9:00am PT by Brian Porreca
Go Inside the 'Big Brother' Control Room as Producers Reveal Season 19 Secrets
Allison Grodner and Rich Meehan had toyed with naming their production company Human Zoo, and an afternoon spent at the Big Brother season 19 house reveals why.
Inside the house, the 16 houseguests are seen sitting on one another's laps, dancing while doing the dishes in the kitchen, and even screaming. Observing them just inches away are the longtime executive producers behind the CBS reality series, who settled on Fly on the Wall Entertainment instead.
And that's exactly what The Hollywood Reporter was when invited for a close-up look behind the scenes of the summer staple: a fly on the wall.
While the houseguests are trapped inside the house as they fight for half a million dollars, Grodner, Meehan and a staff of over 400 are locked away outside of it, in a compound with several floors, multiple rooms and hundreds of monitors.
In Grodner's main office, there's a flat screen mounted on the wall to keep an eye on what they still refer to as the human zoo. (She says the houseguests often compare themselves to the dolphins at Sea World.)
Next door to Grodner's office is Meehan's, both located on the "story" floor where they have just finished editing the season's premiere episode. Upstairs is the control room, where a team sits intensely focused on logging the cast's every move. Next to that is a room housing the audio crew who are tasked with listening to what the houseguests are saying. Farther down the hall is the operating station that connects directly to the famous diary room, where one houseguest is currently discussing religion and how another player's story made them cry.
It's just another day at the Big Brother house as the long-running reality hit gears up for its 19th season. After pulling the Big Brother curtain back, THR sat down with the producing team behind the series to discuss what fans can expect this season, their recent live-stream collaboration with Katy Perry and why an all-stars season may never come to fruition.
The name Fly on the Wall Entertainment is a nod to the show, yes?
Allison Grodner: It's also the programming and unscripted world that we're in. I come from a documentary background and the way that we like to do these shows is [to be] a fly on the wall, eavesdropping on real life. Big Brother is an example of that. Maybe it's not completely real life, but within the confines of this bubble it is as real as can be. It's the ultimate social experiment.
What were the other names that were tossed around?
Rich Meehan: The Human Zoo! And you now know why!
Your first all-online version of the series, Big Brother: Over the Top, was also the first series for CBS All Access. Will it come back?
Grodner: CBS and CBS All Access were really happy with how it did. It's just a matter of what's going on with CBS All Access, which we don't know yet.
Meehan: Star Trek: Discovery is coming out and that's their next thing. I don't know what their strategy is.
Grodner: We all learned a lot. It was fun to try and re-imagine this series and how to do something in a live 24/7 format as its primary outlet. We learned what works with the audience and what doesn't.
Last year it premiered a week after season 18's finale wrapped. If it does come back do you want it to air immediately following this season again?
Grodner: Well, personally ... (Laughs.)
Meehan: The big thing is, what is that time frame? How soon after the summer? But you also have to keep it away from the next summer. What is that perfect time period in the middle? I'm not sure.
Grodner: You want them to be separate. Part of the reason we have survived as long as we have is that it's a summer event. Other shows do multiple seasons. With Big Brother it's that one-time special event. You don't want to infringe on that.
In partnership with YouTube, another digital venture you produced this year is Katy Perry's Witness World Wide where she invited fans in to watch her live for 96 hours in an effort to promote her latest album. Throughout the live stream she confessed her fandom for Big Brother with guests including Sia pointing out how similar the setup of her special was to the show. How were you approached for this?
Grodner: Live-stream has been a big part of Big Brother since the very beginning, and it's interesting how technology has caught up with it. We've always been a multiplatform show. Katy Perry had this idea to live-stream her life at the launch of her album. It had a lot to do with the themes of her album. It was all her idea. Her and her camp came to us —
Meehan: And said they wanted to do a reality event.
Grodner: We thought it was an interesting way to use the live feed.
What were the biggest challenges you faced with this project specifically?
Meehan: Trying to build the production, scheduling it, booking it all while keeping everything a secret. We had six weeks to pull the production together. It was like putting together a reality show, a talk show and a musical performance all at once with limited time.
Was it produced here out of this studio, like Big Brother?
Grodner: Not at all. It was a four-day event on location. It was very different in terms of the way that it's technically set up. We had to invent how to do live-stream from a remote location, not a studio where we have the infrastructure and the wiring and everything that's here. Because of our experience with BBOTT and Big Brother, we were a logical company for them to come to. This year we've been doing more live programming.
We also had This is Life Live on TLC. It was a four-day event as well, just by coincidence. We went live across the country where we did four nights in a row, two cities each night, opening it up to live moments for each episode. TLC announced that we are doing it again. It's something we're uniquely qualified for and something we really like. The way to use live and/or live feed in unscripted is fascinating. With Katy Perry, it was a giant marketing stunt.
What was Perry looking to get out of this?
Grodner: She wanted it to be streamed live and she didn't want to see any of the crew. She wanted to feel like she was just her and not on a television show.
Meehan: She wanted just real people around her. Why we're diving more into the world of live streaming is it seems like you need to figure out ways to get something to cut through. What the cool part of Witness World Wide was was something would happen and it would become the pop culture news of the day.
What makes someone an ideal subject for this format?
Meehan: You need a subject who is willing to allow an unfiltered look at their lives. If you are going to be live 24/7, you can't hide who you are and the audience is savvy enough to know when you are not being genuine.
