It’s time for Big Brother’s biggest experiment yet. Wednesday marks the series premiere of Big Brother: Over the Top — the first digital edition of the reality show and the first to air exclusively on CBS All Access.
When news broke that a new season of Big Brother would be airing in the fall, it was received by mixed reactions largely because so many questions surrounded just what the new season would look like in comparison to the flagship network version that just wrapped its 18th season on Sept. 21.
Now, after months of speculation and countless rumors The Hollywood Reporter spoke with executive producers Allison Grodner and Rich Meehan to really find out what this new edition of Big Brother is all about.
How did Big Brother: Over The Top come to be? What were the initial conversations with the network like?
Allison Grodner: [CBS Interactive vp of content and product strategy] Jeff Grossman and the team at CBS All Access came to us. It was the alternative department and interactive that came to us to talk about this idea. From there, while we were producing Big Brother 18, we were also in pre-production, development and casting for this fall. It was all happening simultaneously and a lot of back and forth with everyone to figure out what this new, groundbreaking experiment version of Big Brother would be.
Did you have any hesitations at first with having two seasons essentially airing back-to-back?
Rich Meehan: I wouldn’t say it was a hesitation. The one thing we wanted to do was make sure this version was different than the broadcast version. And it has things that made it unique and its own thing. It’s funny we talk about the broadcast version, the first thing we look at is the weekly hours and then we get into the feeds and this is the opposite version of that. We’re looking at the feeds and the live portion of the show and how to make it really interesting and engaging for people to watch on the feeds. We had to come up with ways to encourage people to watch and log on so we came up with the weekly schedule idea where we have all these weekly events. People can go to CBS All Access and watch everyday. There’s at least two or three things going on. And there will be lots of fun and interactive elements for people. Some are already released. We know now that America will be choosing the winner. We know that they’re going to choose the 13th castmember. But they’re also going to play a role in nominations. They will play a role in the eviction and they will play a role in the twists that roll out this fall. There’s going to be lots of interactivity for fans.
But were you worried at all with airing two times a year and having viewers lose interest?
Grodner: I guess we see that this is something that’s different and unique. Although it still has Big Brother’s brand and the power shifts of the head of household, veto and all of that, we feel like it’s being re-imagined for this digital audience. It is more of a Big Brother adjacent. It’s not the same thing as the summer show. We’re not turning around three hours of television for broadcast every week. But there’s different ways for people to get involved and to watch. This is a live event. It’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The edited portions will be more recaps on a daily basis and a weekly show that will be familiar to people who have seen the broadcast version. But this is really about a live event. We felt that it was different and really added to what Big Brother is. We like to think we’re technologically forward and groundbreaking in many ways and take advantage of new technology.
Meehan: We also are careful. There’s a lot of things that are staples in the broadcast show that are only going to be in the broadcast shows. Like OTEV, Zingbot and a lot of the stuff that people love from the broadcast show — all of those are staying in the broadcast world. They are not going to overlap into the digital world. The digital [edition] is going to be a new style, types of challenges, taking into account that everything has to be live and you can watch the challenges play out live. It’s going to be a totally different experience for the challenges as well. But a lot of those things that are somewhat sacred to the broadcast are going to stay in the broadcast.
For some people who don’t know the double meaning, what was the decision making behind the name Big Brother: Over The Top? Were there any other names thrown around?
Meehan: There were a lot of names thrown around. It was something that [CBS] Interactive really took the lead on. Obviously, it has the double meaning of OTT for the digital version, I think they liked the double meaning of the OTT.
What was the decision-making process behind having America pick the winner?
Grodner: We wanted to make something that was more interactive this fall. The jury is a staple for the summer show and we thought that this would be an interesting experiment that obviously hasn’t been tried here in the U.S. since the beginning. But it also has other elements. There’s a nice balance between the houseguests having control in terms of nominations and evictions and other things within the house so for the audience to have control over the winner was something we were comfortable adding. There are things that haven’t been announced yet and will be revealed the first week where the audience will still get involved and be able to impact the game like never before. So they will have a hand in some of these things, but not complete control over any one thing.
Meehan: We feel like people really enjoy watching the feeds and a lot of it has to do with the dynamic of head of household and veto and the game elements that we added so that there’s this constant strategy happening. We wanted to make sure that those elements stayed the same so that at least that part of what makes the feeds interesting will still be alive. We’re not completely changing the Big Brother game.
Would you ever want America to vote again for the winner on the summer season?
Grodner: We have a format that works. We always add new interactive elements throughout the summer that are fun, like the care package this summer. In the summer edition, we’d like to keep the jury.
Meehan: If the digital version is a success then we have two different versions of Big Brother with different types of gameplay and challenges and then make it co-exist together.
With the cast, some super fans were confused about whether or not sisters Alex and Morgan will be playing as one houseguest or two. Can you clarify that?
Grodner: They will be playing as two houseguests. They’re going into the house together. The question is how will they choose to play that. Will they be upfront about being sisters? Will they try to hide that? We’ve had twists like this in the past where there’s been exes in the house and it’s interesting to see how they play it. This is a casting twist where it will be interesting to see how they manage this. They do obviously look a lot a like, but they are very, very different personality wise. They’re really complete opposites.
I don’t think people will pick up on it right away.
