FOX Execs Discuss Utopia

UtopiaFOX’s Groundbreaking Social Experiment Utopia kicks off with a three-night premiere beginning Sunday Sept. 7 at 8pm ET/PT on FOX and then Tuesday at 8pmET/PT and Friday at 8pm ET/PT. In the next five weeks, the show will air on Tuesdays and Fridays and thereafter, only on Tuesdays.

Fans of the show can also watch the show’s 24/7 live stream, at

Want to be on Utopia?  Apply here!

I sat in on a call with FOX’s Executive VP of Alternative Entertainment, Simon Andreae, and Utopia Executive Producer, Jon Kroll and they shared information with me and a group of other journalists about the experience’s first week of filming.

Simon Andreae says that this is far more than a TV show simply named Utopia:
“We don’t really see this primarily as a TV show. 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.

Then it so happens that we’re soaking their environment in 130 locked-off cameras, filming everything they do, and then arranging it into stories that we’re broadcasting on television. The point of this show is much more about what happens when you get 15 really diverse people, with really different points of views, to start a world from scratch with no laws, no morals, no pre-existing structures, and to observe both their narrative but, also, the broader lessons that we can take away about the way in which we have arranged our world.”

When asked about what Utopia’s broadcasts would look like, Andreae explained:
“The episodes are almost like weekly highlight packages of what’s been happening in the few days leading up to that episode. We’re shooting now. 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 story lines that have developed through that actual week but, obviously, finessed and edited and contextualized into the prime time episodes.

An interesting aspect of the show’s production is that unlike other reality shows where participants try to ignore stealthy camera people and then participate in producer-led confessionals, Utopia utilizes a series of locked-off and robotic cameras for filming. Explains Kroll,
“It’s highly unique in that there are no manned cameras at all in Utopia. There are no interviews. There are some manned cameras used for background packages and on the first day but, basically, ever since day one, 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.

The control room looks like NASA … We record about 288 hours of content per day. Over the course of the year-long social experiment, we’re going to record over 100,000 hours of content. It’s really amazing.”

The pioneers aren’t simply dropped into a lawless society where social moray’s are abandoned. Jon Kroll said the pioneers have to adhere to a set of rules, like not leaving the compound and only using the phone that the group has earned to conduct matters of commerce, like ordering supplies. They can’t call home and in the case of one participant, failure to adhere to the rules got her kicked off before the experience even began.
“What happened is that we brought all the pioneers to a single location that was near Utopia and we wanted to keep them separate from each other and also to have some last minute briefings before they went in. That was a period of approximately a week. It was important to us that the pioneers did not meet each other, and did not know about each other, because we wanted them to go in and come face-to-face for the first time.

That was very clear to all of them. It was in their contracts and they were briefed a number of times about it. Andrea smuggled in a smartphone and she looked up other pioneers on the smartphone. It was clearly crossing the boundary of what was in her contract and what we thought was creatively important for the show. So we, sadly, had to let her go. That’s really – that’s the sum of it.”

The reason for the rules within the rule-less society is simple, explains Kroll:
“It’s designed to keep them in a bit of a bubble, but in terms of how they interact and how they solve their problems, we’re really trying to have them create and enforce their own rules. In fact, they’ve come to us and asked us to interfere at times and we’ve refused to. We’ve said, this is your society, make it work.

When asked why Utopia was a good fit for the FOX Network, Andreae explained,
“I think I will say two things. The first is that FOX has a reputation, and a background, in starting new forms and trends in television, generally, and in unscripted particularly. This is a very, very unusual show. It’s not a competition. It’s not an elimination show. There is no prize and, as I mentioned earlier, it’s more of a world we’re covering than a show that we’re creating.

I think in a way, it’s a very innovative idea and an idea that is a bit difficult for some people to wrap their heads around formally. So I think, on the one hand, it’s an adventurous pioneering format and that is just [indiscernible] in a long line of [indiscernible] breaking shows from FOX. Secondly, I think, editorially, it’s going to places that are one in the same time very sophisticated and broadsheet – explorations of religion, sexuality, gender, punishment, and so on.

At the same time, it’s a show with very strong meat, especially in the arenas of sexuality and violence, which you’ve seen, if you’ve been watching the feeds already. I think FOX is also the network that is the least afraid to tackle subject matter that is a little more racy, and a little more taboo, than you might find on the other networks. So both formally, in terms of the structure and format, and creatively, in terms of the types of content, I think it is a pioneering, bold, and edgy show. It fits really well into the FOX catalog.”

When we spoke with Kroll and Andreae, the pioneers had been inside of the Utopia compound for three days. And in those three days, Andreae was pleased with what he saw:
“I think the thing that took us all a bit by surprise, but that we were delighted by, is that the first three days of the pioneers’ new life in Utopia was so explosive and so filled with conflict and triumph and extremity of all kinds.”

Kroll added, “I should add that Simon is delighted, but I’m exhausted…And delighted.”

According to Simon Andreae the biggest challenge facing the pioneers is:
“Agreeing on anything. No, I think the biggest challenge has been, even though they knew they were going to be with very, very different types of personalities, I almost think we cast it too well for diversity in terms of thought, point of view, background, because they are so incredibly different that coming to the most basic decisions have been next to impossible for them.

They can’t agree as to whether they’re a democracy. There are two people who are talking about ceding and forming the free states of Utopia. We’re sitting here aghast. It’s day six and it’s just happening at light speed and we just try to keep up with them. I think it’s really, coming to decisions has been the biggest challenge for them.”

The Pioneers of Utopia

I asked the gentlemen if just a few days in this experiment, if are any of the pioneers were emerging as the most interesting or like main characters in the process?
Jon: I think that several are for different reasons. There are people who are really struggling and have already expressed, is this the right thing for them, including our terrific pastor, Jonathan Lovelace. There are people who are assuming leadership roles. Josh, our contractor, tried. Mike, our lawyer, has now taken on that role. Red, our hillbilly handyman, desperately would like that role. Aaron, our chef with a military background, is a strong personality.

I would say, overall, the men have really taken an aggressive position at the start and have dominated a lot of the activity; however, Hex, our six-foot tall huntress, is right in the middle of the mix and not backing down to anybody.

Simon: To Jon’s point about the characters emerging, I totally agree. I would only add that one more, Dave Green, who was in and out of prison from when he was 17 to 27 and is a former gang member, has played a crucial role in kind of, amidst all the conflict, and drama, and sleeplessness, and [indiscernible] of food that they’ve experienced over the first few days, he is the person who has been kind of the greatest inspiration to the others.

He’s given some wonderful motivational speeches about the opportunity that they’ve been given, and the adventure of a lifetime, and the privilege that this has all bestowed on them. That has been pretty moving both to the other pioneers as, indeed, I hope it will be to the audience.

Jon: I should add to that because I was remiss in not mentioning Dave in my initial list. Dave has formed an unlikely bromance with Kentucky Red, our self-proclaimed hillbilly. He has remarkably warmed up to Jonathan Lovelace, the pastor, and is expressing a desire to perhaps be baptized.

Utopia continues its three night premiere Tuesday 8pmET/PT on FOX.

images ©2014 Fox Broadcasting Co. credit: Adam Rose/FOX