Fox is betting big bucks and a big chunk of its fall schedule on “Utopia,” an elaborate reality series that challenges 15 participants to build their own mini-society over a year’s time on a secluded five-acre site in Santa Clarita, Calif.
Fox aims to run “Utopia” for a full year, kicking off with a three-night premiere that starts Sept. 7 and episodes airing twice a week for several weeks thereafter. Beyond that, there’s an elaborate live-streaming service offering a 24/7 look at the goings on in the compound, including an no-holds-barred paid service.
“Utopia” would be a big gamble for any network, but it comes to Fox at a time of big transition for the network. Kevin Reilly, the exec who championed the project, exited his post as Fox Broadcasting chairman in June. The subsequent restructuring has brought in a new exec team — entertainment prez David Madden and Fox TV Group chairman-CEOs Dana Walden and Gary Newman — who are inheriting Reilly’s 2014-15 slate.
Moreover, “Utopia” is the first big swing to come from Simon Andreae, who joined the network as exec VP of alternative programming last October. The series is the brainchild of John de Mol, the creator of “Big Brother” and topper of Talpa TV. The Dutch version of “Utopia” became a hit when it premiered in January.
Amid anecdotal signs that buzz on the series is low, Fox lifted the veil on the “Utopia” compound for journos on Thursday. A group of reporters were bused to the site from the Fox lot and allowed to roam around the grounds to get a sense of the production’s scope.
There’s no doubt that Fox has sunk major bucks and resources into creating the camera-filled site that takes the “Big Brother” concept to a new level with its expansive exteriors. A source close to the situation said that Fox’s internal tracking shows awareness and intent-to-view levels on “Utopia” are higher than usual for an unscripted show in the weeks prior to launch.
Also, “Utopia” hasn’t had much beyond the most generic of marketing efforts until last week because producers wanted to ensure that the 15 participants were sequestered at a hotel before the promo campaign began. Producers are determined to make sure the 15 people do not cross paths until they enter the “Utopia” site.
The 15 “Utopians” are set to move in on Aug. 29, when the live-streaming feed on UtopiaTV.com begins. Viewers can either watch 20 minutes a day for free or an unlimited feed for $4.99 a month.
“We’re trying to make this a sandbox for them to play in,” said “Utopia” exec producer Conrad Green, who spent the past eight years exec producing ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.”
Purpose built for the production, the “Utopia” compound is outfitted with a self-filtering lake, one pre-set housing structure for Utopia’s citizens, and a barn – currently the home of two dairy cows and twelve chickens that will become the responsibility of the society. There is no electricity, no water and no plumbing.
With the help of 129 robotic cameras the team will capture approximately 288 hours of film a day from the goings-on behind the gates of Utopia. The production will also boast an around-the-clock post-production team, monitoring the cameras, logging footage, editing and developing story for broadcast. No crew members will be present on the property itself — barring emergencies or necessary camera repairs — in an effort to create what Green calls “naturalistic storytelling.”
Producers could not comment on the cost of creating the vast setting, including on-site production, though Green noted that landscaping cost alone for the property was “not insignificant.”
The show is counting on following the 15 participants for a year as they strive to develop and manage a new society and integrate it with the outside world without leaving the property.
“The hope is that all of these people have the potential to be here a year,” Green assured reporters. There is no grand prize or winner at the end of the series, posing the question of what exactly is the draw for viewers to tune-in twice a week.
Producers are hoping that viewers will find something relatable in watching how the Utopians learn to survive. “You see what people can actually achieve in a realistic way,” said Green, “this should be about things we can achieve ourselves.”
The citizens will start off their year with a sum of money, somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000, and will have to decide how to spend it, develop their own economy and build onto the existing structures at the compound should they desire. They are allowed a bag when they move in, though are barred from bringing any electronics or entertainment reading beyond the Bible or certain instruction manuals, and will have minimal communication with the production team to facilitate their function as a society.
They have even been given fish and wildlife training, though every decision the society makes will have to comply with California law.
“What’s interesting is what people’s priorities are,” Green added of the cast’s potential to co-exist. “We tried to find people who reflected everything,” he said. Individuals moving into Utopia include a pastor, a general contractor, a professional belly dancer, an ex-con and Amanda, a pregnant women, due to deliver in December.
Exec producer Jon Kroll commented that in casting for the series, producers believed the pregnancy “could be a really fascinating aspect if we can overcome the many hurdles.” According to Kroll, Amanda has worked with the show to protect her health, though she plans to keep the pregnancy a secret for as long as she can while in Utopia.
Of course, the team has set in place contingencies upon contingencies in the case of various hazards to the society. Plans have been made in case of wildfires, wild animal encounters, medical emergencies and more, as well as established partnerships with local law enforcement and emergency services.
“It is a TV show — it’s not our desire to get anyone hurt,” Kroll said in explaining the structure set up for the production, which also includes one of the exec producers being on call at any given time and a PA system for production staff to alert the Utopians of any danger.
Should the extreme conditions become too much for any of the cast, they are free to leave at any moment – though they are not allowed to return. New participants will come to take their place.
“No one’s imprisoned here,” said Green. “It isn’t meant to be like a goldfish bowl where they’re completely isolated – we want it to feel like the real world but also something special.”
Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.
(Pictured: Conrad Green, far right, speaking to journalists at Thursday’s press preview)