Fox Reality Chief Simon Andreae on 'Utopia' Experiment, Fixing 'Idol' and His New Network Bosses
The man who launched 'Naked and Afraid' talks about the Fox exec shuffle, the challenges of live TV and Gary Newman and Dana Walden's casting input on his first big show
This story first appeared in the Sep. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Setting a new course for Fox's reality empire was not Simon Andreae's original plan. The 48-year-old Brit had been back in London for only a month when then-network chief Kevin Reilly tapped him as Fox's alternative programming czar — taking the place of Mike Darnell, whose colorful 18-year reign concluded in 2013. After nearly a decade in Los Angeles, where Andreae spent time at production house The Incubator and Discovery Channel, he was supposed to settle down in his homeland with his wife and four sons. Instead, he has returned to L.A. and is about to launch Utopia, the most ambitious broadcast reality series since NBC's The Voice. A yearlong "social experiment" that quarantines 15 strangers of wildly varying backgrounds, the show echoes Andreae's sensational early résumé (see the U.K. Channel 4 docs The Truth About Lesbian Sex and Armed Robbery Orgasm), but on a much larger scale.
Fox has been something of a social experiment since Andreae's January arrival. The network canned The X Factor, and American Idol suffered its worst season. Reilly's June exit brought 20th TV's Gary Newman and Dana Walden to the creative helm and David Madden as president of entertainment (he is Andreae's new boss). All of the above are betting big on Utopia, with three episodes to kick off the fall season beginning Sept. 7.
What are the biggest differences between reality programming in the U.S. and the U.K.?
The cost and wherewithal of launching a new show here is much higher — when you have an existing franchise that's doing pretty well, it's a more logical task to keep freshening for as long as you can. Audiences are less used to long runs over there. I used to buy and watch shows where the whole marketing was "a major two-part series." How is that even a series?
Do you have "show envy" about anything that has premiered during the past year?
Honestly, no, but there's been a few that are really smart and interesting, like that Israeli show [The Extra Mile] about divorced couples getting together to win prizes for their children. That's clever and emotionally high-stakes. I love what became The People's Couch on Bravo, Gogglebox in the U.K. It takes advantage of not-quite-real time … shows that air in the same week they're filmed. You get a sense that what you're watching is really current. We're doing that with Utopia.
When twins Moby and Fitz were born in 2004, then-reality chief Darnell fortuitously sent Andreae a matching pair of Fox beanies.
Is live TV as high a priority for you as it seems for everyone else?
For all the hype around live programming, which ABC tried in Rising Star, there's the frustration that you actually have to watch it live every minute in order to take part. You can't start a half-hour late, catch up and vote in the end. I think the shows resonating with me are current but not, strictly speaking, live.
Utopia has live elements. How did you settle on that as your first Fox show?
It probably would have been safer to not make it my first big entree. (Laughs.) It wasn't necessarily supposed to be. We were developing, internally, a couple of shows that had similar beats. When I saw Utopia, which started in Holland, I was immediately captivated. It's aspirational; you can smell from the conceit that it's going to be a soap. [Creator] John de Mol has been very good at putting his arms around the zeitgeist and what's coming tomorrow. It wasn't a difficult call. I didn't want the other networks to have an opportunity to bid for it, so I spoke to Kevin and [Fox Networks Group chairman and CEO] Peter [Rice] and flew directly to Holland that night.
Have you decided what type of ratings you'll need to justify keeping it on the air all year?
I haven't put my finger on what would be a satisfactory number. I hope it launches significantly above average, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if it's a show that grows. It's a reasonably difficult show to market in that we don't have footage — we have nothing to show. We have no scripts; we don't really have guardrails for content. We're placing 150 cameras on a compound, and people are just living it out.
Andreae plays in an expat cricket league with several other unscripted executives, including Nigel Lythgoe and Mark Burnett.
A lot of observers aren't clear on your role with American Idol. What is your involvement?
David Hill stepped up to supervise [after Darnell left]. It happened that he did a good job — he refreshed the set; he got a much better and effective set of judges — but there was a bit left to do. For whatever reason, we ended up with a top 20 [group of contestants] that was less than stellar. David wanted the opportunity to continue the turnaround, so he asked and was offered Idol [season] 14. We touch base every now and then, and he tells me what he's doing, but he doesn't report to me. After this season, I don't know. We'll take a look at it.
The perception is that Idol is a sinking ship. Why keep it on the air?
I think it's the original and still the best. It's the only one of the singing shows that consistently makes megastars — I think that is its place on the schedule. It's arguable that singing shows have been a larger slice of the pie than perhaps the audience has an appetite for, but I don't think they'll go away.
After you developed Naked and Afraid at Discovery, a lot of nudity-themed reality fare popped up. Will there be another hit in that genre?
There is a physical allure to shows where people aren't wearing clothes. The trick, of course, is that the dynamic must require the nudity. As fun as it might be to watch naked tennis, there's no particular point. Naked and Afraid was designed to be the most physically brutal survival show, and that was a practical piece of television originally. At Discovery we had three or four survival shows that were struggling, and I wanted to develop a show where you could have new characters every week. Also, my own catalog of what I've developed and produced has shows that go … further — initially they might elicit a gasp of disbelief or people feeling it's not appropriate. Naked and Afraid was an internal struggle at Discovery to get commissioned. I love the title, but we had pushback because you can't have naked on basic cable and you can't imply that Discovery stars are afraid. I said: "But that's God's title. When Eve eats the apple and they put on the fig leaves, God says, 'You look like a knob in that outfit. What are you doing?' Adam says, 'Lord, we were afraid because we were naked.' "
Your new bosses don't have a huge history with reality fare. To what types of shows have they been responsive?
For people who don't have that unscripted background, they cover it up quite well. They have a weirdly symbiotic partnership where they work extraordinarily well together. They've been wise, energized, thoughtful … I want to say "cheeky," but it's not quite that. It's really good mojo.
A family portrait shows (from left) Fitz, Simon, Jacob, Jonah, Lisa Jane and Moby. (Jacob is now 16, Jonah is 14, and Fitz and Moby are 9.) The Andreaes split time between L.A. and London.
Gary and Dana were involved in casting Utopia. What specific changes did they ask for in terms of diversity?
They wanted a little greater age range. They wanted a slightly more obvious statement of the Christian points of view. They wanted to make sure that if we were starting a new world called Utopia, it was peopled by a sufficiently diverse group of characters.
What is the craziest pitch you have heard?
I had just moved to Channel 4, and my department was science and education — the boring department. On the other side of the network was factual entertainment, which had just generated Wife Swap and Supernanny. I was told, "Make science rate like Wife Swap." One of the first pitches to me was the science of the human body meets Through the Keyhole, which in the U.K. is basically Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. It was a show called Through the Asshole. A week later, I read that an anatomist was doing a live autopsy to promote the opening of [the art exhibition] Body Worlds. I rang up the producer and said: "Let's do Through the Asshole — but we're not going to call it that. It's going to be called The Autopsy." [It premiered to a 20 percent share of the U.K. audience.]