Alibi V.23 No.46 • Nov 13-19, 2014 

Idiot Box

Is It Paradise Lost for Reality TV?

FOX cancels “Utopia”

It came as no big surprise when, on Nov. 2, FOX announced it was canceling its new reality show “Utopia.” Most people, who weren’t watching anyway, took no notice. And that, it seems, is part of the problem. See, “Utopia” wasn’t just another limp fall TV show to fail in the ratings. It was one of the most expensive flops in FOX’ history. And it may be signaling the death knell of reality TV.

FOX had grandiose plans for “Utopia”—so much so that the network dumped a reported $50 million into it. The show was based on an already popular Dutch series in which 15 ordinary people are tasked with creating and maintaining a built-from-scratch society in a remote area. Cameras were to follow participants 24/7 for an entire year to record their various triumphs and setbacks. In theory, it sounded intriguing. In practice, it was just “Big Brother” minus the walls.

Initially, the show aired twice a week on TV and had a website with 24-hour-a-day live camera feeds. Following a splashy premiere after an NFL football game, the show’s ratings plunged from a mediocre 4.6 million viewers to a mere 2.4 million. Within a few weeks, FOX had scaled back to one night a week—Fridays—where the show struggled to keep two million viewers. Cast members were contracted for an entire year. They barely made it two months.

The appeal of reality TV—for the networks anyway—is that it’s cheap, costing about $10,000 a minute to produce as opposed to about $50,000 a minute for scripted shows. But FOX just pissed away $50 million for eight weeks’ worth of unscripted failure.

FOX had billed “Utopia” as “the biggest social experiment ever televised.” What viewers got was just another bunch of scrap-happy reality TV personalities fighting it out for their 15 minutes of fame. Nobody on the show seemed remotely interested in farming or raising chickens or building a viable system of governance from the ground up. So FOX filled airtime by watching the fundamentalist Christians fight with the homosexuals (who would have guessed?) while the bikini-wearing cast members made out with one another (again, who would have guessed?).

The appeal of reality TV—for the networks anyway—is that it’s cheap, costing about $10,000 a minute to produce as opposed to about $50,000 a minute for scripted shows. But FOX just pissed away $50 million for eight weeks’ worth of unscripted failure. And they really should have seen it coming. Back in its heyday, reality show juggernaut “American Idol” would regularly pull in 30 million viewers. Today, it attracts less than 13 million. In February FOX gave up on its attempt to create another “Idol”-esque sensation with “The X Factor” due to poor ratings.

Even America’s love affair with C-list celebrities is waning. Back in 2009, E!’s “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” hit a series high 4.1 million viewers (which is huge for E!). Today, it struggles to keep half that number and is in serious danger of being canceled. Earlier this month, TLC was forced to cancel its hicksploitation cash cow “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” when it was alleged that family matriarch June Shannon had dumped her husband and was now dating the sex offender who raped her eldest daughter.

Evidently, Americans are sick of amateur singers, do-nothing celebrities, drunk college kids, “outrageous” rednecks and real housewives. Hell, when we live in a world in which a lowest-possible-common-denominator show like VH1’s “Dating Naked” can ride a massive wave of pre-show hype and outrage to a meager 826,000 viewers, maybe it’s time for the networks to get real and dump reality once and for all.