'Big Brother' Producers on Controversy, Bigger Competitions and 'Twisted' Season 16 (Q&A)
"I think it's really hard for the cast coming into this season to not be affected by last season," executive producer Allison Grodner tells THR of last year's controversial 15th go-round.
The spotlight is brighter than ever on Big Brother.
Last summer's controversial 15th season saw numerous houseguests lose their jobs following uproar over racial, homophobic and misogynistic remarks made inside the house. It forced CBS to air a disclaimer preceding each episode midway through the season, a first in the summer staple's nearly two-decade history.
A year later, longtime Big Brother executive producers Allison Grodner and Rich Meehan hope to move on from last season's media firestorm — though they acknowledge that the new crop of houseguests will be affected. In what manner still remains to be seen. What is known is the group of 16 will be enduring what's been billed as Big Brother's "most twisted" summer, with twists such as two competing Heads of Household, a Battle of the Block competition and an interactive viewer element, Team America. (Big Brother host Julie Chen is expected to announce more twists and competitions on premiere night.)
In an in-depth chat with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of season 16's two-night premiere, Grodner and Meehan explain why they didn't change their approach after last summer, the decision behind adding more competitive elements and the "heightened awareness" on the show.
After the controversy surrounding last season, did you change your approach for this year? Were you inclined to approach it more conservatively?
Allison Grodner: No, there's nothing different. This is a social experiment and we take people from all over the country — we're looking for great people, we're looking for a unique mix of people, there's diverse backgrounds, there's diverse personalities, points of view. I think it's really hard, though, for the cast coming into this season to not be affected by last season. Certainly there are things to be learned from what happened and what happened to some of the people who said some of the things they did last season. I think that did not go unnoticed this year by the cast going into the house.
Now that almost a year has passed, what did you learn as producers? Were there specific points you felt were important to have going into this season to ensure that something like last year didn't happen again?
Rich Meehan: No, I think it goes back to what Allison said. The show's always been a social experiment, and over the years, we've always put people with different points of view inside the house and see what happens. Now unexpected things happen — you don't know everything about everybody — but it really is a social experiment. People go into the house, they forget the cameras are on.
Grodner: They become themselves and they say things that certainly we don't condone and no one was happy that that happened, but it was very real. Hopefully, and I think it did at the time, it sparked discussion, it sparked debate back and forth with people talking about it, and hopefully something positive ultimately can come out of it from the people that did this last summer. And learning that unfortunately those thoughts are still out there and those opinions are still out there and hopefully it brought it to light and it's something people can talk about and try to change.
Meehan: We're still looking for a diverse group of people from all over the country, different ages. Our approach did not change at all.
Grodner: It's really hard not to be affected by what happened last summer in terms of our castmembers' having seen it, having seen the news around it, having seen what happened to the people when they came out [of the house], so I think it will be different.
Do you feel better prepared should a similar controversy arise this season?
Grodner: There is a heightened awareness of the Internet and the 24-hour nature of the show that maybe in the past has not been an issue for all of us, but it's real. It's the real world, it's real life and unfortunately it came up last summer, and now we have a whole new group of people who are bringing new energy and excitement and points of view inside the house. Every summer's different.
Last season was also the first time a disclaimer preceded the episodes. Will there be one again this year?
Grodner: That was ultimately a network decision. It's not something we decide over here.
From the announcement of the Battle of the Block, it seems more weight is being given to the competitions.
Grodner: It's a new competition, but I don't know if more weight is given to it.
Meehan: It's a weightier competition than a Have and Have Not competition for sure. Battle of the Block is definitely going to shift and change the power in the house, so our Sunday episode has a lot of new elements because of this new challenge and the effect the challenge will have on the game. We have a really great format, and the format is the engine of the show and it works really well. What we're trying to do is every season the Big Brother twist has almost become part of the format, like what's going to be the curveball, what's going to be the surprise to keep the houseguests on their toes going into our 16th season? We love that idea on that opening night, everyone comes in with a plan and then there's a wrinkle to the game that suddenly makes everybody rethink how they're going to play.
This season also puts emphasis on two Heads of Household, something that had been done in previous seasons but never for an extended period of time. Why do it this cycle?
