smith, Matt Iseman, Steve Ridgeway, Brian Richardson, Anthony Storm
Evans Vestal Ward/NBC

What did you first think of Ninja Warrior? Were you a fan?

AS: I was fairly unfamiliar with it. I was more of a traditional stick and ball sports fan, and the first time I saw it I was just blown away. It sort of combines all of these amazing athletic skills that only have a home in the Olympics and you only get to see them once every four years. I’ve always been one of those people that just eagerly awaits those two weeks every fourth summer when you get to see the most phenomenal athletes in the world do what they do. And I finally found a place where I get to see athletes do that on a regular basis. And that was Ninja Warrior. So I was just thrilled to get involved.

What sets Ninja Warrior apart from other sports television shows you’ve produced?

AS: Well there are very few shows that combine sports and storytelling. Those are both in my background because I did a lot of documentary storytelling before I came on to Ninja Warrior. I produced a show called “Beyond the Glory” which is a sports documentary series. I produced a number of UFC documentaries, including one on Ronda Rousey that got nominated for an Emmy. And so this world, where there’s a program that combines stories on regular people, everyday people, and athleticism, is very rare. And really no show does it better than American Ninja Warrior.

Ryan Tuttle/NBC

In season six, Kacy Catanzaro exploded onto the scene. What do you think that did for the show?

AS: That moment raised the consciousness of the series. The show was obviously already growing. Its popularity was increasing and it would have continued to increase. You always need viral moments in this world now. And Kacy’s run was so universally appreciated, and spread so fast virally that it brought a whole new set of eyeballs to the show that it would have taken us a lot longer to capture. It really proved the universal appeal in that anybody could do this. Didn’t matter about your size or your gender, or your background. Anybody could do it.

Really for me, what made Kacy’s run so incredible were the sideline reactions. Seeing these incredible male athletes freaking out over what a five foot woman was able to do made us all realize just how remarkable it was. Everybody felt that. You had to be amazed by what Kacy had done, and had to think, “Well if she can do it, why can’t I?” That’s been the sentiment of this show since that moment. If he can do it with Parkinson’s Disease or without a leg, or she can do it having just overcome chemotherapy, or the loss of a child, well why can’t I at least try?

In season seven, Geoff Britten and Isaac Caldiero both made it to Stage Four. What were you, as the top producers, saying to each other as you saw this first trip to the final stage?

AS: It’s really hard for us not to become fans. Going back for a second to Kacy’s run, my seat in the (production) truck is right next to Patrick McManus, the director. I have a critical role second by second as people are on the course of keeping Patrick aware of what we need to be showing. And it was so hard not to jump up out of my seat and run out there to watch it in person.

With Isaac and Geoff it was really a sense of wonder. We had never seen it before. We were desperate to know what it was going to look like. We had run a few testers up the rope and we had sort of tried to figure out what the time was going to be. But testers are fairly inaccurate because they don’t have the adrenaline of the moment that those athletes have.

You almost have to do a math equation. Okay, if you do it in this amount of time, then take X amount of this percentage of time off of it once you factor in adrenaline. So we didn’t really know what it was going to look like. We didn’t know whether we were going to have our first winner. We became like children watching the show. Watching television. Watching your favorite athletes trying to do something incredible. It brought me back to Carl Lewis in 1984 at the Olympics. Can he get the fourth gold medal?

We jump and scream in the truck. It happens all the time. I can name ten times when Kent and I will literally be jumping into each other’s arms in the truck over watching something happen. It just blows our minds. The way that a Michael Jordan game winning shot will make people lose their minds, that’s what happens to us in the truck.

In season eight, the show garnered its first Emmy nomination. What do you think changed about the show to attract that honor?

AS: I think that the show has really grown to the point where you really have to be living under a rock not to be familiar with it. People in the industry have very few shows that they can appreciate and their kids can appreciate and that they can watch together. I think those are the kinds of shows that really draw your attention as a voter. This is an incredible show and it’s created something that I value and my kids value and we can co-watch. That I don’t feel guilty about letting them watch and I don’t feel bored by suffering through it with them.

It took awhile to get there. It was sport show for awhile. There are times when it may have been a little too sentimental and we’ve found that perfect balance that everybody enjoys it. I just think that’s very rare.

In season nine, the new rule was debuted regarding how women advanced on the show. It caused a lot of debate in the fan base. Can you reflect back on that rule and do you see it changing at all in the upcoming season?

