With the talent competition arena pretty saturated by Fox’s American Idol and The X Factor, NBC’s The Voice and America’s Got Talent, soon to be joined by ABC’s Rising Star, and the cooking broadcast market cornered by Gordon Ramsay, reality industry insiders have been tipping social experiments as the next hot unscripted genre. Now the man behind the most successful social experiment format to date, Big Brother creator John de Mol, is throwing his hat into the ring with his latest series, Utopia, in which 15 people set up their own new society. Like he does with most of his formats, which include global hit The Voice and Deal Or No Deal, de Mol launched Utopia in his native Holland, where the show premiered Monday night on SBS 6, part of SBS Broadcasting’s Dutch operations, in which de Mol’s Talpa Media has a 33% stake. The debut exceeded expectations, ranking as SBS 6’s highest-rated nonscripted premiere in six years. It won its time slot and pulled a 25.2% share in adults 18-49, improving the network’s market share in the time period by 500%, and drew almost 1.6 million overall viewers compared to SBS’ average viewership in the slot of 300,000. I hear at least one US network already has reached out to the Utopia producers, with Talpa Media USA’s chief creative officer Stijn Bakkers, executive producer of The Voice, and SVP Sadoux Kim expected to begin meeting with American broadcasters early next week about an U.S. version.
Social experiments formats have been heating up, with former Fox reality topper Mike Darnell also said to be shopping a series in that arena with Shed’s Twenty Twenty. In Utopia, 15 contestants leave their current lives to create their own ideal mini-society while being followed by hundreds of cameras. (Watch a trailer in Dutch below.) They will spend one year in a place where no rules or laws exist. All the participants — aka “inhabitants” — in the Dutch show have been given is an empty barn on an undeveloped piece of land just outside of Amsterdam, some cows and chickens, water and electricity connections, one phone and a sum of cash to create their environment and survive for the first few months. Like in Big Brother, the Utopia participants nominate fellow inhabitants for elimination in a process in which the viewers also vote to nominate a contestant for elimination. After the vote, three inhabitants land in the danger zone and two aspiring new contestants arrive. One of the two newcomers will quickly have to leave, but the one who gets to stay receives exceptional power; he or she decides which one of the three nominated inhabitants will definitively be eliminated. Also like with Big Brother, viewers can sign on to get full access to an exclusive 24/7 live stream from the show. In the Netherlands, nearly 100,000 people downloaded the show’s app after the first episode. “I am very proud of the extremely successful start of this huge and ambitious new project” said de Mol. “Utopia is a real 360 format that touches upon the atmosphere in current society and gives 15 so-called ‘inhabitants’ the chance to create a totally new ‘world’ on their own, while being followed – 24/7 live online – by hundreds of cameras.”
In the U.S., the highest-profile social experiment series besides Big Brother was CBS’ controversial 2007 program Kid Nation, which was in the vein of Utopia but with children trying to build a society in a deserted town.