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What's the appeal of Australian Ninja Warrior?


There’ll be some pretty happy executives at Channel Nine this week given the extraordinary ratings success of its new obstacle course competition show, Australian Ninja Warrior.

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Sunday’s premiere drew 1.68 million viewers in the five major metro markets and 2.3 million across the whole nation, making the show the highest-rating non-sports program of the year. In fact, as David Knox pointed out on his blog TV Tonight, it’s the biggest series launch in five years, excluding sport and mini-series.

So far, the figures are holding: last night Ninja was again the top-rating program across all Australia’s major metropolitan cities  (in Adelaide it was watched by 110,000, with only Seven News drawing more viewers).

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the show owes as great a debt to the world of sport and the style of TV developed for sports broadcasts as it does to traditional reality competition. Its contestants are the paragon of physical fitness and the show focuses on their athletic prowess.

Australian Ninja Warrior had every advantage going for it: the perfect time-slot for a launch on a network that’s achieving consistent ratings results, a strong brand recognition from the franchise’s international versions, and athletes that lend the show a certain degree of, um, aesthetic appeal.

But the result would still come as a very pleasant surprise for all at Nine, beating out this year’s biggest rating show so far, Seven’s juggernaut My Kitchen Rules. It’s a rare result in an age when broadcast TV has suffered a hit from streaming services.

As with all reality TV, the program relies on compelling individuals, and the audience’s ability to invest in their “journey”. It doesn’t waste too much time on the contestants’ backstories, but it uses all the regular cliches — everyday Australians defying the odds, women seeking to prove that they can be as competitive as the men, returned servicemen showing their physical power, and even a contestant with a disability who gets saddled with the “inspiring” label.

Then there are those who dress up for the occasion — the first two episodes featured a part-time male stripper dressed as Deadpool, a woman in bunny ears, a man dressed as Tarzan, and two farmers dressed as, well, farmers.

The big test the show now faces is to see if it can hold onto its audience in the coming weeks, but given the social media response to the first two episodes, and the fact that it held onto 1.6 million metro viewers for its second episode, it seems fair to say that Australian audiences liked what they saw.

The Ninja Warrior franchise, which started with the Japanese show Sasuke, is an extraordinarily simple format: a group of incredibly fit amateur and professional athletes pit themselves against a near-impossible four to six-part obstacle course.

All the athletes — regardless of gender or body type — compete on exactly the same course, which is set up in such a way that you can make a fairly safe bet that a shorter athlete won’t make it to the end.

Most fail at some point, but they’re all competing to move up through more difficult courses and test themselves against Mount Midoriyama — essentially a super-difficult vertical obstacle course that’s rarely ever been beaten in international competitions.

It’s surprisingly engrossing to watch competitors come up against the same four to six obstacles, over and over again, for 80 minutes worth of TV. It has to be said that the format doesn’t really offer a lot of potential for evolution, so it will be interesting to see if the show can retain an audience into the future.

But sometimes the simplest of competitions make for the most compelling television. Millions upon millions of viewers around the world tune in every year to watch Olympic events as simple as a 100m sprint or 100m freestyle.

If Australian Ninja Warrior has a problem it’s that it’s all a little bit too earnest. When you have competitors dressed up as Tarzan, a bunny and Deadpool, in a competition actually called Australian Ninja Warrior, you need a little bit of lightness coming from the commentary box.

As it currently stands, hosts Ben Fordham and Rebecca Maddern are charming enough in narrating the competition, but don’t lend much personality to the action. Some of their commentary is incredibly banal: “Aww, his wife’s in tears — but she still loves him!”

But the human struggle exhibited as these extraordinarily strong and agile competitors face the toughest obstacle imaginable is more than enough to make this compelling TV. Whether it will be able to hold its audience’s attention for too long into the future remains to be seen.

This article was first published on The Daily Review.

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