“Utopia’s” failure may have been foretold even before anyone in the United States saw a second of the show.
A provocative idea that fell apart in the execution, Fox canceled the series on Sunday after two months of consistently low ratings.
From day one, the show suffered from internal bickering at the network’s highest levels and a heavy-handed execution by producers and Fox’s new alternative chief Simon Andreae.
Andreae bought the Dutch format in January from producer John de Mol’s Talpa Media, which is also behind such ambitious hits as “Big Brother” and “The Voice.” Fox’s alternative programming chief made the bold buy just three months after being announced to the position to avoid a bidding war on the show that was performing well in The Netherlands.
But as the price of the show soared to a $50 million price tag, some executives within Fox began to wonder if the series was worth it. News Corp.’s live sporting event czar David Hill, who was brought in to shore up “American Idol” and “The X Factor” after the network’s veteran reality head Mike Darnell’s exit last year, was particularly vocal.
As a network insider told TheWrap at the time, “These two are at odds since Hill rightly pointed out to others in the company that ‘Utopia’ may be a giant, expensive embarrassment in the making.” At the time, Fox denied that Hill had any reservations about the show.
The $50 million included the initial set build which would then be used over and over again if the show made it to further seasons.
Hill had reason to be concerned. While “Utopia” debuted in the Netherlands in January as the highest-rated unscripted premiere in six years for the SBS6 network and remained No. 1 in its time period for 10 consecutive nights, Hill pointed out that the Dutch series’ ratings didn’t hold up over the show’s run. He was right.
According to ratings numbers obtained by TheWrap, the show averaged 1.4 million viewers in its premiere week in January. By March, the viewership had fallen to an average 963,000 viewers. That’s a 31 percent decrease in viewership over the show’s run. Hill suggested that those numbers didn’t bode well for Fox’s “Utopia,” which Andreae didn’t appreciate, a Fox executive told TheWrap.
Then there was the show’s execution. Andreae opted to shoot the series on a closed outdoor set in Santa Clarita, Calif., whereas de Mol’s Dutch series shot in a cutout from an actual forest. Andreae made the location choice because he wanted more control over who could come and go on-set (the original was open to outsiders) and he wanted to make sure that the weather would be good year round, which would make for sunny, bathing suit-friendly days. After all, Andreae was behind Discovery Channel’s hit survival series “Naked and Afraid” and knows what a little skin can do for ratings.
Andreae’s changes to the format rubbed de Mol the wrong way.
“Simon sends over ideas, and de Mol tells his team to ignore them and he hardly considers Andrae to be his creative equal,” the insider said. A Talpa representative denied there were creative differences with the network.
Andreae was right on one count – the participants shed their clothes within the first week, but that had no affect on ratings as the show drew only 1.98 million viewers and a paltry 0.7 rating among viewers in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 year-old demographic.
Another early fault in the show had to do with casting. The program was meant to bring people together, so they could form a new society. But producers chose such extreme — some viewers called them stereotypical — versions of Americans that agreements were hard to come by.
Executive producer Jon Kroll even joked on a Sept. 3 press call ahead of the show’s debut that the production team might have done too well with choosing differing points of views in its first group of pioneers as they had a hard time seeing eye-to-eye on anything in their first week in seclusion. He said that the next two cast members nominated to join the group showed some promise of creating more harmony among the cast.
Additionally, the insider said that executives were disgusted with the show’s castmembers after hearing their discussion of the money to be made from doing the show.
After the show’s horrible first couple weeks of ratings, Fox chairmen, who had inherited the series, responded to questions about the show’s ratings.
“No one thought we were going to launch a huge ratings juggernaut, but with patience it will grow and we’re going to have patience,” Fox Television Group co-chairman and co-CEO Dana Walden told TheWrap in September.
And later that month, Fox’s COO Joe Earley expressed optimism that with the end of de Mol’s “Big Brother” season, those viewers would latch onto “Utopia’s” similar premise.
“The people who love ‘Big Brother’ should love ‘Utopia,'” Earley offered. To his credit, “Utopia” did maintain its audience the week after “Big Brother” ended, but then began to lose them again in subsequent weeks.
The death knell for “Utopia” came on Oct. 1 when Fox tried to do some triage and pulled it from its Tuesday airings just four weeks after the show debuted – two weeks ahead of schedule.
Its actual death would arrive appropriately on Halloween weekend after the show’s Friday episode fell 27 percent in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic.
Meanwhile, Fox found a way to recuperate some of its investment. The live stream cameras were offered free to viewers for five minutes with unlimited access offered at $4.99 a month. Fox, though, would not release details about the number of subscribers to the premium service when TheWrap requested them.
In the end, “Utopia’s” demise does put a spotlight on Fox’s reality slate. “Utopia” was a big swing at finding something that viewers would watch live and make up for the ratings fall of “American Idol” over several seasons and the failure of “The X Factor.”
At this point, Fox unscripted has announced “Boom!,” an adaptation of an Israeli game show format in which players try to defuse a bomb through answering trivia questions correctly, and the Thanksgiving special “The Great American Dog-A-Thon” from executive producer Hilary Swank.
The responsibility of “Utopia’s” failure and the search for an “Idol” heir apparent falls on Andreae once again. Insiders tell TheWrap that there are other unscripted shows in the pipeline, including the revival of his naked dating show. But, will Andreae have the time to find Fox’s next ratings juggernaut?
“The word within Fox is Simon’s departure is imminent,” the insider said, though other individuals with knowledge of the situation indicate that this is merely hearsay.
To his credit, “Utopia” was a concept that belongs to a new trend in reality series that moves away from down-market concepts and toward series that represent solutions to problems the culture is wrestling with. Execution problems aside, “Utopia” may have been ahead of its time.
Fox declined to comment for this article.