Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Ninja Warrior Effect / Goin' Gladiator

The latest television addiction for me and my wife is watching Hulk Hogan's American Gladiators which led me to think about how that show seemed to come back on the air. The following is my train of thought on it.

For any old timers like me, you may remember a program called Wide World of Sports that espoused "The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat." Now, in the days of mass media and multiple channels, the Wide World of Sports no longer exists because all the sports in the world can be seen in their entirety in a multitude of ways. And one of those ways has managed to cross over from cable networks to broadcast television: The obstacle course.

Spike TV was the cable network that started the trend. Even though ESPN ran some of this type of programming, it didn't catch hold of people's attention. Spike began with a program called MXC-Most Extreme Elimination Challenge which was an edited version of a show called Takeshi's Castle in Japan. MXC featured contestants as they went through tough physical obstacles like getting shot by soccer balls from an air gun while on a narrow rope bridge or swinging across a muddy pit to try to land on a raised platform. The program was dubbed into English by comedy writers and was kind of funny in a juvenile way with its renaming obstacles into "sinkers and floaters" or recaping the contestants biggest spills as "Kenny's eliminations". I was addicted to this show until it ran out of good footage of people getting crushed by plastic boulders. Yet, the popularity of the show set up Spike's next Japanese import-Ninja Warrior.

Ninja Warrior is a Japanese obstacle course show that has been around for over a decade and debuted on Spike a little over a year ago. It's a multi stage event with about four different courses of increasing difficulty. Unlike MXC, Ninja Warrior was not redubbed as a joke but into something easily digestible for American audiences while retaining the original intent of the show. Ninja Warrior, known as Sasuke in Japan, caught on with viewers and became Spike's best rated show. The show became successful to the point that recurring competitors, known as All Stars, began to grow an American fan base. I've even seen people become friends through their fandom of the show, which is a nice thing (some of whom are nice enough to post here :) But even with over 20 competitions to display the show eventually ran to reruns which begged the question - what if there was new programming of this type to show on a regular basis?

There is a general rule about tv programming I learned in college - if something is successful then copy it. Either your copy will be successful too or you will saturate the market with so much of the same thing that people will get tired of it and drag down the ratings of your once successful competitors. Usually cable networks don't set trends for network tv, but Spike seems to have made the exception to the rule. People want to see other people take hard hits while competing for prizes or pride. Because now there are three programs that closely mimic the ethos of the Spike programs.

ABC has Wipeout which follows the format of MXC. The program is as its title says, it's an obstacle course where the focus is on the big spills and flameouts that happen when you ask people to jump on fast spinning discs or dodge mechanized boxing gloves. Wipeout is hosted by two comedians and the tone is light with very little drama. The emphasis in on fun in the sun. It's not as fun as MXC, you can't get away with as much making fun of people who live in the same country as you (MXC goes into all kinds of sophomoric sexual innuendo that Wipeout can only hint at). But it's fine for what it is, a chance to watch people eat it on national television and look silly.

ABC also has I Survived A Japanese Game Show which combines the typical reality show format of a team of contestants who are eliminated weekly after challenges, teams, etc. It tries to capture the flighty fun of Japanese Game Shows but in attempting to make the whole thing understandable to a general audience it loses its charm. Most of the program seems to revolve around standard reality show drama of who likes whom, who has pacts and so on. Nice travelogue of Japan though.

NBC revived American Gladiators which I initially ignored because I thought it was lame to revive yet another franchise (like Bionic Woman or the upcoming Knight Rider it's weird to watch tv and see the same program titles I saw 20 years ago). But two weeks ago we were bored and so we flipped on Gladiators. To my surprise, they put in the money to expand on the classic show with bigger events (like the Thunderdome-ish Rocketball) added on to the good old stuff (Atlasphere!). Contestants run, fly, swim and dive around obstacles and opponents to score points against a WWE worthy set of Gladiators with great names like Justice and Phoenix. Maybe it's Hulk Hogan's presence, but both the Gladiators and contestants bark their promos like seasoned wrestlers. In fact, the much hyped Gladiator named Beast is ex WWE wrestler Matt Morgan.

