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TV Utopia: How John de Mol Keeps Creating Reality Shows The World Can’t Stop Watching

The Dutch media mogul behind shows like Big Brother and The Voice talks to Co.Create about his latest, Utopia, and his broader approach to the genre.

TV Utopia: How John de Mol Keeps Creating Reality Shows The World Can’t Stop Watching
The cast of Utopia [Photo: Adam Rose, courtesy of FOX]

Launching the next big thing in reality TV never gets old for John de Mol.

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“It’s such a kick. I can’t tell you what the feeling is like when you take a map of the world, and you put pins in every country where there are Talpa shows like The Voice. It’s such a great feeling,” says de Mol, the Dutch media mogul who owns Talpa Media and has masterminded some of the biggest hits in reality TV ranging from Big Brother and Fear Factor (both of which he created as one of the founders of Endemol Entertainment, of which he sold his share in 2000) to The Voice, and, most recently, Utopia.


“This is–in my humble opinion–the next step in reality,” de Mol says of Utopia.

It’s certainly de Mol’s most ambitious production to date. Already airing in the Netherlands, the show has a group of strangers working together to create what they believe is an ideal civilization over the course of a year. While the Dutch cast has been at it for nine months now, 14 American Utopians have only just begun to sculpt their society, and we’ll see how they fare when the three-night series premiere begins on Fox September 7. The group was dropped off at a compound in Santa Clarita, California, in late August, where they have a barn, which needs some work; cows, chickens and goats; access to a lake with fish in it; some cash; a phone that isn’t working–and not much more. There is no electricity. There is no water. There are no toilets or beds.

Moments after meeting for the first time, the Utopians have to make some big decisions that will be integral to their survival and their success. “And that, as we saw in Holland, is a fascinating and intriguing process,” de Mol says. “You put people with totally different characters, with totally different backgrounds together, they’ve never met each other, and they have to make decisions within a couple of hours. Who is making the decisions? Is one guy or one woman very quickly the leader, and everybody follows him or her? Or is it, ‘No. We want a majority, a democracy?’ ”

There is no one winner of Utopia, and there isn’t a prize. “It’s not a competition,” de Mol points out. “It is more of a group effort to make a success out of a social experiment we have created.”

Individuals who aren’t contributing to the building of the new civilization in a meaningful way–or just aren’t meshing well with the others–will be voted out and have to leave. It’s only fair to allow the participants to adjust the balance in the group, de Mol reasons, so every four weeks someone will be eliminated, two new people will enter the compound, and the person who fits into the mix best will get to stay.

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Fans of Utopia who visit the show’s online hub, UtopiaTV.com, can register for a Utopia Passport that will allow them to have a say in who enters the experiment, and they can also apply to be on the show as casting is ongoing. There is also a live feed from the compound.

Would de Mol have any desire to take part in the show as one of the Utopians if he could?

“No, no, not for one second,” he insists. “I’m so much a guy behind the scenes. I enjoy so much creating the circumstances. I am not so much someone who likes to be up front.”

Fair enough.

Here, the guy behind the scenes–de Mol leads the creative process in the development and the production branches of Talpa Media–talks to Co.Create about the creation of Utopia and what goes into producing reality TV formats with worldwide appeal:


You Never Know Where A Brainstorming Session Might Lead

Talpa Content, a division of Talpa Media, is responsible for content creation and has a staff of about 30 people who dream up and develop new television show formats. “There is never going to be a moment where you can say, ‘Now, we’ve done everything. We don’t need to come up with new ideas anymore,'” de Mol says. “Working on being creative in the TV world is endless. It never stops. It’s a challenge that never disappears.”

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Ideas for new shows come out of regular brainstorming sessions. The Talpa Content group gets together every Monday night to eat pizza and drink wine–there’s lots of coffee, too–to talk about what’s happening in the world. “We discuss everything we have read in the newspaper, in magazines, what we have seen on the Internet, what are the trends, what it is that people are busy with,” de Mol says.

Last year, the Talpa team sensed that people around the globe were dissatisfied. “They were worried about their future, about the mortgage on their houses, and we thought, ‘Well, the world is not so good at the moment. So what would happen if you would allow people to try it again and to create a new world?’ That was the beginning of an idea, but it still wasn’t a television format and not a TV show,” de Mol says. “It took us three or four months to work it out, and, well, that’s how Utopia began.”

