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Welcome to Utopia, coming to a screen near you

By Thomas Escritt

LAREN, The Netherlands (Reuters) - 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 outside world.

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 television.

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," he said.

"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.

FARMERS' BRIDES

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.

CANNIBALS

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 anymore," says novelist Herman Koch of the culture that is refashioning the Amsterdam region.

"Sometimes it seems a city of just artists and creatives."

(Editing by Mike Roddy and Tom Heneghan)

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