Weeknight Warriors on Tap for Spring, Summer

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While people are starting to think about getting fit and trim for the beach, the networks are doing the same with a batch of muscular extreme-fitness concepts in the offing. Reality has long been the tonic for the warmer months, but this year’s competition series—including NBC’s Strong, debuting April 13; Fox’s American Grit, April 14; and NBC’s Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge, set for summer—crank the testosterone up several notches.

A number of factors give extreme fitness competitions their moment in the sun, including an increasingly fitness-obsessed viewing public, and one that’s grown tired of reality that does not feel authentic. “I think what’s really compelling for people is, this is real,” says Corie Henson, Fox executive VP of alternative entertainment, about American Grit. “Shows like this, you can’t fake it.”

Make Like a Ninja

Fitness-themed competition series are not new; the category includes long-running The Biggest Loser on NBC, short-timer Capture on The CW, and SAS: Are You Tough Enough? on BBC. American Ninja Warrior debuts season 8 on NBC June 1, after concluding its 2015 run in September with a 2.0 rating in adults 18-49, up 11% from the 2014 finale. The newer competition series are a “direct, straight-up attempt to get in on American Ninja Warrior’s action,” says Paul Telegdy, NBC president, alternative and late-night programming.

American Grit, hosted by WWE star John Cena, pits 16 “of the country’s toughest men and women,” says Fox, facing military-and survival-themed challenges. “The most interesting thing about the series is, it’s not about who is the strongest,” says David George, executive producer, and Leftfield Entertainment CEO. “It’s who has the most resolve.”

Strong, hosted by Gabrielle Reece and produced by Sylvester Stallone, pairs 10 everyday women with 10 elite trainers for a variety of gut-busting challenges. Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge is based on the obstacle course races and is designed to “test [contestants’] determination, endurance and will.” Telegdy says the idea came after seeing an airport terminal full of people of all ages in Spartan T-shirts. “It’s different from wearing a Yankees hat,” he says. “These people actually went out and did it.”

Indeed, extreme sports are no longer the sole precinct of bros in tats and mohawks, with Spartan and Tough Mudder races and CrossFit classes appealing to a range of ages, and both genders. Mixed martial arts has moved beyond a violent niche thing, at least from a spectator perspective, to a violent mainstream thing. A new season of The Ultimate Fighter rolls on Fox Sports 1 April 20; Craig Piligian, CEO of Pilgrim Media Group, calls it “the ultimate tough-guy show.”

Pilgrim is readying another adrenaline-fueled competition series, The Runner, which sees a contestant aim to get from one end of the country to the other without being tracked down. “The Bourne Identity, James Bond, The Hunger Games—it’s all of that,” Piligian says.

While these shows are well suited for the summer, Fox’s Henson believes the right competition concept can fly in any season. “They’re physical and sexy and cut a different way than scripted,” she says. “They can be good year-round.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.