'Big Brother OTT': Julie Chen Talks America's Vote, Viewer Fatigue and Season 18 Gameplay to Avoid

Ahead of Wednesday night's premiere, Chen talks all things 'Big Brother.'
Sonja Flemming/CBS

The Big Brother format will undergo some big changes to make the leap to CBS All Access for the new digital edition. But thankfully, longtime host Julie Chen will be back as the face of the series for Big Brother: Over the Top.

Would it really be Big Brother without her?

"I just didn't feel like it would feel like the same brand if I didn't host it!" Chen tells The Hollywood Reporter ahead of Wednesday's premiere on CBS All Access, which comes just a week after the finale of Big Brother 18.

THR got Chen's candid take on the new edition of the series, which new cast members are and aren't her early favorites, and what gameplay from last season she never wants to see again. 

On season one of Big Brother, if someone told you that there would a version of the show all online, what would you have said to them?

I probably would have thought it was either impossible to do [or] there's not enough of an audience for it. Who knew from the year 2000 that our mobile devices would be able to see live television or things streaming so easily and clearly. I just don't think back then my brain would have been able to wrap around that there would be technology available to support that or enough of an audience to even attempt it. 

What if someone told you back then that not only is there an online version, but the show just finished its 18th season?

I would be like, "When donkeys fly!" There used to be a show called Alice and the waitress would say, "When donkeys fly!" I was nervous about whether or not we would even complete season one. If the ratings had gone below a certain number they would have just pulled a plug on the show let alone season two or three. 

What was your reaction to finding out about plans for Big Brother: Over The Top? What were the earlier conversations with you like?

I had a million questions like, how, when, why? All of the typical journalist questions. In my mind, when I first heard it, I thought it was going to be exactly like the broadcast version in terms of the production value, three episodes online a week instead of on broadcast. We had to figure out how to do it without it costing as much as it does for the broadcast version. At least for this first season, because it remains to be seen how much of a profit can be made, if a profit can be made, if there's enough of an audience to watch it. I'm a little bit of an old soul. I'm more of a traditional media person. I was like, " So, how is this going to work?"

You're obviously very busy. Did you have any hesitations about hosting? How did they make it work for your schedule? 

It was never a concern of mine that I wouldn't want to host because I love this show and I feel like already it's going to be a departure from what people like on the broadcast version. You got to give them as much as you can from the original. I just didn't feel like it would feel like the same brand if I didn't host it! With my schedule, there was only a little bit of a concern about how am I going to juggle it all. I've done worse schedules than trying to have to combine Big Brother and The Talk during a normal year. When I was traveling from New York to L.A. every 10 days and doing morning news and Big Brother -- that was just a killer. So I know I can do it. And they're also very accommodating and they're both on the same lot.

Last year you mentioned to me that you weren't a fan of America voting in season one. What do you think about America voting for the digital edition?

It's different because America won't be voting every week for who gets evicted. By the time you're down to the last two, that's ok. That to me is fair for America to vote. In a way it's even more fair because the jury is tainted. The jury is biased. Typically they have vendettas and scores to even. The public does not. So if the final two for BBOTT becomes final two in the traditional sense then it's fair. 

What are your first impressions of the new cast?

I like Cornbread [aka Michael], that guy. (Laughs.) I find the New Orleans restaurant owner Justin intriguing. I feel like the preschool teacher [Danielle] from Visalia. Is she this year's Zakiyah? I feel like she's this year's Zakiyah. 

Out of Jason or Jozea, who do you want to return?

I'm really leaning towards Jason. Jozea was just in. He seems to lead this glamorous, fabulous life. And Jason was a great character, but he didn't last long enough to try and create a career for himself out of it. He went back to living in his mom's basement. I'd like to see him use this as a chance to get out of his small town and change his life!

Are you worried at all about too much Big Brother

No, because look, we've seen Survivor last 30 seasons, twice a year and it's worked for them. I probably would have a little bit of a concern if Big Brother, the broadcast version, was on twice a year like we did the one year during the [writer's] strike. With BBOTT, I just see it like an added supplement to what fans like about the show. I don't think they're going to tire of it.

Would you want to see two seasons of the broadcast version again though?

No. One of the things that is synonymous with Big Brother is the summer. There's just a different mentality we all have during the summer months. And also I feel like the reasons Big Brother stays popular is we get a crop of new fans every summer. Kids are home, there's no school, they can't drive yet, they check out this new show they've never seen, they're online a lot whereas throughout the year kids are in session, there's homework. And meeting the three nights of real estate a week, that's tough.

Do you let your son watch Big Brother or is he too young?

Oh yeah! He started a little bit last year and the year before he came to the final because his birthday fell on the same day so he got the essence. But this year, I've seen such a difference of him understanding and rooting for people and liking certain people. As a matter of fact he and my husband [Leslie Moonves] watch my live show from home together. I call them on Facetime during commercial breaks. 

In terms of gameplay, what types of gameplay from last season do you hope we don't see with the online version?

That's a good question. I did not like Nicole [Franzel] as much as I did the first time she played it because I thought she was disloyal and snakey like her former house mates accused her of being. And I also didn't like [that] there was a lot of jumping ship early on. Other than Paul [Abrahamian] and Victor [Arroyo] even some of the duos I felt like, "Are they really your ride or die?" We saw a little bit of ugliness come out of Natalie [Negrotti] towards James [Huling]. Was she playing him? There were no names that stuck like in the past [with] the Four Horsemen and Chill Town. I didn't like that from the gameplay this season you never got a sense that it was true loyalty that stuck. Even Paul and Paulie [Calafiore], they were like inseparable twins trying to look like each other for a week and a half and then Paulie didn't even vote for Paul in the end. 

Do you agree with the Chenbot? Which houseguests are your early favorites? Stay tuned to The Live feed for all things Big Brother

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