Wipeout’s Matt Kunitz

Matt Kunitz, co-creator and showrunner of Wipeout, tells TV Formats about the “bigger, bolder, edgier” update and navigating the unscripted landscape today. 

On April 1, TBS in the U.S. will premiere the long-awaited Wipeout reboot. Upon its initial launch on ABC back in 2008, the obstacle-course format quickly blazed a trail across the globe, notching up local versions as well as a slew of tape sales on the U.S. edition. Off the air now for seven years, the show returns with new hosts in John Cena, Nicole Byer and Camille Kostek, a revamped obstacle course, a new pairs format—and, of course, a lot of wipeouts. Matt Kunitz co-created Wipeout and serves as showrunner of the TBS reboot. He tells TV Formats about the “bigger, bolder, edgier” update—which is produced by Endemol Shine North America and distributed by Banijay Rights—and navigating the unscripted landscape today.

TV FORMATS: Take us back to the beginning; what inspired you to create Wipeout?
KUNITZ: I was the executive producer on Fear Factor, which had just come to an end. One of the things I loved about Fear Factor was the big physical side of it. But whenever people talked about Fear Factor, all they ever talked about was the gross! Scott Larsen, co-creator of Wipeout, and I spoke and said, Is there a way we can come up with a show that has all the fun of Fear Factor, without the gross? From that conversation, Wipeout was born.

TV FORMATS: When did the discussions start to bring it back, and how did it land at TBS?
KUNITZ: Corie Henson, the head of TBS’s reality division, was at ABC when we did Wipeout. When she got her new role at TBS, they told her they wanted a big new tentpole show. Corie started a conversation with Sharon Levy at Endemol Shine and me about what it would take to bring the show back—how we make it bigger, bolder, edgier. We were excited because one, I love Corie and I know she loves the show, so I knew this was a franchise she was going to take care of. We could have gone to another network that didn’t understand it and they could have destroyed the franchise. But I knew we were in very good hands with Corie. Also, TBS is known for comedy, so it felt like a great place for the show. It all came together pretty easily.

TV FORMATS: What are some of the new elements in the reboot?
KUNITZ: One of the biggest things we did was bring in some major star power with John Cena, Nicole Byer and Camille Kostek. They bring to the table a tremendous comedy background that elevates the show. It’s loud. And each of them brings their own unique audience to the table. John’s fans started with WWE and now he’s a big movie star. They are not necessarily the same fans that are watching Nailed It! with Nicole Byer. Camille is a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, she’s hosted other shows and she was a cheerleader. A Nicole Byer fan may not have been a John Cena fan, but after the first episode, I’m confident those Nailed It! fans are going to become John Cena fans and the John Cena fans are going to become Nicole Byer fans. Their chemistry is fantastic. When we were in discussions about them coming on board, they each said, How do you want me to be? I said, I want you to be you. I don’t want you to come on and pretend to be host, to be host-y, host-y, “Welcome to Wipeout!” I want you to be your natural personality. There’s something very special about each of them. I wanted that to be able to shine on the show. We didn’t do a chemistry test, so there was a risk of, What if they don’t get along? We had John and Nicole meet before their first day on set. They clicked. By the time they came to set, it was like they were work husband and wife. They had a love/hate bickering relationship, which is funny. Nicole is constantly teasing John, who looks at her with those puppy dog eyes. We’re trying to make room in the show for that natural banter, just to let them be themselves. We try not to script it as much as possible, and it’s working.

TV FORMATS: I imagine they all wanted to try the obstacle course!
KUNITZ: I think everyone has this false sense of, I can do that! But when you get out there, you realize it’s hard! That water is cold! That fantasy of, wouldn’t I do great on that course, quickly evaporates. It’s a real obstacle course. Sure, it’s hilarious to watch people run through it, but I’ve had opportunities to test it before and have said, No, thank you. I know if I try it, I’m going to wipe out—the course is designed for wiping out—and I’m going to get ridiculed by my entire crew. I try to avoid that!

TV FORMATS: Did you update the obstacle course for the reboot?
KUNITZ: TBS wanted it to be a little more athletic than it was in the past. So we worked on a balance between athleticism and humor. They wanted decision points, so on many of the obstacles, the contestants have to make choices: this route or that route. You don’t get to sit and watch previous people run the course. You have to look at the course and think, if I go to the left, I’m going to get hit by three sweeper bars; if I go to the right, there are only two sweeper bars, but I have to leap over those podiums. What’s going to be easier? Those choices make it more of a competitive show. We also wanted a bigger focus on the contestants. We’ve done that in two ways. One is we’re doing all pairs. If you’re out there running the course by yourself, you’re not talking that much. You’re just trying to power through the course. If you’re out there with your mother and she’s screaming at you, you’re communicating and that communication helps the audience get to know you. Those pairs can be husband and wife, father-daughter, work partners; we have the whole range. The other thing we’ve done to get to know the contestants better is, in addition to having Camille do interviews, we’re doing packages on them.

