ABC's BattleBots is down to its fifth of six episodes Sunday, down to the semifinals of a tournament matching homemade remote-controlled armed and armored machines against one another in an enclosed arena.
So while the bots are battling in front of cheering fans to survive another week of competition for a $100,000 prize, series co-creator Greg Munson is keeping an eye on the ratings to see how his program will fare -- and whether ABC will pick it up for a second season.
"So far so good," Munson said this week. "When you're on network TV, you live and die by the ratings."
Last Sunday, BattleBots scored a 1.2 rating, an increase over the previous week, in Nielsen's adults 18-49 demographic. In comparison, CBS' Big Brother scored a season-high 2.1. As a network, ABC was No. 1 with adults 18-49. BattleBots' only slip was its third episode July 5 when it was matched against the FIFA Women's World Cup post-game show on FOX.
The very idea that BattleBots is relevant in network ratings makes Munson happy.
If you haven't seen an episodes of BattleBots, picture your Roomba, fitted with a circular saw, battling your lawnmower, retrofitted with a flamethrower. Then, imagine a lot more tech-science refinement with MIT alums and garage robo-mechanics making them combat-ready. They come in multiple designs -- Wedgers, Crushers, Spinners, etc. -- battling in a 48- by-48-foot square hazard-laden arena protected by 23-feet-tall Lexan bulletproof glass.
Munson became passionate about robot combat in 1994 at a Robot Wars event in San Francisco, entering his own bot called La Machine. The Robot Wars concept evolved into a U.K. version on BBC.
Munson was among those behind the version of BattleBots that had a 94-episode run on Comedy Central. When the cable network pulled the plug in 2002, citing its intention to return to its comedic roots, BattleBots went "underground" and lived on in memories of fighting-robot-building enthusiasts and viewers.
Munson and co-creator Trey Roski, his cousin, spent the following years making pitches to several networks, including the Discovery Channel and Syfy. Along the way, CBS College Sports did a college version and a BattleBots IQ program aimed at young builders was started.
In December, Munson and Roski caught a break.
Disney-owned ABC decided that it wanted to get in the BattleBot business. Robert Mills, ABC's senior vice president for Alternative Series, Specials and Late Night, told Fast Company that BattleBots "kept us at the edge of our seats capturing all of the savory tenets of great sports and reality competition ..."
"We got a lot of very positive responses," Munson said, "none as positive as ABC."
With ABC on the same page as Munson and Roski on the reimagined BattleBots concept, the network ordered six episodes with the caveat that they all be shot within 60 days. Munson and Roski scrambled 60 known builders, mostly from Northern California, and had them submit design applications. The show was shot in Vallejo, Calif.
"We were green-lit. Then we're right into production," Munson said. "Even post-production is less than five days. Putting these shows together is like South Park putting their shows together. In a week, you're done."
So what won over a network when cable networks passed?
"We wanted to portray it as the true sport that it is," Munson said. "Even back 13 years ago, when we're pitching it to networks and trying to get it back on the air, we wanted it to be simple. With four weight classes, it gets confusing. We really like the idea of following one weight class with a single champion hero at the end."
ABC also bought the idea of creating depth to the show, giving viewers a look at the pit area and some of the personalities among the robot builders. The Comedy Central version preferred comedic schtick. Munson appreciated Comedy Central, but he wanted the show get more on the "backstory of these robot builders."
Munson said the new BattleBots is getting good feedback.
"If we're back for season 2, we'll fine tune even more with more robots," he said. "We'll just keep elevating."