When “The Titan Games” premieres Thursday on NBC, it will mark more than yet another addition to the Dwayne Johnson oeuvre. The athletic competition series — which features the erstwhile Rock as exec producer and host — is a central piece of an evolving unscripted strategy at television’s reigning top-rated network.
That strategy was front and center last May at the NBCUniversal upfront presentation, where the Peacock touted a midseason lineup leaning heavily into shows like “The Titan Games,” “Ellen’s Game of Games” and an all-star edition of “America’s Got Talent.” The value that NBC is placing on unscripted — its music competition “The Voice” remains TV’s most watched reality program — was evident in September, when longtime alternative programming boss Paul Telegdy was elevated to co-chair, NBC Entertainment. Meredith Ahr, a veteran unscripted exec who had led NBC’s charge to launch a reality studio, was promoted in November to president of NBC’s alternative and reality group.
The production unit that Ahr continues to lead, Universal Television Alternative Studio, is responsible for “The Titan Games” and is more central than ever to NBC’s programming plans.
“On the studio side, it is incredibly important for us to work with talent both in front of and behind the camera who are at the top of their game,” says Ahr.
NBC launched UTAS in 2016 under Ahr’s supervision. The move was part of a larger shift toward vertical integration in entertainment programming, as networks increasingly emphasize ownership of their shows. Among the first offerings from the studio were series such as “World of Dance” and “The Wall.”
“The Titan Games” is the most high-profile program to emerge thus far from the studio. Developed with Dwayne Johnson and Dany Garcia’s Seven Bucks and Arthur Smith’s A. Smith & Co.— — the production shingle behind another NBC athletic-competition series, “American Ninja Warrior” — the show features athletes competing in feats of strength and skill.
“Basically the show is a platform for everyday people to become superheroes,” says Smith.
In tailoring the show to Johnson, much of the competitions turned out to be based on strength rather than other athletic skills, though. “And unlike ‘Ninja,’ which is man versus course, this is person versus person,” Smith continues.
For NBC, the premiere Thursday night is just the beginning. Ahr is eyeing a worldwide footprint for the show, which she hopes will become a global format. UTAS is currently building a new hub, planning to shoot new iterations of the show for foreign markets.
“We knew “The Titans Games” would be a global format because all of the stories are relatable and universal,” Ahr says. “It’s a response to these crazy times where so many people feel out of control. The competitors take care of themselves while overcoming incredible odds in their everyday lives. All over the world, people want to gather with their family and friends and be inspired together.”