AS: Well the impetus behind the rule… Backing up a little bit, when Brian Richardson and I came on as showrunners, one of the changes we wanted to make was to find a way to get rid of the wildcards in Las Vegas. It never sat well with us, it wasn’t our idea originally. We just felt like everybody that competes in the National Finals should be there based on merit. It’s taken a few years to do that. We narrowed it down to just inviting women. And the thinking behind that was we really wanted women in the National Finals. The viewers enjoy it. It adds depth to the storytelling and the competition to have them there and it creates these great moments. So the next step was to make the wildcards only for women.

Then the next logical step was to only have the women earn a spot there. It’s impossible to guarantee that 10-15 women are going to make it into the top 15 from all the cities. We usually have had only two or three per season who have earned that. Jessie Graff did it. Jesse Labreck did it. Kacy, of course, earned her spot there by conquering the finals course.

So we just started thinking about a way to guarantee it that wouldn’t impact the men. So what we settled on was this rule. The idea was that by having five women advance to the City Finals, we give ourselves the opportunity to see more women in those City Finals, which is always exciting. The few times we have had them there, like Philadelphia in season eight with four women, it was thrilling to see four women attack the finals course for the viewers and for us.

Ryan Tuttle/NBC

We figured if we could put five women in the finals, let them earn it by being the top five, that gives us the opportunity to have two of them at least, because more than that could have made the top 15, but at least two of them would have earned their spot to Las Vegas. Then in the mean time we get to see more of them attempt a finals course. We were hoping that they would be the women that are very popular. That we wouldn’t lose a Jessie Graff or a Meagan Martin. That they would earn their spot and we wouldn’t miss them as wildcards. That was the risk. You know. If you ask someone that you really wanted to be in Vegas to earn it, then they may not make it. That’s the risk we ran.

To us it worked out great. Everyone in Las Vegas earned their position. In the past, someone like Grant McCartney, that’s very popular, that fell in the regular season, would have earned a wildcard and that didn’t feel right to us. Because Grant’s failure in the regular season was painful. That needs to be real. That can’t be temporary pain that you can just earn a gift as a result of your popularity. It needs to be earned again the following season.

Ryan Tuttle/NBC

As to whether it felt successful or not, to us it felt very successful. Those 12 women earned their position. They were the top two from each city and at this point we plan to continue it again with no changes in season 10.

As to the debate, we expected it. I think change is always difficult for anybody and as fans of the show it’s hard to reconcile that there’s a new way for the scoring to work. But I think if people analyze it purely from our perspective that we simply wanted to make positions in the National Finals merit based, then I think they’ll understand what the thinking was and why we’re continuing it.

Well the debate certainly reflected how passionate the fanbase is.

AS: Yeah. If you look back at sports historically, there’s always big shifts that are difficult for people to process for awhile. There wasn’t a three point line in basketball for decades and now people would go crazy if there were no three point line. The whole game is based around three point shooting at this point.

There was no designated hitter in baseball until 1973 and there still isn’t one in the National League and there’s still debate over whether pitchers should bat or not. But these kinds of changes happen in sports as a way to improve them for the viewer and we feel like we’ve made one that does that.

Ryan Tuttle/NBC

You’re very involved in the development of the obstacles. What do you look for in an obstacle and what are your thoughts around fans worrying the obstacles are now too difficult?

AS: A great obstacle, a perfect obstacle, is one that doesn’t discriminate based on size or gender and one that challenges exactly the right amount of Ninjas. Normally, we look for about a 25-30 percent failure rate on any given obstacle, that means it’s the right difficulty level. There are all different types of obstacles that fit those criteria and those are generally the ones that we keep bringing back.

As for obstacles getting too difficult, they are definitely getting harder, and that’s simply because the Ninjas are getting stronger. They re-air episodes from seasons four and five here in Los Angeles on the weekends and I watch them, and I can tell you that if today’s Ninjas ran those courses, we’d have 60 finishers in every Qualifying city, and 20 on every Finals course.

Those obstacles were the right difficulty level for those Ninjas. But these Ninjas would CRUSH those courses. And it wouldn’t be fun to watch, and it wouldn’t challenge them. And we would have too many people finishing the course to make it look challenging. So we are constantly making the obstacles different. They’re not always more difficult, they’re definitely different. Trying to create the proper amount of challenge for the Ninjas.

