Inside Australian Ninja Warrior: Nine’s explosive success

Why Nine gambled on commissioning the expensive format

Producing the global phenomenon that is Ninja Warrior doesn’t come cheap. But it is something Nine has undertaken nevertheless by commissioning a local version of the format. In a TV landscape that is filled with renovation, cooking and dating reality shows, Australian Ninja Warrior produced by Endemol Shine Australia is a breath of fresh air.

It’s been a long process to bring a local edition of the show to Australian screens, Endemol Shine Australia’s head of unscripted content Peter Newman told Mediaweek – over a year was as precise as he would get.

“There was a lot of interest in the format, particularly as it grew in USA and UK. Nine was very much the keenest,” Newman said. To see the concept become a reality is somewhat of a dream come true for Newman, who revealed it is a show he has wanted to make for many years. “It’s a format that I absolutely love.”

He compared the making of Australian Ninja Warrior with The Voice, which is also a Nine show.

“It’s a very big scale sound and production, which throws up its own challenges,” Newman stated. The obstacle course for the show was set up on Cockatoo Island, which “looked like a UFO in the middle of Sydney Harbour when we lit it up at night”, Newman said. [Laughs]

Contestant Scott Evennett

Experienced television producer Julie Ward was tasked with the responsibility of making the show as executive producer of season one. Having been on the grounds of where the series was filmed, Ward could better speak to some of the challenges faced in producing it.

“The biggest thing was that it was outdoor and we were shooting at night. We wouldn’t start shooting till 8pm and would wrap at about 2:30am,” Ward told Mediaweek. The series was shot in the back end of 2016. The filming finished just before Christmas. “At that time of year, who knows about the Sydney weather and the storms? We were literally chasing the weather patterns.

“We got through all the sprinkling rains and avoided the storms until our last shoot day. It was forecast to start raining and not stop. We had to quickly change the schedule and move everything forward, so we wrapped a day early. The heavens did open up, and we were glad we had it all done!”

Ward has previously worked on big budget reality formats like The Voice, so was quite aware of the expectations that have been set on the Australian Ninja Warrior by the broadcaster. However, it was still a whole new ball game.

“I have done a lot of entertainment programs in my career. Coming to something like Ninja, at face value it was very different,” Ward said. “I didn’t really know the format, but immediately was hooked in by all the usual layers of stuff that we create – story, anticipation and the individual pursuit of excellence.

“I know the promos have said it, but it does feel like a new breed of heroes is born.”

This year marks 20 years of the Ninja Warrior format, which was originally conceived by Japanese broadcaster Tokyo Broadcasting System Television in 1997. The original name of the series was Sasuke. The show is globally recognised as Ninja Warrior. It has been produced in more than 12 territories and a total of 31 seasons of the show have been produced worldwide including Australia.

“What really caught Nine’s attention is the latest iteration of the US version with the scale of the course and the production values. That’s very much what we wanted to bring to Australia,” Newman said. The Australian twist to the series comes from the competitors who will take part in the competition.

Nearly 2,000 people registered their interest to participate on season one of Australian Ninja Warrior on the very day that the auditions were announced. By the end, about 5,000 people had applied. This number then dwindled down to a three-digital figure. About 250 people tried their luck at winning the reality sport entertainment competition.

“What Ninja has the potential to do is connect with the family audience,” Newman said. “It really is the Olympics for everyday people in the sense that you have mums, dads, tradies, doctors and people from all walks of life taking on this absolute Goliath of a course.”

Something else that will reel in the viewers is the unpredictable nature of the show, unlike other reality TV shows, Ward said. This is something that kept her bingeing on the show, when she was attempting to familiarise herself with the format before producing the Australian edition.

“You don’t know who is going to fall off at what point. It’s just something that happens in the moment,” Ward said. “With other things like The Voice, you can guess things like this coach is going to turn for that singer. But you can’t do that with this. So you’re just drawn into it thinking, ‘Will this person make it further than the one before?’

Speaking about her experience of producing the show, Ward said: “I got a feeling very early on that this will be to another generation what MasterChef was to kids when it first launched here.”

