* Show's creator also was originator of "Big Brother"
* De Mol's success draws investors
* Show plays to peoples' worries about future
By Thomas Escritt
LAREN, The Netherlands, Feb 18 In a windswept
enclosure southeast of Amsterdam, shivering volunteers are
building a home for themselves from scratch, under the constant
gaze of television cameras relaying their struggles to the
They are contestants in "Utopia", the latest reality show
from John De Mol, the man behind "Big Brother" and many other
shows that have made the Netherlands synonymous with reality
And if "Big Brother", launched some 15 years ago, presaged a
later world of social media, with its proposition that private
lives are better widely shared, De Mol thinks "Utopia" reflects
the concerns of today's audiences.
"Our trendspotters came back with one consistent message,"
"People are worried about their finances, about their jobs,
about their futures, about governments interfering in their
lives. So we said: 'Why don't we let them build the world
they've always wanted, a Utopia for themselves'?"
Perhaps the original brainwave behind reality television
came more easily in a country where people rarely close their
curtains on long winter evenings, giving passers-by on the
chilly streets of Amsterdam's 17th-century canal district a view
into peoples' living rooms.
The trend set by De Mol with "Big Brother" became a huge
financial success too, earning millions for Dutch investors and
drawing the attention of media giants to the Netherlands.
Just last week, Warner Bros said it would buy Dutch
production company Eyeworks for a reported 200 million euros
($274.05 million). Eyeworks has produced a slew of reality
shows, including "Obese," "My Kid is Too Fat," and "Slumdog
Holiday" which aired in 150 countries.
The Dutch television industry has ballooned since the 1980s,
when three public channels mostly put out foreign re-runs and
only aired programming a few hours a day.
Now, when surfing Dutch television on any given night,
reality shows dominate. Subjects range from wilderness survival
and weight loss, to high school drama and farmers looking for
brides, the finale of which had a quarter of the nation - more
than four million viewers - glued to their televisions.
The Dutch were the third largest exporters of "formats", or
camera-ready ideas for television shows, in a global market
worth 9.3 billion euros between 2006 and 2008, behind the United
States and Britain, according to industry group FRAPA.
"It's in our genes," said Patty Geneste, founder of
Absolutely Independent, an agency that takes formats and
develops them for sale around the world.
"If you have a small domestic market, you want to sell to as
many countries as possible."
In the control room for "Utopia", rows of producers and
editors sit in front of giant screens, tracking the show's
inmates 24 hours a day with gentle flicks of the joysticks
controlling the cameras.
Watching them from plush cinema-style chairs behind a
one-way mirror are clients from the United States, Germany,
France and much of the rest of the world who have come to decide
if "Utopia" is something they want to buy.
"Everyone wants to see the control room: it's like mission
control," said De Mol. "We're in the lucky situation that it's
been very busy in that room."
The 15 people who will spend a year in the enclosure must
build their living quarters from scratch, making money by making
and selling things ("some wooden toys, maybe, or giving
massages," says De Mol) to people outside the show.
At the end, the participants will vote each other off one by
one, with some help from the audience.
The winner will walk away with all the money, while
billionaire De Mol and his company Talpa Media hope to profit
from sales of the show, which has some 1.5 million viewers a
week in a country of 17 million.
For starters, Talpa Media has just inked a deal with Fox for
a U.S. version.
De Mol insists the Dutch environment is special. Public
broadcasters in the Netherlands make headlines with programming
that would never make it onto the screen elsewhere.
Two presenters tried out cannibalism by feeding each other
with surgically removed parts of their bodies.
Another broadcaster ran a game show with an unusual twist,
testing refugees whose asylum bids had been rejected on their
knowledge of the Netherlands.
The growth and importance to the Dutch economy of ever more
creative forms of entertainment, at the expense of traditional
industries such as manufacturing, alarm some viewers.
"It's not a normal city any more," says novelist Herman Koch
of the culture that is refashioning the Amsterdam region.
"Sometimes it seems a city of just artists and creatives."
($1 = 0.7298 euros)
(Editing by Mike Roddy and Tom Heneghan)