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Here’s the behind-the-scenes scoop on Ninja Warrior’s move indoors

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We spoke with Kristen Stabile, the show’s Executive in Charge of Production.

Matthew Hayward/NBC

Let’s take this inside.

American Ninja Warrior will record four of the five Season 12 qualifying regions at indoor locations. Historically, the show is filmed overnight and outdoors, with runs starting after 8pm and taking place until the sunrise disturbs the show’s lighting, sometime around 5am.

This season’s change reshapes the taping schedule and format. We had a feeling this shift was coming. We saw the show give it a try during season 11 when the Seattle/Tacoma region was filmed indoors at the Tacoma Dome.

While the show has taped outside for the past decade, the reasons for moving indoors are fairly easy to grasp.

  • Weather isn’t an issue.
    No rain delays for production or freezing-cold hands for the Ninjas.
  • The show can be recorded during daytime hours.
    With complete control of the lighting, 3 am runs and trying to squeeze all the Ninjas in before daybreak will be a thing of the past.
  • The audience size isn’t as restricted.
    The show will have access to stadium seating without the confines of the city streets.

But American Ninja Warrior fans are an inquisitive bunch who take a lot of pride in the traditions of the show. To that end, we decided to dig deeper into this big format shift. Kristen Stabile, the show’s Executive in Charge of Production, gave us the chance to ask her more about new set up.

Critics’ Choice Real TV Awards - Press Room
From L to R: Matt Iseman, Kent Weed, Arthur Smith, Anthony Storm, Brian Richardson, Kristen Stabile, Akbar Gbajabiamila
Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images

Why do it in the first place?

For the past 11 years, American Ninja Warrior has filmed mainly outside and at night. It’s become such a part of the competition that some of the Ninjas spend a month or more changing their sleep schedules, or training in adverse weather conditions to make sure they’re prepared. The glittering cityscapes behind the course are an aesthetic viewers are used to expecting. So what gives? Why’d we head inside after all this time?

“We threw out (the idea) a couple of years ago. We really tested it for the first time when we decided to go to the Tacoma Dome (in season 11).

One of the reasons is, it allows us to go to areas around the US that we might not have been able to do before due to weather. If you traditionally look at our patterns, we always start southern across the United States and then we go more northern later into the spring. The show, though it airs in the summer, is shot between the months of March and June.

(Tacoma) was a great experience in that we could get younger audience members. We’re no longer shooting till five o’clock in the morning. We can get kids involved, and families. Really a different atmosphere.”

Why head to D.C. and St. Louis?

If the whole country is now open for Ninja Warrior-business, how did the show settle on these two locations for season 12? D.C. will be a new location, at the D.C. Armory. The show did tape in St. Louis back in season six. It returns to the city this year in the Dome at America’s Center.

“Communities. St. Louis is one of our best, most enthusiastic audiences. We shot outside a few years ago. It got very cold. I mean, we were shooting at five o’clock in the morning and ice was forming on top of the mats, and people were still excited. We knew it was a great city for us. They were very responsive to having the show there. Going indoors at the Dome at America’s Center, it was a win-win.

We’ve been trying to go to D.C. for years. D.C. is very rainy in the spring. D.C. loves their grass. Our course does not like grass. We’ve tried ad nauseam to get into D.C. This is really great for us. It’s a new region. We’ve been in Baltimore before. But Baltimore is not D.C.”

What did you look for?

Back in 2016, Kristen gave us a look at the technical logistics and requirements that dictated where the show could set up shop. How did looking for an indoor location change that process?

“We started looking for locations in August. We narrow it down. We go out on visits. Some of the places we considered were; A couple places in Indianapolis, Des Moines, Iowa, New Orleans, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Fargo, Dallas, Houston, Milwaukee. Then, obviously, we settled on Washington, D.C. and St. Louis, Missouri.