Ryan Tuttle/NBC

Now, it’s not a science, we can’t get it exactly right every time. We never know exactly how strong they’re going to be, or how strong the field is going to be, or how an obstacle may play in any given city in combination with all the other obstacles. We test as much as we can to try to figure that out. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we’re a little bit off. The obstacles and the course are a little bit harder, or a little bit easier, than we had hoped. That’s all part of the game.

But we had a lot of finishers in Qualifying this year, but not so many in Finals. I think the Finals courses were a little bit harder than we had hoped. We had a lot finish on Stage One and not very many on Stage Two. But, then again, we had five or six people fail on the dismount of the next to last obstacle on Stage Two. If three or four of those had completed that, we would have had seven or eight people on Stage Three, which is nearly a record.

You just never know. If Flip and Drew and Jamie and Daniel had landed that dismount, we would have had seven killer Ninjas tackling Stage Three. That would have been amazing to watch and likely one or two of them would have made Stage Four. Maybe someone would have won. But you just never know on any given night how it’s going to go.

As someone who’s watched the show develop for the past few years, what do you think is coming up? What do you want to see in season 10?

AS: We want to see new faces. I think it’s very exciting to see new stars emerge. Last year we had people like Kevin Carbone, Tyler Gillette and Josh Salinas, and some new women, Zhanique Lovett and Rebekah Bonilla, that were really exciting to watch. Season 10 we’re hopeful and excited to see some new stars emerge. New faces that the fans can get excited about.

We’re going to have new obstacles. We’re just starting the research and development phase on new obstacles. We’re very excited to create some new challenges for the Ninjas. We’ll probably go to a couple new cities as well, and that’s always fun for us and those communities.

Ryan Tuttle/NBC

And every year, we’re hopeful to see another winner. It’s been a couple years now. This will be three years without a winner since season seven, and these Ninjas are SO strong at this point. I think Geoff Britten said it, he doesn’t know how Drew Drechsel doesn’t win every year. I’m with him, I don’t know how Drew Drechsel doesn’t win the million dollars every single year. I think people like Joe Moravsky, Drew Drechsel and Flip Rodriguez, Najee Richardson, are right on the verge of providing us another winner.

I would really be shocked if someone doesn’t win the million dollars in season 10. It’s a big round number, season 10. It feels like something magical is due. It feels like it should happen. And we’ve got the right Ninjas in place to do it.

How has Ninja Warrior changed your life personally? We heard you’re having Ninja obstacles built in your own backyard?

AS: Yeah, I’ve been talking to some people. It’s taken awhile to get our backyard done but we’re now ready to start putting some obstacles in. I’ve got two boys that are five and seven years old, and they’re huge fans of the show, just like pretty much everyone their age is. We’re going to put in a few things for them to mess around on.

And for me to play on! I’ve changed my whole workout routine as a result of this show. I did traditional weight lifting and stuff like that until I started on the show and watching what these guys do. I’ve changed my routine. I do mostly body weight training and calisthenics. I went to a Ninja gym with Drew in Las Vegas and he taught me some techniques, some laches. Some techniques on the pegboard and the floating boards. I’ve been working on that stuff as well.

Ryan Tuttle/NBC

It’s just really changed my life in terms of my appreciation for what fitness means to people. You saw the numbers that came out about the obesity levels in this country and that’s horrific. Obviously we need to change our nutrition and our eating habits in this country, and we clearly need to be more focused on fitness. Ninja training is a way to do that that’s entertaining. It’s hard to just ride the bike for an hour, or lift weights. It’s monotonous and it doesn’t inspire your brain. Ninja training is a way to set goals for yourself that you can achieve on a daily or weekly or monthly basis. It’s entertaining, you get to share it with your friends. You can try to do what your heroes do.

I think anything that we, as a TV show, can provide for people that gives them inspiration to improve themselves, physically, mentally, to do something with your kids outdoors when the weather’s right. It gives you an opportunity to share something positive is tremendous. For me, it’s showing me that there is a way to do that, and to be a part of that is tremendous. To hear people wherever I go, wherever I mention the show, to see people’s faces light up and talk about what it means to their kids. How their kids have joined a Ninja gym and they’ve started doing stuff themselves, they’re so excited for the next season, that’s a thrill.

It’s really a blessing for me to be involved in a show that provides that sort of joy to people.