Grodner: That would be cool. It’ll be interesting to see. We leave it up to them in terms of how they want to play it. This isn’t something we’re dictating. It’s just something we thought was interesting for the viewers to see play out. We’ve had casting twists similar in the past, but nothing just like this. This isn’t a twin twist.
The majority of the cast is from the south. Was that intentional?
Grodner: No. In the end, we had people from all over and we just look for the personalities that pop and the interesting mix of people. Somehow that did happen! (Laughs.) We are aware. They’re all interesting and unique in their own right.
Do you find that more live feed subscribers are from the south? Is that part of it?
Grodner: Honestly, we don’t have those statistics. That’s not why there are a bunch of southerners in the house. It’s just the way it all shook out in the end. It’s not intentional by any means.
There are technically more girls than guys this year. Do you think the girls will have an advantage?
Grodner: I don’t know! The girls… (Laughs.) You know how we’ve seen it over the years.
Grodner: Everyone says, “Girl power!” and girl alliances and somehow we have yet to see one really work. (Laughs.) It will be interesting if that happens, but I would put odds against it. Who knows if there will be any showmances this fall and what will happen. There are definitely some strong personalities that might make up for it.
Meehan: I don’t think there’s any pattern to, as soon as one gender has an advantage, that’s the way it goes. It will be interesting to see how it plays out. But my guess is it probably won’t have too much of an impact.
How were you able to switch up the house in such a short amount of time? Can you tease what the house will look like?
Meehan: It’s a smaller transformation than normal. We took our summer house and modified it as quickly as we possibly could in three or four days. It will have a slightly different look. A couple of the rooms will be the same with maybe some subtle changes. The “Have Not” room will change a bit. It was a challenge to get in there and do as much as we possibly could with only three or four days knowing that normally when we turn the house around, what do we have, Allison, eight weeks or something?
Meehan: This one we only had four days. I think it’s a pretty significant change for just a few days.
Grodner: But there will be elements of the prior house.
Every season I ask you for early predictions for who might win the game. Allison, last year you said Michelle Meyer and Paulie Calafiore. Rich, you also said Paulie. What about this season?
Grodner: We were terrible last season! Who knew, right?
What are your predictions this year? It’s different this time because America is voting.
Grodner: It’s interesting. We were just talking about that before. I think Alex has a really good shot.
Meehan: Alex and Shane.
Grodner: Alex and Shane we hope will be popular. I mean not hope, we assume they will be because they’re nice.
When I interviewed Shane he said Big Brother was like the Real World. And I told him, “No, Big Brother is not like The Real World!”
Grodner: (Laughs.) There’s a mix of people who know the show and don’t, just like we have every year. I would say Alex has enough knowledge of the show and has a likability factor. Shane may not know enough to get very far. But people like Paul [Abrahamian] survived to the end this summer. As far as just being gamers, Scott, Kryssie and Shelby will be…. Oh, and Neeley! That will be interesting to see them play. [It’s] really hard to say.
I’m sure they’ll be aware of America voting. Do you see them talking directly to the CBS All Access subscribers asking for votes? How do you see that playing out?
Grodner: We know that a lot of our houseguests do that. They like to talk directly all summer long. We’re ok with some of that. We like to discourage too much of that because we like the idea that this is still ultimately a voyeuristic show and not one where they’re performing at all or appealing to the viewers. Some of the more savvy people that are in here and know the show also know that that can be a turn off as well when there’s too much begging or pleading to viewers.
Meehan: Maybe in the end when there’s only a few people left, maybe that starts playing into it a little bit more, but you still have to navigate the game and survive to get to the very end. Sometimes if you try too hard, it works against you.
For Wednesday night’s premiere, is it a produced first episode or are we seeing everything live?
Grodner: No! This all will roll out live! They’ll be moving on Wednesday night live! This will be how the show will be. You will see it all!
So you don’t even know what to expect for the premiere?
Grodner: No idea! There’s a schedule that’s out there for the viewers to understand when there are moments, votes and competitions. We will go by that schedule. This is all so that the action is constant. For the first time ever, we’re going to have curfews for people to be awake! Waking hours! Instead of logging on to see a lot of people sleeping like in the summer. The live feed is the primary focus. The recaps are just part of how you can watch and get involved, but it’s not the primary method of delivering the show.
How will the live diary room sessions work? Will fans hear the overhead voice speaking to the houseguest in the diary room?
Grodner: They will follow a guideline. This is the first time we’re doing this. We’re going to live stream, but it’s their opportunity to go in there and talk directly to the viewers. [They will be] answering questions that will be given to them in some form. We’re still figuring that out.
Meehan: There will be a list of questions that they all have. They’ll read the question and answer it. The thing we wanted to make sure is that if you’re watching the feeds, there’s still opportunities for you to get inside people’s heads to know what they’re actually thinking, who they’re really being loyal to, who they’re playing. We want to give the houseguests the opportunity to tell viewers what’s actually going on. With only one full hour a week of an episode, we wanted to provide other opportunities to get inside the heads of the players. They say the question out loud and then they go ahead and talk about it straight to the viewer.
If this new edition is a success, would you want to do it every fall?
Meehan: Yeah, if it does well and people like it! We’re kind of breaking new ground. We’re the perfect show to do something like this. Having a big show in this digital world would be awesome. It seems to be the wave of the future.
Which new houseguest is your favorite? Will Alex make it far in the game? What are you most looking forward to about Big Brother‘s new edition? Sound off in the comments section below and stay tuned to The Live Feed for all things Big Brother.