We work with a map on our wall all year round. We look at a map and go, ‘Okay, based on where we’re going... We’re in Los Angeles. Then we want to be in central. Then we want to be on the East Coast.’ That’s what it came down to.

Minimum height, basic floor space, and availability. It needs to be available for us. We need two weeks were we can own it, outright. That’s over two weekends. So many of these arenas that are built in these places, they only make money if things are booked. We only shoot a certain number of days and we don’t sell tickets. There’s no box office they share in. The city has to be behind us and make sure we are something the community wants and we’re supported.

Floor space. I need at least 380 feet by 183 feet. I need a height of at least 80 feet to accommodate the course. Everything from the bonus obstacle to final climb. That’s no small feat.

Things that don’t work - Hockey arenas. They’re too small. Hockey arenas and basketball arenas that are traditional. They go back and forth. They’re usually only 100 square feet of floor space for length.”

Why are LA and Vegas still outside?

Okay, so D.C. and St. Louis will use this new set up. Then why does the show still start outside and overnight in Los Angeles, and return once again to Las Vegas for the National Finals?

On Los Angeles: “We don’t need to (tape inside). It’s usually pretty dry. The Universal Studios backlot, it’s just fun. It’s fun for the Ninjas, it gives us a completely different feel. Being on the street and kind of having it tight. It’s a completely different look. It’s kind of magical.

On Vegas: “You can’t dig in a concrete floor. That’s it. The Finals are exciting. I won’t say it would never happen, but not right now. The pools, the higher you go in finals, the deeper the pools have to be. To build something above ground that would hold the amount of water that’s held in Stage Two, we don’t have that. You just can’t do it above ground.

Vegas is a city that feels like a celebration. People go there to be entertained. When you think of Vegas, above and beyond the gambling and casinos, there are the shows, boxing. These are major events. There’s always something to be celebrated. It’s a city that’s based on tourism. It’s based on entertaining.”

Is there anything to worry about?

We’re obviously going to focus on what’s good about moving the show inside, but is there anything the viewers, Ninjas, or audience will miss out on? Any limitations on what the show can accomplish?

“Limitations, no, because limitations say you can’t do something. But every facility has restrictions. At the D.C. Armory, we have to put a floor down because we can’t get water on the floor. That’s not the case in St. Louis. They have drainage.

When we do it outside, we bring everything. We create our city. Everything from any services we would need for contestants, audience. These indoor locations, it’s all built in.”

What about those cityscapes that are a signature look of the show?

“That’s what’s kind of always been the driver for not going inside. Losing that feel. Losing that visual of the different cities. But, we feel that we can still get that. The fact of the matter is that we’re there. These audiences are going to feel very different.”

Is this the new normal?

The show is definitely trying something new with season 12. Is the intention to keep the show indoors as we move forward?

“We wouldn’t be doing this if we weren’t hopeful. There’s a number of them (indoor locations). We’re open to suggestions. But with what the restrictions are, it really is proving to be major concert arenas, football domes. Stuff like that is really the size of which we need.

From Tacoma, a lot of the competitors really liked it. They liked being able to perform during the day. They liked it for the conditions in which they were running. They liked it for the time of day they were running. For being indoors and having more family be available.”

Matthew Hayward/NBC

How does this change the audiences’ experience?

The audience is an integral part of the taping atmosphere. Families and fans come out in droves to see their favorite Ninjas run the course. But sitting outside all night isn’t exactly easy. There are some audience member perks to the indoor locations.

“There are more amenities. It becomes a little bit more family friendly from that perspective. There will be concessions at all of them.

Come. Have fun. There’s ample parking. It’s definitely something fun for the family that doesn’t have to cost you any money. It’s still free even though we’re indoors. Everyone is welcome. We can definitely accommodate more. Our audience size has grown by nearly three times.”

Ready to check out these new locations for yourself? You can sign up for FREE audience tickets through On-Camera-Audiences.Com. See you on the road!