Hosts Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff, Rebecca Maddern and Ben Fordham

The presenters

Radio and TV presenter Ben Fordham and AFL Footy Show co-host Rebecca Maddern will host the show alongside English cricketer turned commentator Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff.

Fordham and Maddern will provide commentary on the game from a tower overlooking the course. Meanwhile, Flintoff will be working as the sideline reporter.

“We tested a lot of people in that commentary/host role. We were blown away by Ben’s ability to call the action, and Bec’s as well,” Newman said. “When we put them together it just clicked.”

Comparison with Wipeout

Nine was also home to another sport game show called Wipeout that ran for only one season. This show, which originated from the US, also has a UK edition called Total Wipeout. Both international versions of the series have previously aired in Australia.

Wipeout is very much a slapstick format. It has a comedic element to it,” Newman said. “Meanwhile, Ninja Warrior has a more serious side to it. It has a more sporting event feel to it.”

The episode breakdown

The first season of Australian Ninja Warrior is nine episodes long, which will be aired over three weeks on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays starting on 9 July.

The first five episodes will showcase the heats round. The next three, episodes 6-8, will be the semifinal round. Then the last episode of the series, which will air on 25 July 2017, will be the grand final.

What else is happening at Endemol Shine Australia?

The production company has had a busy start to the month with the premiere of its new formats Common Sense on Ten and Australian Ninja Warrior on Nine in the space of one week. (Turn to page 4 to read more about Common Sense.)

Newman sounded particularly excited when talking about the cast of Common Sense – in fact, he couldn’t help but laugh, when he said: “There are some real crackers in there.

“It feels like a really good companion piece to Gogglebox.”

When Mediaweek spoke to Newman, he had just returned from filming the new season of Australian Survivor in Samoa. The new series is expected to go to air after the completion of MasterChef Australia.

One thing that you can’t leave out when talking to the head of unscripted content at Endemol Shine Australia is the runaway success of Married At First Sight Australia. The show had a lot of twists and turns this year with a runaway bride, cheating allegations and a contestant who re-entered the experiment to try her luck at finding love again. “Married At First Sight is the most unscripted of unscripted shows,” Newman said. “The challenge is to follow the action and let it unfold naturally.

“It makes it terrifying to produce it, but it also makes it thrilling. It’s a real rollercoaster, Married At First Sight.”

Australian Ninja Warrior and the risk for Nine

The first season of Australian Ninja Warrior is nine episodes long and will run over three weeks. It has a smallish run compared to other reality shows on television in Australia. Nine’s head of content, production and development Adrian Swift spoke to Mediaweek about the risk involved for the network in commissioning the show and the thought process behind it.

Adrian Swift

How much of a risk was commissioning the Australian Ninja Warrior?

Just looking at the Australian television landscape, we got to a point where there was a bit of a sameness in the middle of the year – renovating and cooking. What we wanted was something to change the game a little bit and something that looked and felt different. What we thought was great about Ninja and why we decided to take the financial risk is that it is such a good combination of the two things that Nine does really well: entertainment and sport. This is a show about achievement.

What sort of numbers will you be looking for on Sunday night when Ninja Warrior premieres?

What I really want for us is to do well in the demos. It doesn’t need to beat House Rules or anything. What I want is strong and healthy demos and strong signs that people are interested in the show. Shows do build an audience once people see them. A lot of people don’t even know what it is. It doesn’t need to do a million people for me, but it would be nice if it got close.

What would make you commission a second series of Ninja Warrior?

There are two things in equal first place: getting the right demos for the show and then total people. But the total people can be spread over plus seven, catchup, encore screenings and all the platforms that people watch TV shows on. What is really the driving force behind why we commission things is engagement on every platform. What is great about The Voice is that it drives more app downloads than anything else on Australian television. What is great about Married is that it has an incredibly strong social footprint. It drove incredible interest on our other platforms like 9Honey.

The bottom line is that only a part of the viewing and engagement of a show comes from on-air these days. What we are seeking to create is something that talks to everyone on every platform.

Why only nine episodes in season one of Australian Ninja Warrior?

It is so new that we thought, “Right, let’s do the first one and keep it quite compressed. Let’s introduce people to the concept and see how they like it.” Then if the need be, next year can be a whole lot longer. We think it is a concept that needs to be experienced over a short time frame.

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