There's competitive tension, big physical hits and athletic fun from watching American Gladiators. Plus, updated digital effects for the performers intros. I even enjoy it more than watching WWE Raw because the action is better and you get the same amount of trash talk. Of the three Spike influenced shows, Gladiators is the one I like the most as it has the advantage of being based on a classic format. As Hulk Hogan would say, whatcha gonna do when Gladiatormania runs wild on you!


Arsenette said...

Great subject! :p

Granted.. I didn't like American Gladiators then.. and I certainly don't like it now. I don't like the concept.. didn't like it then.. don't like it now :)

I haven't watched Wipeout nor do I want to with the advent of no possible elimination unless they give up (or did I read that wrong...). Kinda misses the point of an obstacle course.. ya know? :p It's like "Oh sweetie just do your best.. Mommy still loves you.." or my favorite.. "oh if you think it's right honey then it is.." .. makes me think of the education system passing kids that have no right going on to the next grade..

Haven't watched the Japanese game show thing.. again.. it loses it's charm. I saw a few minutes of it on YouTube and quickly turned it off.

I adore MXC with a passion. I can watch it for hours on end even if I saw it before. Has the stupid human tricks.. and gags that the Japanese are best known for.. plus the dub of sophomoric humor as you call it. It's completely unappologetic. I'd be tempted to actually see the original since even MUTED the show is funny!

I adore Sasuke.. always will. What's funny is that I started liking it more when the core group of All-stars were more vocal in their support for each other and the makeup of the contestants supporting each other changed. It's all about the people beating the course.. not each other. Which is a far cry from American Television where the survivor mentality is prevelent.

That said. There's much on TV to suit the tastes of everyone. So even if I don't like something there is someone that will. After all - variety is the spice of life!

P.S. I'm sure you know this.. but you do know the connection to Takeshi's Castle/Sasuke? Same producer and even in Sasuke 20.. "Kenny" from MXC (who is now Governor of the Prefecture Nagano is from) was taped cheering on Nagano).. The world is waaaaay small.

pamwax said...

I guess I don't have to tell you how I feel about Sasuke(Ninja Warrior). Your sweet wife has probably told you that.

The new Gladiators is OK...not my favorite...but OK. I don't like Survived a Japanese Game Show(sorry Mick). I am not fond of the shows that pit the contestants against each other in a way that brings out the uglyness of people.

MXC like Wipeout keep Neil and I laughing. Says something about us that we like to watch people get pummeled.

Mr. Mike said...

Hi Arsenette! I should clarify I like the sophomoric humor of MXC, particularly how they make one of the interviewers (I think his name is Gui) come off as a harmless pervert. I agree that one of the best parts of Sasuke is that it's about sportsmanship versus cutthroat competition.

Hi Pamwax! For me, the best part of Wipeout is the boxing gloves. It's something unique to that show and it's fun to watch people's face when they get popped.

Some Kinda Wonderful said...

You know that I adore Sasuke. I like MXC, but I usually miss it. Must get a DVR or something like. :) I like Wipeout okay, I don't agree with the "do over" thing there, but I guess on the "elimination" round it's part of the thing, having to go back and try over and over and over until you get it is part of the difficulty and testing your stamina. I would like it better if they just got tossed when they fell, tho. I like the Japanese Gameshow, thing, but only the parts where they are actually doing the games. I could do without that crap they show of them in the "house". Although I will say, the parts where they show about the culture and history is pretty cool. Like when they make the days loosers go work in some traditional Japanese job. Cause you learn something....

Mr. Mike said...

Hi Some Kinda Wonderful! I like the new picture with the nice hat! I thought Japanese Game Show had potential but the run of the mill Survivor lite format took away from it. Oh, a quick note, a DVR will change the way you watch tv. At least it did for us.