Sunday, August 21, 2011

{alltv} 'American Ninja Warrior' swoops into the big time

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NBC is going Ninja.

On Monday (9 p.m. ET/PT), the network airs the third-season finale of American Ninja Warrior, the extreme-obstacle-course athletic event carried by its tiny cable sibling G4 that could prove a test of the show's viability on a major network. Already it's G4's highest-rated series. Now NBC viewers will see 10 finalists who weathered tryouts and a training "boot camp" trek to Japan to compete in the four-stage course for the chance to win a $500,000 endorsement contract.

Unlike ABC's Wipeout, played for broad laughs, Ninja Warrior is serious business, a variation on a niche sport known as parkour. It's an Americanized version of Sasuke (SAS-kay), a 14-year-old Japanese series that airs twice-yearly tournaments that send 100 contestants through a timed gantlet of a spinning bridge, a 110-pound wall lift and the ultimate cliffhanger, a narrow shelf navigated by fingertips in a punishing test of upper-body strength. One fall means elimination, and only three people have achieved "total victory."

"This is definitely the toughest challenge out there," says finalist Brent Steffensen, who competed with friends last year "just to have fun."

G4 has long aired a subtitled version of the Japanese tournament, but it began sending American contestants about five years ago and started its own reality series in 2009. Owner Comcast's purchase of NBC provided "a great way to boost the exposure of the franchise to a whole new audience," says G4 president Neal Tiles.

"I couldn't believe how gnarly this is at the end," says NBC reality chief Paul Telegdy. Success could spark NBC to split future seasons of the show, he says.

Aside from Steffensen, this year's field includes Ryan Stratis, a National Guardsman who qualified for his first trip after five years of attempts, and veteran Paul Kasemir, whose girlfriend and her father died in a hiking accident two weeks before the tournament. Missing is stuntman Levi Meeuwenberg, who is on a film shoot in New Mexico. "Not having Levi there is like when Russia doesn't show up for the Olympics," Tiles says.

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