For me, with reality casting, it’s always been [to find people who are] super relatable, so you can live vicariously through them when you’re watching the show. You don’t have to be a super athlete to be on this show. That’s what sets us aside from many of the other competition reality shows. The people who come on maybe didn’t train that much, but that’s what makes it fun. It’s the world’s largest obstacle course, designed for people who probably shouldn’t be on an obstacle course!

TV FORMATS: What has it been like producing during Covid-19?
KUNITZ: We were the largest television show to be producing during Covid. We had 300 people on our crew. We are entirely outside, which is a huge benefit. It takes months to build the course. We went into it with Covid professionals and experts to work out how to do this safely. That’s everything from social distancing to wearing masks the whole time, keeping track of who is around so if there ever were a case, we would be able to quickly trace and separate those people, so they’re not able to spread it. And obviously a very robust testing regime for the crew and cast. We did an amazing job, given we had so many people—300 a day for almost six months. We had a few cases that popped up after Thanksgiving when it was sort of expected, but there was no spread—we were able to identify them immediately and then remove those people from the set.

Wipeout is a big escape show, so we don’t want people watching it and thinking about Covid. We don’t talk about Covid. You don’t see people in masks. It’s a non-issue when you’re watching the show. That’s a testament to everything we had to do behind the scenes to make it safe for everyone to be on the show.

TV FORMATS: Wipeout was a big seller internationally when it first came out. How did the international versions differ from yours?
KUNITZ: In the earlier days, we set up a home base in Argentina. Over 40 countries came to do their own versions. It was interesting to see how they did it differently from us. Yes, they were on the same course. Yes, they were running the same obstacles. But to be honest, I think we did it better! A lot of it has to do with the budgets. A lot of other countries would send fewer contestants because that would save money, and they would show the full run of the contestants. That’s something we generally don’t ever do. When we do our first part of the course, the qualifier, we do montages. We only show the best moments of each contestant running that course. That keeps it fast, it keeps the pace going, it keeps the comedy going, and the viewer never gets bored. Some of the foreign versions played slower because they would show whole runs. Having said that, different countries have different ways of watching television. That might work in that market. I prefer to keep it fast-paced and keep it moving. You’ll never get bored watching the U.S. version of Wipeout.

TV FORMATS: It was a show known for attracting a co-viewing audience. Has that element been retained for the new version on TBS?
KUNITZ: That was a huge goal for me and TBS. We want families to watch it together. Having said that, TBS is edgier than ABC. When we do get edgy, those jokes will go over the head of the 8-year-old you’re watching with. And the adults will get that humor. Nicole Byer has a blue side. We flirt with that. You’ll hear us bleeping our hosts, which is something you don’t usually hear!

Ten years ago, a police officer had come on set. I walked up and said hello. He said to me, this is the only show on television that I can watch with my 16-year-old daughter and it brings us together as a family. It was a huge moment for me. I realized this goofy, silly, fun show is actually doing some good in bringing families together. I’ve heard that over and over again. Something about people falling down is just universal. Kids love it; adults love it.

TV FORMATS: What are some of the biggest shifts you’ve witnessed in reality television over the last few years?
KUNITZ: The biggest shift is where you find the viewers. Back in the day, it would not be unheard of for us to get an 8.0 in the demo. Today, 1.4 is considered a success! We used to have 18 million people tune in on a single night to watch a show. Those numbers don’t happen anymore. But we’re still finding the viewers—through social media, streaming, video on demand. That’s different for us. When you’re editing these shows, you’d have the traditional thought of saying, We’ll be right back after the commercial. Now, most people aren’t watching that commercial because they’re streaming the show, they’re watching clips on Facebook, it’s on-demand. So we tweaked the language there. We’re aware that our audience is coming from many different places. You may not have 18 million people tune in on the first night, but we’ll still get those numbers—it’ll just be spread out over a couple of weeks. I like that we’re able to find people however they watch TV. My kids are teenagers and they have no idea what network television is. They watch all the shows, but they’re streaming them. They don’t understand the idea of, a show is on at 8 p.m. Monday night. That is completely foreign to them. These are the viewers of the future. I learn from them.