Holland Is A Built-In–and Reliable–Test Market For Reality TV

De Mol has been producing reality TV since 1999 when he created Big Brother, so he feels confident when it comes to following his instincts, and he was sure Talpa had formulated a structure for Utopia that would work. His hunch was confirmed when Utopia debuted in the Netherlands to massive ratings. “I’m a shareholder in three networks in Holland. That allows me to put ideas that we create in Holland on air in Holland, and if it works, then we distribute the show’s format globally,” de Mol says, noting, “When it works in Holland, when it’s a real success in Holland, 99 out of 100 times, it works internationally. Look at my track record: All of the big hits we created in Holland worked globally.”

The format of the U.S. version of the show will be faithful to Holland’s, though there will be a couple of tweaks at the start. “I think that the only thing that we learned in Holland that we changed for the rest of the world–because Utopia is starting in the next six months in 10 to 12 countries–is that we allowed the people to bring in too much stuff. So they’re bringing in substantially less in the U.S., and the amount of money we’ve given them is less than what we did in Holland. What we noticed in Holland is they had everything organized much too quickly, much too soon. It was too easy,” he says.


Reality Shows Aren’t “One Cast Fits All”

When casting for reality shows, there are basic rules–you want to find leaders and followers and people with different thoughts on how the world should be. You are looking for all kinds of characters. Those guidelines were top of mind for the producers of Utopia, but they also needed to find people with useful skills given the aim of the show. “If you want to give these people a fair chance to survive, you need, apart from the character casting a casting process based on skills,” de Mol says. “You need a few guys or girls who know how to build water pipes, how to create electricity, how to deal with cows because if you don’t have these people, well, everyone is doomed, essentially.”

With this duality in mind, the U.S. version of Utopia includes a survivalist prepper (who also happens to practice naked yoga); a gun-loving security programmer who knows how to hunt and fish (and aims to represent what he calls “the real ’Merica”); and a general contractor (who proclaims himself a “sexy beast”).

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Of note: There were actually 15 people cast for the American Utopia, but one woman was booted for violating production policies by smuggling a cell phone into the hotel where the Utopians were staying before being taken to the compound.


Cameras Should Blend Into The Background

The inhabitants of Utopia don’t ever come face-to-face with a cameraman. That’s because the show is entirely shot by 129 remote-control cameras. (Some of them are clearly visible to the Utopians, but some are camouflaged.) According to de Mol, participants in reality shows tend to let their guard down when they don’t have a person with a camera in their face. “So it makes behavior after two or three weeks all so very natural,” de Mol says. “We know from experience that people can behave differently for like a week, maybe two weeks, but then you show your real self, and that’s what makes reality TV so interesting.”


Formats Must Be Well-Defined And Respected

Talpa licenses–and in some cases co-produces–its show formats all over the globe, and the company keeps tabs on all of the productions through a department full of consultants who make sure that the worldwide incarnations of The Voice, Utopia and other series are made to the same standards as the originals.

Producers in each market receive detailed production bibles running hundreds of pages to guide them, and nothing can be altered regarding a show format without permission from Talpa. “People tend to forget that, first of all, it took us a year to create the idea and the format of Utopia. We have been on the air in Holland for months, so we have all the experience,” de Mol says. “We know what works and what doesn’t, and what you see sometimes, especially in the big markets, is someone says, ‘Oh, we can change this. We can do this a little different.’ “

That’s a big no-no. “They don’t realize that the format is a jigsaw [puzzle], and if you take one little piece out, it falls apart. So you have to be very careful that the basic elements of the format are safe,” de Mol stresses. “On the other hand, I am of the opinion that the American Utopia should be a little different from the Dutch one and the German one, so we do leave room for local cultural elements.”

Not Everyone Loves Reality TV, And That’s Okay

For the most part, reality TV doesn’t get much respect from TV critics, and de Mol doesn’t feel the need to debate the merits of the genre he has helped develop. “I can accept fully people who say, ‘I don’t like the genre.’ That’s fine with me,” de Mol says. “What I don’t like so much is people who–how do you say this?–who make judgments over the genre of reality like it’s television from the devil, and that’s something that I don’t like because I think everybody should watch what they like. It’s a free world. It’s a form of democracy. If you like it, watch. If you don’t like it, don’t watch.”

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About the author

Christine Champagne is a New York City-based journalist best known for covering creativity in television and film, interviewing the talent in front of the camera and behind-the-scenes. She has written for outlets including Emmy, Variety, VanityFair.com, Redbook, Time Out New York and TVSquad.com

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