Grodner: It was a difference from the last few seasons where there were co-HOHs — they were either in a duo or they worked together, or, I think there was a couples thing we did one season. In this case, they're two HOHs and each one will be nominating two people for eviction — a total of four — and they're operating independently. They are ultimately going head to head in this competition with Battle of the Block, where one is going to end up in power and one is going to end up not in power.
What were the challenges in inventing new twists or wrinkles to the game 16 seasons in?
Grodner: Every season we try to keep it fresh, mix things up — whatever ultimately that means, whether it be a game twist, something the audience participates in, something that involves casting. We're always looking for new ways to freshen it up and keep the audience interested as well as the contestants.
Meehan: The creative process is different [every season]. Sometimes the idea strikes like a bolt of lightning and then sometimes we work on it for six or eight weeks to figure out how it's really going to affect the game and make sure it works as well as it possibly can.
More twists will be revealed on premiere night. How many ideas were you toying with before you landed on these select few?
Meehan: Usually we have a top three we like that we're playing with and typically one rises to the top. This year our banner is that this is the most twisted summer ever, so we're going to have a really fun game twist and then we're going to have an interactive twist that America can get involved with and have an impact on the game that they haven't had before that they'll have a lot of fun with.
Which you're calling Team America. Was that to give more incentive for viewers to watch live and keep up with it more so than they have in previous years?
Grodner: I think we've always had that on this show because it's live. What's nice with this show is people do keep up with it. It's not like other shows where you bank it for weeks and weeks and then you watch it because that would be really long. I think there's always the incentive with the news out week to week being that we are really live. Because we are live, the interactive thing is something we can do that not a lot of shows can do — to have the audience really play, impact the show, make decisions, feel like they're involved and that they have a voice.
Meehan: We like to come up with those twists where we can give viewers and fans some way to impact the game, so we do seek it out. We do try to add an element like that every season.
Did the HD part of it affect any part of the planning or design of the season that you hadn't faced before?
Grodner: We're excited about the HD happening. It was a process that had been in the works for three years. It was a series of layers that needed to happen technically in order for our final moment this year to reveal the show in HD. We had to convert all of our systems, so that's been a process. On-camera, we're excited about it.
Meehan: We added more cameras where story typically happens, so we have better coverages of areas. We adjusted height so we're in the action a little bit more. We were able to do things that improve the show and the viewers' experience of watching the show. We put a lot of thought into where to put those [extra] cameras and where they would be most effective.
Was it ever a serious consideration to bring back favorites or returning houseguests this year?
Grodner: We mix it up. As you've seen in recent past seasons, we've brought back several all-star players. It just depends on what we're looking to do each season. We're in season 16 — our last full all-star [season] was seven, so I'm sure there's one in the near future. [Right now] we're building up more all-stars.
Any challenges unique to this season that you can speak to?
Meehan: We're always trying to make sure the show better, whether that's HD or making it bigger, better challenges in the backyard, great twists, fan interaction, so we always try to raise the bar to have a better show and continue to make it a better experience.
Grodner: Every year, as we say, technology catches up with the show in terms of how we exist in this multiplatform level, where we're live on the Internet, live on TVGN, broadcasting three times a week and all the things happening on CBS.com too. The challenge each year is to make sure we can rise to the occasion technically and make sure to use it to their full advantage of the show because we can, given that we have all these outlets.
Meehan: Every season's a challenge — putting three hours of primetime.… We really want to tell great stories and we want to have a high quality of storytelling, so that's really our challenge every season, within the turnaround and pace of the show to still put out a really high-quality product.
Were there any specific notes given by CBS about what they were looking for this season?
Grodner: CBS has been incredibly supportive of the show and every season we try to get the best cast possible and everyone's very involved in that. It's all about what can we do to make it better and keep improving and making sure to keep it fresh and keep viewers coming back, which we've been lucky — knock on wood — to have happen. We've seen some very recent growth in our numbers and we hope to continue that trend.
And how would you describe this new cast?
Grodner: What's fun about this cast is they're like onions. They're one thing on the surface and each one of them has some things that are unexpected. We didn't necessarily go for that, but that's what happened. And as we looked at each one, it's like, "Oh, it's not what you'd expect from the event planner, she's also a mom of three." You've got the female minister from the South, you've got the undercover officer. There are some very likable people this season, as well as a couple of villains. You need some real gamers in there and we do. And a lot of them are fans.
Big Brother premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. on CBS.