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Show of the Week: Utopia

Coming from Big Brother and The Voice creator John de Mol and his Talpa Media imprint, new format Utopia has been catching the eye of buyers as the reality guru attempts to recreate the successes of those big hits, writes Huw Fullerton.

It’s an elimination reality format featuring a cross section of society but Maarten Meijs, managing director of Talpa International, is emphatic that Utopia is much more than 2014’s Big Brother. “I find it difficult to compare because if you look at it, it feels completely different.

“If you look at [reality TV stalwarts] Survivor or Big Brother they have assignments [and] they need to do their weekly games. Here it’s not about that; it’s not about producer against contestants. The spirit of the show is that we try to create a new society together.”

That new society is being created on SBS6 in the Netherlands from a barn on a piece of undeveloped land outside Amsterdam by 15 strangers, aged 20-53 and from a variety of backgrounds – all while being followed by hundreds of cameras over the course of a year.

They are provided with limited amounts of money, power and livestock and are forced to make tough choices about what they need to create their perfect world – or just survive.

Like Big Brother, contestants nominate one another for elimination. Producer Talpa is keen to foster a sense of online community around the project, and viewers can pay €2.50 (US$3.42) per month for a subscription, aka their ‘Utopia Passport’.

This gives access to four continuous HD livestreams without ads, two self-serve 360 degree cameras, a live chat and a host of videos, as well as allowing passport holders to vote on eliminations and choose replacement residents. Without the passport the livestreams are lower quality and limited to 30 minutes with ads and minimal interaction or control.

In the Netherlands 100,000 people downloaded the app after the first broadcast – but in more traditional realms, the show is doing well too. Utopia premiered on Monday 6 January on Dutch channel SBS 6, drawing 1.6 million viewers – by comparison, the average for that slot is 300,000. It briefly dipped below a million on January 23 but rose above the million mark again the next day, which coincidentally was the same day the format became Simon Andreae’s first major unscripted commission since taking on the unscripted gig at US broadcaster Fox.

More recently, ratings are down to an average 900,000 but de Mol has claimed this is down to the huge popularity of the live feeds.

Whatever the case, Meijs says the show’s ratings in Holland have “sparked” further interest in around 15 territories, including Germany, where a format deal with RTL is understood to be close to completion and Norway, where Nordisk Film TV has rights through a pre-existing distribution deal with Talpa and is pitching it to broadcasters.

“Of course we would like to do it in as many places as possible,” Meijs tells TBI. “Due to the size of the project, I think that not every country would be able to it. At least, that’s what I say at this stage – we might be able to come up with mini-Utopias.”

And yet he disagrees the format is costly – while not wishing to state the budget, he says it is no more than the average reality show, especially considering the fact that the costs are spread over the year-long broadcast.

This unusual length is, according to Meijs, necessary for the show’s format (it’s hard to build Rome in a day) but he also believes it might yield other advantages. “Other reality shows stop after 13 weeks, and most of the time then they hit their highest ratings. Why stop if it’s a success? This project offers the possibility to continue.”

Meijs also notes that there is room for scheduling flexibility, despite the ambitious length of the series. The format could be stretched across the schedules nightly, as on SBS6, or could be spread out weekly depending on the broadcaster’s needs, he explains.

Fundamentally, amid a flooded reality TV show market, Meijs defines Utopia as, “a very bold idea. It has elements of reality shows, but it also has values such as creating, and the daily problems that you encounter in building up this society. Really, it looks at reality television from a different perspective”.

The show: Utopia
The distributor: Talpa International
The producer: Talpa Media
The broadcasters: SBS6 (Netherlands), Fox (US), Nordisk Film TV (Norway, production rights)
The concept: Elimination reality TV as a social experiment, as 15 strangers struggle with minimal resources to create a new society.