'The Voice' Mogul John de Mol on Sale to ITV, Enduring an Extortion Scheme and Why 'Utopia' Failed in the U.S.

Gregor Servais/Phenster
John de Mol

Talpa Media's CEO also opens up about whether the struggling reality genre will rise again.

This story first appeared in the May 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

It's rare that an executive can claim to have launched a television genre, but John de Mol, CEO of Talpa Media and creator of Big Brother, Fear Factor and Deal or No Deal, comes as close as anyone to having invented reality TV. After developing Big Brother (still airing on CBS and in dozens of other countries) in 2000, the Dutch mogul sold his first company, Endemol, to Spain's Telefonica for around $5 billion, then launched Talpa, which hit it big with The Voice. The divorced father of one son has had a tumultuous year in which a blackmailer threatened his life and that of his sister, Linda, a Dutch film star (a 70-year-old man was arrested and goes on trial in June). But on May 5, de Mol, 60, closed the sale of Talpa to British TV power ITV in a deal that could net the mogul — whose estimated net worth already tops $2.2 billion — up to $1.17 billion more. De Mol invited THR to his Hilversum, Holland, office (decorated with his Emmy for The Voice, of course) to discuss why his pricey Utopia flopped on Fox and whether the struggling reality genre will rise again.

Why did you sell Talpa now? Did suffering through a year of threats and extortion impact your decision?

Issues in my personal life — including the extortion that went on for more than a year — absolutely had an impact. You also have to realize this was the fifth time this had happened to me and my family. I'm a well-known person in this country. I realize I am a target. But [if it ever becomes] necessary for me to have two bodyguards in front of me, two bodyguards in back of me, to feel safe, I will leave Holland.

Under the conditions of the ITV deal, I'm still the official boss of Talpa, but I have a three- person management team handling the day- to-day shit. So I can focus even more with my team of 25 people to focus on development and creation of new formats. That doesn't cost me energy, it gives me energy.

Many say reality TV is dying, with ratings declining and shows like Fox's American Idol getting canceled.

I find it so funny that even in the United States, where TV was invented and where the level of professionalism is higher than anywhere else, you ignore history. Fifteen years ago, the quiz show was dead. Then came Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and there was a complete revival. Now, everyone claims reality is dead. I don't believe that, but let's assume it's true. Then maybe next month, maybe next year, somebody, hopefully Talpa, comes with another reality show and suddenly the genre is full of life again.

But the fastest-growing side of the business — streaming services like Netflix and Amazon — aren't interested in reality.

Not yet. But Netflix has had a few flops as well. House of Cards put them on the map, but they haven't had so many hot properties. Now they offer fiction because that is the easiest product to distribute all over the world, because every­one is used to watching American fiction. But there will be a moment that will change into other genres and it only needs one successful example to open it up. I'm a content provider, I only see it as an opportunity.

Why didn't Utopia work in the U.S.?

Scheduling. I think Utopia is sort of a reality soap. I compare Utopia with General Hospital. That needs daily programming. One hour a week is not enough to build it up. It was our mistake. You can't blame Fox because Fox can't schedule a daily show. It's not their fault.

Talpa has a development deal with Chinese Internet giant Tencent. Is China the place you see growth?

Talpa is ahead of every other TV production company when it comes to their position in China. We are lucky that The Voice in China is so ridiculously successful — we get a few hundred million viewers [on state channel CCTV]. Based on that success, we are hot, so we sold six, seven, eight shows, both to traditional networks but also to online networks, which have become like digital TV stations in China. Tencent has 600 million subscribers. If just 10 percent of them watch the Chinese version of Utopia, we have 60 million people watching.

When did you realize your impact on pop culture?

Two weeks ago, I took a holiday in Thailand. I started zapping through the hotel TV. There was the Thai version of The Voice. Four channels further was The Voice, the American version. I was on a call with my sister, who was in Miami. She was watching The Voice. Her ex-husband in Switzerland was also on the call. He was watching the local version of The Voice. That says it all.


Conquering the World: De Mol’s Top 5 Global Formats

THE VOICE (60 countries)
Talpa’s singing competition is biggest in China, where it draws more than 120 million TV viewers.

BIG BROTHER (45 countries)
Endemol’s strangers-living-together format has outlasted the horde of copycats it helped inspire.

FEAR FACTOR (30 countries)
The Dutch version was called Now or Neverland. Canceled by NBC, the Endemol format endures worldwide.

I LOVE MY COUNTRY (28 countries)
Talpa’s quiz show, pitting teams from neighboring nations against each other, has been a hit in Europe.

THE VOICE KIDS (27 countries )
The pint-size spinoff, featuring singers aged 6-14, has become an international champ in its own right.