December 2019

Ninja Warrior: the Japanese format proving a hit across the globe


“The success of Sasuke/Ninja Warrior lies in its creativity, originality and uniqueness.” 

Finding a TV format that works across international borders is tough, but despite initial scepticism from foreign TV executives, Japanese media company TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System Television, Inc.) has developed a winning formula, as Makito Sugiyama, Senior Expert / International Business Center, explains.



TBS is one of the biggest TV format producers in Asia. How many formats do you produce?

Makito Sugiyama: TBS is one of Asia’s most successful content exporters. Tens of thousands of episodes from more than 1,000 TBS titles have been distributed to countries and territories
around the world. Our long-running global hits include Sasuke/Ninja Warrior, America’s Funniest Home Videos (the UK’s You’ve Been Framed), Takeshi’s Castle, Happy Family Plan (the UK’sThe Moment of Truth) and Waku Waku Animalland. Sasuke/Ninja Warrior is one of the biggest hits and has been broadcast in 165 countries, spawning local productions in 25 countries, including the US version American Ninja Warrior, with more to come.

How do you explain the success of Sakuke/Ninja Warrior?

MS: In short, its success lies in its creativity, originality and uniqueness. Many reality formats in the West are based on competition; you win or you lose. Ninja Warrior is an obstacle-based physical entertainment with contestants trying to ‘conquer’ a monstrous obstacle course rather than beat other contestants. It’s about how contestants tackle difficulties and hardships. Like life itself. In the Japanese show, only four contestants have conquered the course out of almost 4,000 who have tried.

Foreign TV executives said it wouldn’t work in the West, but the fact that there was rarely a winner has excited viewers. It is family entertainment and popular with all generations. It also has a strong presence on social media. Along with the official websites for each country’s version, there are countless fan and community sites which have created a buzz about the show.

Sponsors recognise its value and Ninja Warrior has tied up with global brands such as Toyota, Jeep, Lego, Target, Reebok, Subway and Hollywood films to name just a few. TBS has also been actively registering, managing and protecting the trademark internationally. This has enabled successful merchandising, tie-ups, publications and innovative commercialisation including the launch of family entertainment centres where visitors can tackle obstacles modelled on the Ninja Warrior course. Three have been launched in the UK in collaboration with ITV, the broadcaster of Ninja Warrior UK, and four facilities opened in Israel in the summer of 2019. In the US, NBC Universal released American Ninja Warrior Challenge, a video game for the three major game consoles, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch.

What are the programme trends coming from Japan?

MS: “Edutainment” (education and entertainment) programmes and content which focuses on Japan occupy a lot of time slots across Japanese TV stations. The latter is probably because the government is focusing on in-bound and out-bound policies (tourism, industries, imports/exports, etc.) ahead of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. There are some major differences between foreign and Japanese formats – foreign formats are usually structured around one thing, singing or cooking for example.
This was popular in Japan about 20 years ago – it doesn’t mean that we are ahead of the rest, just that we move in different cycles. Japanese viewers are very picky and have got tired of the format regardless of how successful it may be elsewhere.

Download all the interview


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