Quick Q&A With Brian Richardson Of American Ninja Warrior

Ahead of this weekend’s taping of <em>American Ninja Warrior </em> on Monument Circle, which features IndyCar driver Scott Dixon, we spoke with the executive producer of the hit NBC show.
Executive producer of American Ninja Warrior, Brian Richardson, pushes for Indianapolis to be a host city on the show every year. So the Indianapolis native was more than excited when it became official that American Ninja Warrior would return to Monument Circle April 29 and 30 for filming a second time. The Indiana University alum spoke with us about filming in his old stomping grounds, what he looks for in contestants, and the new obstacles coming this season.

IM: What’s it like coming home to Indianapolis for production?
BR: Well it’s great for me personally, because I get to see all my family and friends that I don’t get to see of course in every other city we go to. I probably had 30 friends and family in the stands last time. But just for production itself, Indy is a great town for us. When we were there two years ago it was probably the best city we’ve been to. We had people filling the sidewalks and watching out the windows of buildings around Monument Circle. It’s kind of a perfect setting for us, because it’s a beautiful backdrop. It’s really out and open so people can walk by and watch for a little while on their way to dinner or whatever and really be a part of it. It’s almost like a festival downtown.

IM: What will be different this time?
BR: We made a lot of changes to the show this year. The people who maybe were there two years ago are definitely going to notice some big changes to the course, and we’ve got some pretty big people who are going to be running the course in Indy. I can’t talk about everyone yet because they haven’t announced them, but there will be some celebrities, a few Ninja celebrities, and a lot of people you’ll want to come out to see.

IM: What can we expect to see in terms of the obstacles?
BR: Every year we come up with a lot of new ones. One thing’s for sure: The Ninja athletes are so good that if we put them on the course last year, they’ve got it figured out for this year. So we always have to keep reinventing and tweaking and making things a little bit more difficult. So every year a third of the obstacles we introduce are brand new. They’re going to be several new ones on the course in Indianapolis, and we’ve done something really big with our warped wall this year that people are going to be excited to see.

IM: How do you manage to keep the obstacles fresh?
BR: We have a whole team that works on just that almost year-round. They’re just coming up with prototypes, which is sometimes literally drawing something on a napkin and then we draw it up in a 3-D model and then we build it up in a warehouse and test it out to see how it’s working. And then we build a full-size version on the course and we test that. It’s really kind of a whole business. We have an obstacle design challenge where we ask viewers to send in their idea, and it’s really been a big hit. Some of the ideas have come from kids. Actually, some of the best ideas we’ve had came from an 11-year-old kid.

IM: What do you look for when selecting contestants?
BR: We have a process toward the end of the year where we ask everyone to send in a submission tape. We get tens of thousands of submissions, and our casting department narrows that down to a few hundred that myself and the other executives sit down and watch. Sort of my whole spring is watching submission tapes along with the other executives. We pick about 100 people per city and try to select the most interesting.

IM: What’s the best part of producing for this show?
BR: The feedback that you get from both fans and competitors. I was once on a plane a couple years ago and I had my kids and I was sitting across the aisle from a mom and two kids and we just started talking. She asked, “What do you do?” and I said, “I work on a television show called American Ninja Warrior,” and she jumped up and was so excited, yelling at her husband, “Honey, he works on American Ninja Warrior!” She was just telling me about this show and what it means to them, and it’s the one show that the family watches together. It brings them that one time a week where they sit down together and do something as a family. She had tears in her eyes talking about that TV show. We get that kind of reaction a lot, especially from families, and people who are really invested in the show.