This summer there's has been the return push for unscripted content on broadcast networks. Why do you think that is?
Meehan: One hour dramas were ruling for a long time.
Grodner: Budgets for unscripted tend to be lower. That's something that works better in the summer. There's a ton of unscripted shows in the pipeline along many networks right now, which is good. There was a little less in the past years. [For newer shows,] it is really hard to cut through though. When you got a new show now everyone just wants a second season. It's amazing that we're on season 19 of this show and there are only a handful of shows like that right now. We have a fan base that has grown with us generationally. In casting, we see people in their early 20s say, "I've been watching this with my mom since I was a kid." That's nice that we've been able to hold on to more generations, but that's hard.
Which reality series do you view as your biggest competitor?
Grodner: Biggest competitor? Is there one? (Laughs.) We've been able to hold steady where we are.
Meehan: If we can have three shows in the top 10 every week, we're happy. We tend to start out strong and then slowly grow. Some shows start big and then fade.
Grodner: Slow and steady wins the race! We're not going to pretend we're number one all the time. America's Got Talent is having a great season. We have a company that's doing more than just Big Brother. We want to be working all through the year. When unscripted shows do well, it's good for the genre. Even though Big Brother has been on the air for this long, it is still very cutting-edge in what we do. We're turning out three hours of primetime television every week, going live to the internet and having this complete multiplatform experience. So, what's the next place to bring the reality genre? One of the places that has really been popping for us and is the future of unscripted is working within a live space.
One of the biggest conversations in reality TV right now is the Bachelor in Paradise controversy. They have resumed filming, but what do you make of how everything went down?
Grodner: We're dealing with real people and real situations on all of these shows. I don't work on that show, but I believe they feel the same: that the safety of our contestants is a priority and always has been.
On the Bachelor franchise, it's known that alcohol is unlimited. On Big Brother, the alcohol provided to the contestants is scarce. What's your philosophy behind that?
Grodner: It's a controlled amount. We are dealing with a very intense situation in tight quarters and they can be locked in the house for days, so everything that is consumed in the house is controlled by the production.
Meehan: It's a pressure cooker in there, and anytime we put alcohol in, it's a very small amount.
What were the conversations like ahead of this season and deciding on the twist?
Meehan: [We decided on the temptation twist] in March. We had multiple concepts that we really liked and we presented them to CBS. We landed on this as the one we were going with. We walked them through the basic strokes of it.
Grodner: Temptation has always been a theme throughout the show. It's something that happens. Are you tempted to get into a showmance? Are you tempted to go against a group because something is being offered to you? If we made that the theme of this whole summer we thought we could make it bigger and better.
Throughout the years, the cast of Big Brother has been diverse in terms of their backgrounds, religious values and political views, but usually politics doesn't come into play. With the current political climate, how do you see that changing this season?
Meehan: There's definitely different political views in the house.
Have they been talked about yet?
Meehan: I have not heard it. People are smart enough to know it's a hot-button issue. But they're still getting comfortable in there.
Grodner: They haven't been in there long enough to see the differences. We absolutely are representing the country and have a cross-section of voters, supporters and non-supporters of our current president. But I don't know if that will become a big topic in the house. Even though we are representing that cross-section here, I really hope that Big Brother becomes an escape from what we are all being bombarded with.
As it stands now, who are the early standouts who have a real shot at winning?
Grodner: (Looks at the live monitor of all the houseguests.) If Megan [Lowder, the 28-year-old dog walker who once worked in a prison in the Middle East] doesn't burn herself out early it's very possible because she is smart and a leader. Do you know who is playing a great social game right now? Dominique [Cooper.]
Are there any showmances already blossoming in the house?
Grodner: There's certainly attraction for sure. Mark, who is a romantic, is already smitten with Jessica [Graf.]
Meehan: He hangs out with Christmas a lot too.
Grodner: There are a lot. You just saw as we were walking through Christmas and Matt [she was sitting on his lap.] But earlier I saw Raven [Walton] and Matt!
What have the past few days looked like in the house?
Grodner: Right now, we're in the only time of Big Brother where we're not live. But already within the first 48 hours we have seen flirting, lines drawn, alliances and our first big fight!
Who are the likely suspects for that fight?
Groder: Strong personalities.
Meehan: It was a man and a woman, and a temptation played into it.
Grodner: It's in the Thursday night show. There are temptations everywhere and when you take a temptation, there's a consequence. It's bound to spark drama if someone takes a temptation.
Meehan: In night two, there was a temptation in the head of household competition that someone took. It shocked people and caused a bit of an argument.
On premiere night, how are the first temptations presented to them?
Meehan: They were tempted by money, safety and power. The first one was a large cash temptation.
The show has already been renewed for season 20 and the online speculation is that you will focus on the all-stars. Any truth to those rumors?
Meehan: I've heard those rumors too! (Laughs.) We haven't talked about it. It would be interesting to do with 20.
Grodner: But we haven't talked about it yet. Is it even possible? Is that something the audience really wants to see? Do you really want to see all returners now? I don't know.
Meehan: Also, I don't know if we could get all the people we want.
Grodner: It's been a long time.
Meehan: A lot of them are married with kids and they've evolved so much. They're different people now.
Did you watch Katy Perry's live stream? How do you think the pop star would do in the real Big Brother house? And do you really want to see an all-stars season next year? Sound off in the comments section below and stay tuned to The Live Feed for all things Big Brother.