Fox is certainly taking a gamble with its new reality series, “Utopia,” which begins its three-night premiere event on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET.
During a time when no other network dares to premiere a big, new reality show as fall’s new scripted offerings are debuting, the network is banking (to the tune of $50 million) that viewers will want to see 15 strangers build a whole new society.
When taking a gamble, it helps to see it as a groundbreaking project, one which can teach us about ourselves as a human race, which is just how the network’s alternative programming chief is positioning the show.
“We don’t really see this primarily as a TV show,” Fox’s executive vice president of alternative entertainment, Simon Andreae, said on a press call earlier this week.
“We see it as a social experiment, as a world that we have set up that abandons and takes for granted nothing about contemporary society in which all the pioneers are rethinking all the fundamental tenets of civilization from scratch, with everything on the table. That’s the point of this.”
Fifteen people will be living on a compound in Santa Clarita, Calif. at any given time for a year with “No leaders. No Rules. No Plumbing,” as the marketing for the show states.
Adapted from a Dutch model created by “Big Brother” and “The Voice” producer John de Mol, Andreae preemptively took “Utopia” off the market in January ahead of a possible bidding war.
There was some executive clash within Fox over the show’s costs and whether the Dutch show’s ratings supported the gamble, though Andreae said on the press call that the broadcasting company’s top execs are “pretty happy and relaxed to embrace the risk.”
Here are nine things to know about Fox’s ambitious new reality show:
1. The show will be on in some capacity 24/7 for a year.
Captured by about 130 cameras, live streaming began on the first “pioneers” (as Fox calls them) a little more than a week ago. The network plans to run them 24/7 for the next year. In addition, the show will air highlights from the week one or more episodes on Fox. There are no plans at this time to air a live episode, though. Over the course of the year, they would have recorded more than 100,000 hours of footage. Viewers can watch up to five minutes for free. For full access, there’s a $4.99 per month fee.
“We’re shooting now,” Andreae said. “We’re editing very fast and assembling the material into either twice or once weekly kind of highlights episodes. There is a very, very fast production turnaround and what you’ll see are the main storylines that have developed through that actual week but, obviously, finessed and edited and contextualized into the primetime episodes.”
2. The live stream may be cut in emergency situations, such as when Hex Vanisles (the hunter from Detroit) was taken to the hospital and treated for dehydration earlier this week.
“She was treated. She was fine, but we don’t want to – until we know the gravity of a situation like that, we don’t necessarily want to stream it sometimes,” Kroll said. “We just want to be careful.”
3. There are no manned cameras.
“There are no interviews,” executive producer Jon Kroll revealed. “There are some manned cameras used for background packages and on the first day but, basically, ever since Day 1, we’ve been without any handheld cameras at all. But, the way that the robotic cameras have been installed is highly innovative and is designed to look like handheld coverage. The effect of that is they don’t see crew. They don’t see any people. There aren’t people in the bushes or behind a window. We’re a good couple hundred yards away in a production compound.
4. Only 14 of the 15 inaugural pioneers actually entered the compound.
Andrea Cox, a raw vegan chef from San Diego, was eliminated for smuggling in a phone and doing research on the other pioneers, a breach of her contract with the show. The group will choose a 15th pioneer before the show goes live on Sunday, meaning the audience won’t take part in the show’s first contender vote.
5. Though the pioneers can’t leave the compound, they do have a phone that can only be used for commerce.
“They have a phone now and they’re calling hardware stores and supermarkets,” Kroll said. “They can order whatever they want, but they’ve only got $5,000.”
That will supplement the resources a livestock provided on the compound: a lake, a barn, a waterfall, two cows and 12 chickens.
6. Viewers will have a say in the monthly eliminations (this is sort of complicated).
“Anyone with two or more votes could leave, and two new people who would like to replace that person arrive, and the Utopians pick one of those to stay and become a permanent member and that person chooses which of those people who got two or more votes must leave,” Kroll explained. “At each of the two selection points, when they’re selecting which Utopians are eligible to leave, and which of the two new people should join, the viewers weigh in and have the 16th vote and they participate in that process.”
We told you it’s complicated. By the way, viewers will be able to nominate themselves to enter Utopia during these eliminations.
7. There is no prize for a winner.
So, congratulations, you’ve survived a year in Utopia. Buh bye.
8. Chris Daughtry sings the theme song.
An “American Idol” graduate. Way to keep it in the family, Fox. Dutch singer-songwriter Miss Montreal sings the Dutch theme song.
9. Cartoonist Dan Piraro will narrate the series.
Read Fox’s bio for Piraro:
Award-winning cartoonist, fine artist and stand-up comedian Dan Piraro is best-known for his daily syndicated newspaper cartoon, “Bizarro.” Appearing in more than 350 newspapers on six continents, “Bizarro” has won an unprecedented three consecutive “Best Cartoon Panel of the Year” awards from the National Cartoonists Society. In 2010, Piraro was named “Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year,” the Society’s greatest honor. Piraro regularly speaks and performs comedy across the country. Since 2002, has has sporadically toured the U.S. with his one-man stand-up comedy show, “The Bizarro Boloney Show.” Raised in Oklahoma, Piraro spent 10 years in New York City and currently resides in Los Angeles with his girlfriend, Christy, her cat, his dog and a formidable collection of hats.
Watch the first five minutes of the show above.
Fox’s “Utopia” premieres across three nights this week on Sunday, Tuesday and Friday. All episodes will broadcast at 8 p.m. ET. It will then continue on Tuesdays and Fridays at 8 p.m. ET.