Fox is hoping to shake up the reality landscape when the massive social experiment series Utopia premieres this weekend.
The series challenges 15 people to build their own society over a year on a five-acre property in Southern California with no heat, plumbing or electricity. Part soap opera, part social experiment, Utopia is rooted in questions of governance, morality and political accountability likely on the minds of many Americans in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis.
Utopia‘s three-night premiere begins airing on Sunday, September 7. Subsequent episodes will air on Tuesdays and Fridays at 8 p.m. EST/PST, beginning on September 9 and 12. The season is due to last a year.
Despite its scope – 126 cameras, 150 production crew members, 288 hours of footage generated per day – Utopia is a relatively untested format and a risky proposition for the network and reality TV chief Simon Andreae, who joined Fox as VP of alternative entertainment last year from Discovery Channel following the departure of Mike Darnell.
The series (pictured) debuted on Dutch network SBS6 on January 6 and less than two weeks later Fox had inked a deal with format creator John De Mol’s Amsterdam-based prodco Talpa (Big Brother, The Voice) to produce an American version.
The network was already developing a large-scale social experiment involving people dropped in a remote location, so when Andreae heard about the show three days in to the Dutch run he snapped up the U.S. rights.
American execs typically want ratings, tape and a sense of how the story arc might evolve buying in but Andreae loved the concept and trusted De Mol’s track record.
“It’s very unusual to get shows that are sophisticated, meaningful and worthwhile, while at the same time a really juicy human-interest show,” explains Andreae, who then phoned then-chairman Kevin Reilly and Fox Networks Group chairman and CEO Peter Rice to get them on board.
“Clearly if we were going to make an investment in it, we needed to do it fast and it needed to be a significant investment,” he continues. “They both got it straight away.”
Initially, Talpa was set on shopping the format around to U.S. networks so Andreae flew to the Netherlands and pitched De Mol on Fox in person.
“We thrashed out the creative options for the American version and the basic deal terms. A couple of days later I flew back and we closed the deal,” he says, adding that Fox’s initial order exceeds three months. “It’s not a format that has been widely programmed in a bunch of different territories, but I still think it’s the biggest, simplest, boldest, most imaginative, most forward-thinking piece of unscripted IP that’s been on the market in the last year or two.”
The Dutch version is still airing in Holland and Talpa has also sold the format to ProSiebenSat.1 in Germany, TV8 in Turkey and Prima TV in Romania. The Fox version will also air in Canada on CityTV.
Although success or failure of Fox’s Utopia could impact Talpa’s international sales, Dutch producers believe the U.S. version will be less of a blueprint for international buyers than the American productions of The Voice or Big Brother were because the diversity of the cast is unique to the U.S.
“The U.S. market is very rich in terms of characters, personalities and contradictions,” says Maarten Meijis, managing director for Talpa Global. “I think the Dutch market and a few others are less diverse in a way. Guns, for example, aren’t allowed in Holland so that’s not even a point of discussion, but it could be in the U.S. market.”
Fox has been playing up these contradictions in the marketing for Utopia all summer. Teasers feature casting interviews zero in on dichotomies in the left-right political spectrum around issues such as sex, religion and crime and punishment.
On August 20, the network revealed its cast of “pioneers,” which includes a naked yoga enthusiast, a pregnant woman, a self-proclaimed born-again virgin and raw vegan, a pastor and a polyamorous motion capture artist.
Utopia requires more from its cast than many reality programs. From a pool of nearly 5,000 applicants, producers looked for people with practical skills – such as a contractor, a veterinarian and a horticulturalist – who represented a diverse range of ages and backgrounds, and have strong ideological stances on social issues.
By the summer, Fox and Talpa whittled the pool down to 30. “To fit that whole Rubik’s cube together was probably the single-most complex task,” says Andreae, who adds producers intend to take a hands-off approach to the drama in contrast to reality programs that opt for a more constructed approach.
The cast must figure out how to live off the land, grow vegetables and raise livestock with $10,000 to spend over a year so the commitment is greater than on Big Brother, in which all comforts are provided and there’s a $500,000 prize incentive.
The Dutch Utopia airs five times a week. Fox will air the show twice a week and then once per week after the first month – although the frequency can increase if ratings do – so the episodes will be fast paced. As such, Andreae says the cast is “louder” and “more extreme” than the Dutch cast.
“In the Dutch version, where you have more minutes of television, debates can simmer,” says Andreae. “Ours need to boil.”
Andreae devised a list of six tweaks when he first offered on the show. One was the weather. The Dutch show is seasonal so the cast must deal with winter weather whereas the American Utopia is in located in the more temperate climes of California so it resembles the kind of paradise viewers might associate with the show’s title.
The American version will be less integrated with the outside world than the Dutch version. Viewers can apply for “passports” to visit the set and do business and exchange goods with the cast and throughout the year family members and loved ones can visit.
Utopia is not a competition but each month the cast can kick out pioneers that are not pulling their weight. They will nominate two or three people to banish. Concurrently, two viewers will be invited to “audition” as replacements and then a combination of the cast and viewers will vote on who stays and who goes.
The format also has an online component that gives viewers live access to the world 24/7 for free or through premium paid subscriptions. The live feeds began on August 29 and viewers can pay $4.99 per month to watch premium ad-free feeds via four HD streams or access two HD streams with advertising for free. All users will be able to vote for which cast members leave and join the series.
Andreae would not discuss Utopia‘s budget – rumored to be in the tens of millions – except to say Fox’s upfront investment was “significant.” “In success as the show continues through the year the cost per hour comes down unlike most shows,” he says. “The more you do, the cheaper it gets.”
Since joining Fox in October, Andreae has set out to broaden the network’s reality slate, which includes long-running franchises American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, Hell’s Kitchen and MasterChef. Production has begun on Boom!, a game show based on a Keshet International format and Andreae is looking to buy two or three more shows in coming months.
In May, Kevin Reilly left the company and was later replaced by co-chairs Dana Walden and Gary Newman who have been going over Fox’s development strategy.
“Yes, we are looking to take big swings and big risks but measured risks. It’s not like throwing darts with a blindfold on,” says Andreae.”In the back of all our minds was to broaden the palette a bit. One has a tremendous opportunity in this position to make television that isn’t just mental chewing gum but is really about something. A lot of the best shows are about something and Utopia‘s absolutely about something. It’s about all the fundamental principles of our society and any society.”
Watch the trailer for the show below: