Fox’s ‘Utopia’ seems to be anything but in TV’s fall ratings wars

Utopians incoming.
Utopians incoming. PR image for new Fox reality series, "Utopia."

WASHINGTON, September 14, 2014 – TV’s fall season, now underway, can be both exciting and brutal. Exciting because we get a showcase of new series each fall, a few of which may prove to be durable favorites. Brutal because many of these new shows can quickly vanish without a trace if they don’t quickly win, place or show in the ratings race.

Fox’s newest reality show effort, the network’s big budget “Utopia,” is a case in point. Initially, it looked like this new, presumably unscripted series had a lot of things going for it when it started teasing cast members and episodes on its tailor made interactive website, generating a fair amount of potential viewer interest.

More to the point, the new show was borrowing both its premise and format from a wildly successful Dutch reality show and hence was presumably battle tested in advance.

But when “Utopia” finally hit the airwaves—or their current cable equivalent—last week, it started out poorly from the gate and began to drop steadily from that point. In the words of a “Deadline Hollywood” reporter

If the ratings are any indication, it might soon be time to call the show Dystopia. The first Friday airing of Utopia (0.7/3) saw the freshman Fox social experiment show fall 22% from its last broadcast on September 9. That 1-hour Tuesday debut drew a very soft 0.9/3 for the new show. That was a more than 50% free fall from Utopia’s September 7 OK debut up against the NFL and NBC’s Sunday Night Football. Granted that 2.0/6 among adults 18-49 was the best unscripted debut of the year so far but subsequent numbers could not be pleasing to Fox execs.

It’s hard to say whether “Utopia’s” downslope will continue, but it doesn’t look too good.

One has to wonder what Fox programming execs exactly had in mind when scheduling that September 7 opening night against “Sunday Night Football.” Such counter-programming for a new, untested series is almost guaranteed suicide. For now, we’ll need to put Fox’s series premiere scheduling decision for “Utopia” firmly in our “What Were They Thinking?” department.

On the brighter side, perhaps, is word that “Utopia” has been meeting or exceeding DVR performance expectations. In other words, larger numbers of viewers than usual Tivo’d the show and watched it later.

And, of course, there’s always the Internet afterlife, at least as long as Fox continues to support its feature laden, highly interactive site which also allows viewers to make themselves candidates to join “Utopia’s” residents who, according to the show’s premise, are starting out with nothing and will have a year to create some kind of viable and perhaps even enjoyable society.

Yet this is, perhaps, a fatal weakness in this series. Newbies and oldsters alike can be voted out of the televised social experiment at the drop of a hat, preventing in many cases and opportunity for audiences to develop a strong identification with characters X and Y.

Additionally, as is so often the case in “reality” series, participants/characters seem to be chosen, by and large, for their off-kilter personalities and social views which, of course, generates plenty of on-screen conflict so near and dear to the hearts of producers; but so antithetical, at least in this show’s premise, to the establishment of a harmonious “utopian” society in a year or less.

One obnoxious, and perhaps predictable highlight of the show was the fact that the “Tea Party” utopian was dropped from the cast even before the show started to film its formal episodes. Seems this female marketing expert had surreptitiously smuggled in a communication device to record actions and activities for later fun and profit after she left the show, a big no-no according to the standard Fox/participant contract.

It’s fascinating that this token Tea Partier managed to get bumped prior to entering the starting gate, which, intentionally or not, helps buttress the bogus Democrat “Evil Tea Party/Koch Brothers” stereotype/meme that America’s socialist party is peddling in place of an agenda as they attempt to pull the fall election season out of the pit. Was this a setup by the producers or directors? We may never know, but it’s definitively weird.

At any rate, although Fox has reportedly spent some $50 million publicizing and launching “Utopia,” it’s only committed to five more weeks’ worth of episodes, even though the social experiment has been scheduled to run for an entire year.

No point in taking chances, we’d guess, even though some contestants are already stripping off and rutting, perhaps proving that unlike Discovery’s naked and afraid survivalists, “Utopia’s” social experimenters may be naked but they’re also unafraid to be seen rutting away like wildebeests in heat. TV these days reminds us of “the limbo.” How low can you go to win the ratings sweeps? Apparently, there is a limit.

“Utopia” is actually an interesting premise. But unlike America’s original utopian experiments in the 19th century, this one didn’t exactly start out with a bunch of like-minded individuals, something that might have led the budding colony to some level of success as opposed to perpetual if entertaining conflict.

“If it bleeds, it leads,” states the old newspaper adage. But these days, on television as well as in Washington politics, we tend to get plenty of bleeding but not a lot of leading.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17
  • I’ve been reading about this series and its dismal debut. I had interest in checking it out but I haven’t done so. It seems poorly promoted, and I wasn’t motivated enough to find it. Fox says it’s committed to sticking with this series. Perhaps Fox should just be committed, period. Meanwhile, I think I’ll stick with “Survivor,” thank you.

    • Terry Ponick

      Agreed. Any number of problems here, in addition to that core issue of casting a bunch of incompatible people as the “utopians.” The cat fight scenario common to most “reality shows” is somehow inappropriate for a cadre of people seeking “utopia.” Most utopian experiments have involved likeminded people, not people who are likely to hate each other from the get-go. Oddly, Fox has been promoting this show well to entertainment writers, as I can attest. But when it comes to TV ads and positioning this new show so that it avoids competition from tried and true faves like network NFL football, I’m wondering who was at home in the executive suite when it came to this new entry.