Utopia: Fox's Big-Budget Reality TV Disaster

The story behind Fox’s big-budget reality TV disaster

Illustration by Justin Metz

During the premiere of Fox’s reality series Utopia, the host, a mustachioed man who has the sly air of a children’s magician, divulges the ambitious premise. For the next year, he explains, 15 participants will be living together, “building a new society from scratch,” on a ranch in the wilds of Southern California, with little more than a barn house, some livestock, and five acres of fertile soil. There will be no artificial challenges, he says, and no prizes. Instead, the show’s “pioneers” will be conducting “the biggest social experiment ever televised,” a clinical field study in self-governance captured on 130 covert robotic cameras, live-streamed to the Internet, and broadcast on Fox in near-real time. “Who knows what the future will hold,” he intones, “as this newborn society stumbles to life.”

One month later, the only thing that’s come true from that grandiose intro is the part about stumbling. The show’s first episode, which aired on Sept. 7 in a desirable time slot following an NFL game, averaged a mediocre 4.6 million viewers, according to Nielsen. This despite a heavy marketing push, including commercials that ran throughout the summer and a social media blitz. (At the time of the premiere, Laurel Bernard, Fox’s executive vice president for marketing, said 25 to 30 people at the network were working on the marketing alone.) Two nights later, the audience for the second episode fell to 2.4 million. Viewership has continued to drop. “That’s a formula for a quick cancellation,” says Patrick Keane, a media analyst and executive, now president of native-advertising company Sharethrough. “In broadcast television, it’s impossible to have patience.”

Part of the appeal of reality TV, from a network’s perspective, is that it’s typically cheap to make and, if it fails, cheap to abandon. A recent Jefferies report found that, on average, reality TV costs $10,000 per minute to produce, vs. $50,000 per minute for scripted programming. The format of Utopia, however, required producers not only to build an entire sustainable community outfitted with reams of state-of-the-art surveillance equipment but also to keep the whole shebang going for a year on TV and on the Web. Various press reports have pegged the initial price tag of the series at about $50 million. Fox declined to comment.

The Utopia debacle began in 2013 when Mike Darnell, the longtime head of Fox’s reality programming, announced he was stepping down. The network replaced him with Simon Andreae, a British TV executive known on both sides of the Atlantic for cranking out an endless parade of titillating pop-science shows such as My Breasts Could Kill Me, Forbidden Love: Geisha, and The Science of Sex Appeal. Not long after joining Fox, Andreae heard a pitch for Utopia, the brainchild of Dutch media mogul John de Mol, the creator of some of the most lucrative reality series in history, including Big Brother and The Voice. A European version of Utopia was already airing in the Netherlands and doing well. Andreae flew there and snapped up the American rights before any rivals could even bid.

For much of the past decade, Fox had coasted along near the top of the TV dog pile, largely based on the reliable strength of its live sports programming and the American Idol juggernaut. But in recent years, interest in Idol has waned—the average audience per episode dropped from a peak of 30.2 million viewers during the 2005-06 season to 13.2 million in 2012-13, according to Horizon Media—and Fox has struggled to find a replacement hit. Along the way, the network has rolled out several lackluster reality shows, including this summer’s disastrous I Wanna Marry Harry, in which a Prince Harry impersonator tricked women into falling in love with him. It was quickly canceled. In February the network also pulled the plug on its alternate singing competition series, The X Factor, following several seasons of dwindling ratings. In May, Fox finished last in total viewers among the big four broadcast networks. After premiere week this September, it remained mired at the bottom. (Chairman of Entertainment Kevin Reilly stepped down in May.)

If Utopia worked, the network could use it to fill large chunks of airtime not only during the fall but also throughout the spring and summer of the following year. The pioneers were in place. The robotic cameras were rolling. The longer the series ran, the more Fox could amortize its high initial costs. In August, Chase Carey, the chief operating officer of 21st Century Fox, told analysts during a conference call that the network was well-positioned for a comeback. He specifically mentioned Utopia as one of the signs of hope.

The show’s belly-flop comes at a transitional time for reality TV. On cable, successful new series continue to emerge in the form of niche productions, such as Discovery’s stripped-down survival show, Naked and Afraid, which drops contestants in the wilderness sans clothes. Shows like this and A&E’s Wahlburgers, which chronicles life behind the scenes at a Boston burger joint run by Mark Wahlberg and his brothers, can get by on a lean budget and a million or two viewers per episode. But the genre has stagnated on the networks, as fresh mass hits become increasingly rare. The current giants are mostly oldies—there’s NBC’s The Voice (which made its debut in 2011), ABC’s Dancing With the Stars (2005) and The Bachelor (2002), plus CBS’s Survivor and Big Brother (both 2000).

Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture, blames Utopia’s failure on its cast. The predictably combustible mix was assembled according to the basic algebra of reality TV: There’s an angry ex-convict, a Pentecostal pastor, a “polyamorous” belly dancer, a Manhattan lawyer, a toothless hillbilly, a statuesque bowhunter, a gun-loving libertarian, a pacifist vegetarian, and, naturally, a taut yoga instructor interested in tantric sex. “Reality TV is a casting director’s medium,” Thompson says. “You’ve got to care for these people. This cast isn’t it.”

On one of the first nights inside the compound, the pioneers drink a bunch of whiskey. Skinny-dipping ensues. The next morning, the buxom huntress is hung over and vomiting. The denizens of Utopia—bereft of hospital equipment, entirely cut off from the advice of WebMD—must cope. What survivalist remedy do they employ? In the end, somebody calls an ambulance. The dehydrated colonist is whisked off the compound, given some rejuvenating intravenous fluids, and returned to the set in tiptop shape. So much for self-sufficiency.

The baffling sequence is no aberration. Throughout the episodes, the pioneers routinely dip back into the old world they’ve supposedly left behind. When a chicken dies, they phone professional vets. When one of the residents gets abusive, they threaten to call 911. When the farming project gets off to a shaky start, they order in extra groceries. Next thing you know, everybody’s sitting around eating pizza. “It just doesn’t feel that novel or intriguing,” says Sharethrough’s Keane.

Mark Andrejevic, the author of Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched, suggests the open-ended format is the problem. Having no prizes or clearly stated goals is anathema to the norms of American network television. “If you’re going to compete, you’ve got to get something out of it,” he says. “If there’s no prize, why do you have to compete? What kind of utopia is that?  I think European audiences have a higher tolerance for this kind of social experiment.”

In late September, Fox revealed that the network would be tweaking the format of Utopia. Fans now get to vote for pioneers to kick off. “It’s obvious that the people at Fox are freaking out and changing the thing on the fly,” Keane says. “Pretty soon they’re going to have two teams fighting against each other.” On Oct. 1 the network announced it was cutting Utopia’s two hours of weekly airtime in half, relegating the show to a sole hour in the hinterlands of Friday night. Call it a demi-cancellation.

Ultimately, the birth of Fox’s brave new world is proving to be of less interest than its demise. “A few years ago, I used to hope for a scandal in reality television that would shut the whole thing down, the way that the quiz show scandal did in the ’50s,” says David Bianculli, the TV critic on NPR’s Fresh Air. “But the only thing that can do it is people getting weary of the form.”

Utopia gives Bianculli hope. “If it gets to the point where even Fox has to say, ‘We can’t keep doing this,’ it will be a victory,” he says. “Not for Fox, but for all of television.”

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