UPDATED: In a competitive situation, Fox has picked up Utopia, a new social experiment reality series from Big Brother creator John de Mol and his Talpa Media US. The project is based on a format by de Mol that successfully launched in the Netherlands earlier this month, sparking a lot of interest among U.S. networks. It marks the first series greenlighted by Fox’s new head of alternative Simon Andreae. The show is eyed for a summer launch but that has not been set in stone and will depend on how quickly the network and de Mol select a location and a cast.
Utopia will feature a group of 15 everyday people whisked to an isolated, undeveloped location in the U.S. – for an entire year – and challenges them to create their own civilization. Like the original, the series is envisioned to last a year but its length will depend on what happens in Utopia. “One of the key things we liked about the idea is that is very bold and open,” Andreae said. “They have the opportunity to create a society, and we don’t know to what degree they will succeed — will it be harmonious, or will there be a revolution or another event that will put an end to it?” Like on Big Brother, there will be eliminations. As the Utopians build the new society, each contestant must try to become indispensable to the group or risk being exiled to their regular lives and replaced by potential newcomers. (The original series has new participants joining at part of the elimination process, but it has not been determined whether the Fox version will feature that.) Cameras will follow the pioneers 24/7, with their efforts chronicled weekly on Fox and also online (and possibly on cable). The online component of the original series has been very successful, something the producers will try to replicate in the U.S.
Social experiment is probably the hottest unscripted arena at the moment, with a number of projects in the works. I hear NBC has been developing internally a big project involving 21st century missionaries establishing a colony in a remote location, likely an island. And former Fox reality chief Mike Darnell, who now heads alternative for Warner Bros TV, too has been shopping projects in that genre. This marks the first big move for Darnell’s successor at Fox, Andreae. Both ABC and Fox have been aggressive under their new reality toppers. I hear Fox bought Utopia pre-emptively, and ABC recently outbid other networks for the Israeli interactive singing competition Rising Star. Rising Star and Utopia were the most talked-about unscripted formats at MIPCOM last fall. In the U.S., the highest-profile social experiment series besides Big Brother was probably 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.
Despite both being social experiments, Big Brother and Utopia have very little in common, says Utopia executive producer de Mol, who also is behind hits The Voice and Deal Or No Deal. “Utopia is a positive and constructive program that gives people the opportunity, if you can start all over again, start from scratch and create laws and make decisions, will you be able to build a society that is better than the one we have; will it be chaos or happiness,” he said. “Big Brother is a competition among 12 people who don’t have the worry about money, their fridge is always full, it’s a totally different setup.” He also noted that the cast members on Utopia, which requires a lot of skills, tend to be more upscale.
Utopia debuted on Holland’s SBS6 — part of SBS Broadcasting’s Dutch operations in which de Mol’s Talpa Media has a 33% stake — as the network’s highest-rated unscripted premiere in six years. It remained the No. 1 series in its time period (Monday-Friday) for 10 consecutive nights. (The ratings have since slipped after the strong start.) So far things on the show have been peaceful, with no bloodshed (sans one bumped head), with the contestants mostly deliberating on what kind of Utopia to build and how to make decisions (unanimously, via majority), de Mol said.