Fox Reality Chief Talks Up Visions of ‘Utopia’

Ambitious fall gamble ‘hard for some people to wrap their heads around’

Simon Andreae, exec VP of alternative entertainment for Fox, has been in his job for just less than a year now, having joined the network after Mike Darnell’s colorful 18-year-run ended last fall. And though Andreae has a few ambitious items on his agenda, including addressing the long-term fate of American Idol, by far the biggest is the rollout of Utopia.

The John de Mol-produced reality series will debut over three nights, beginning Sunday, Sept. 7, before segueing to a regular Tuesday night slot with a few double-episode weeks when it will air both Tuesday and Friday. Shot in a remote area outside Los Angeles and based on an international format, the show reportedly costs tens of millions to produce. It features 15 “pioneers” who are tasked with creating an entire society from the ground up — creating the village’s infrastructure, economy, system of government, culture and so forth. Unlike Survivoror other shows, no one is voted off — in fact, one of the few rules is that all participants must stay on the property. So the social-experiment aspect is much more in the foreground than with other shows.

In a conference call with media Wednesday afternoon, Andreae and exec producer Jon Kroll shed light on a show that had been shrouded in mystery as of the network’s upfront in May. Andreae said the show’s DNA makes it a fit for hit-hungry Fox. “This is a very unusual show,” he said. “It’s not a competition show. It’s not an elimination show. It’s more of a world we’re covering than a show we are creating. It’s hard for some people to wrap their heads around.” Plus, “editorially, it’s going to places that other shows are not. The subject matter is a little more racy and a little more taboo than the other networks.” To wit, he added, there is romance, physical conflict and debate about democratic process.

Kroll noted that the pioneers just received access to a phone on Sept. 2, which will allow them to order basic supplies. But otherwise they have been “in a bit of a bubble,” which enhances the personality conflicts which invariably arise among 15 people from widely divergent backgrounds.

The pioneers’ encampment has been captured on cameras and live-streamed for the past six days and the online component, as with de Mol’s Big Brother, will be an important aspect to the viewer experience.

“Our biggest challenge,” Kroll said, “has been that even if the pioneers all knew they were going to be with different personalities, I almost think we cast it too well. Even coming to the most basic decisions is impossible for them. We are seeing it happen moment by moment. It’s Day 6 and it’s happening at light speed.”

The show’s core concept, Andreae said, “is at once very simple and very complicated – about religion, politics, ethics, and so on. … Viewers are going to pick their favorites and follow them through triumph and tragedy. They will stay with them through the melting pot and the cauldron and see where they end up—laugh with them, cry with them, all of those things.”