Preview: Fox takes the road to 'Utopia' in new reality show

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — It’s easy to dismiss reality TV, to rail against its pollution of the airwaves. And if you’re talking about the broad spectrum of TV — broadcast and cable — there is a lot of so-called reality programing.

But these days there’s more reality TV on cable than on broadcast. Broadcasters do try out new reality shows in winter, spring and summer; they don’t do it with much frequency in the fall.

‘Utopia’
When: 8 p.m. Sunday.

Look at the broadcast networks’ fall schedules and it becomes quickly apparent that the reality shows airing in fall are all returning programs. That’s been the case for a number of years now. But this fall there’s one exception: Fox is taking a leap with “Utopia” (8-10 p.m. Sunday, WPGH).

Based on a Dutch format, the series features 15 “Utopians” — seven women, eight men — living on a compound somewhere in Southern California. The group includes a lawyer, a preacher, a chef, an ex-con and a soon-to-be-mom who will be tasked with building a new society, when they’re not squabbling, of course.

After Sunday’s two-hour premiere, one-hour episodes will air Tuesday and Sept. 12. After that, episodes will air twice a week (8 p.m. Tuesday and Friday) for several weeks. (There’s also live streaming video at UtopiaTV.com.)

Fox did not make the first episode available for review and, strangely, none of the prospective Utopians Fox brought to the TV critics press tour in July is among the people who made the final cut for the TV show.

Producers said they received 5,000 applications from people wanting to be on the show and in July that number had been cut to roughly 40 prospective pioneers.

“We don’t know where this is going to end,” said executive producer Conrad Green. “We don’t have a fixed point that we want this to reach. We hope that when 15 people eventually go into the compound of Utopia and spend this year, we’ll develop something generally interesting. That’s all we really are after.”

It’s not a competition. There is no prize.

“What we’re hoping to see is something unique play out, which is people from very different backgrounds across America coming together, working out their differences, working out new ways of structuring a society,” Mr. Green said. “And we think that the process of that happening will be fascinating on both a personal level and on a social level too.”

Simon Andreae, executive vice president of Fox alternative entertainment, said “Utopia” is a social experiment about building the fundamental pieces of a society — law, sexuality, religion and politics — from scratch. He acknowledged “Utopia” bears some similarity to CBS’s short-lived “Kid Nation,” but without producers declaring certain contestants the leaders at the outset.

“In terms of the fundamental desire to see whether a team of people can collaborate in order to do things a bit differently and offer suggestions in a living example to the world, then, yes, it’s got some similarities, but the format is very, very different,” Mr. Andreae said.

Contestants will find some shelter, some animals for eating and some water.

“It will basically be almost like coming across a kind of homestead in a rural ideal,” Mr. Green said. “It is the kind of space that promises so much, but it’s all about how they then organize their society.”

Mr. Green said it’s not a series about hardship, not a survival show.

“This is a show about societies, about being viable, about how you structure a society,” he said, “about a person with dynamics within a group of people and about the flux and flow of those kind of dynamics.”

But Fox’s competitors don’t seem to see “Utopia” as a threat. Paul Telegdy, president of alternative and late-night programming for NBC, said fall is a time when viewers are more interested in new scripted shows.

“The last guy who did my job there would never have done it in the fall,” Mr. Telegdy said at an NBC party in July. “Mike Darnell — and I used to be a producer who pitched him — would never put a reality show in the fall. He was almost superstitious about it because anything [reality] that launched in the fall traditionally had not lasted at all.”

Fox tried for three seasons to make “The X Factor” happen and finally gave up and canceled the show after last fall’s edition of the Simon Cowell singing show.

Mr. Telegdy also said there are marketing challenges facing the Fox team.

“I have realized in doing this for a little while if those in marketing can’t sell it in 15 seconds to each other, they’re gonna find it really hard to sell it to America,” he said. At the same time, “Utopia” follows in the footsteps of “Survivor” and “Big Brother” and other successful existing series. “If we’ve learned anything it’s that people can smell a version of a show they already love and they really whack you over the head.”

He said NBC’s 2013 dating competition series “Ready for Love” offered a lesson in that.

“It was really quite different from ‘The Bachelor,’ but in ways that only mattered to me and the producers but not to an audience,” he said. “They just thought it was an overblown ‘Bachelor.’”

A version of this story first appeared in Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.


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