Behind the scenes of the Big Brother house

On Saturday, 20 members of the Television Critics Association toured the Big Brother house, live studio, and backstage areas. As a member of TCA, I was one of those fortunate people. After we visited the studio and back yard, executive producers Allison Grodner and Rich Meehan each took half the group, and led us through the camera ring and the house itself. Because a veto competition was being held, the cast was locked in the back yard, and thus we were able to actually go inside.

Considering the nature of the production, it was awesome of them to let us invade, and I learned a lot. I left with an even greater appreciation for the work they do, although, of course, there’s still a lot about the show that bugs me. This story details my observations about the first half of the tour: the studio, the back yard, and the backstage areas. Tomorrow, the interior of the house itself, from the hairy shower drain to its smell.

Do not copy and paste this into your message board or blog, or I will hunt you down and use your toothbrush to clean the filthy house. Feel free, of course, to link, using the handy tools at the end of the story.

  • The house is not a house at all. Since season six, it has been the interior of a soundstage: Stage 18 at CBS’ Studio Center, known as the Radford lot for the street is on. It is the same stage that once housed “Yes, Dear.”
  • Stage 18 is divided in half; the back is the house, the front is Julie Chen’s studio, where the sycophants/live audience sits and cheers. The yard is actually tacked on to the side of the building, and a hole was cut in the wall to allow access to that space. (For a better understanding, here’s a satellite view; the soundstage is directly below the yard, and has three U-shaped A/C units on its roof. Julie’s studio is on the left and the interior, of course, is on the right.
  • Julie’s studio, or the front of the house, is just a TV studio with one wall dressed to look like a house, and similar decor on the two walls perpendicular to it. But the rest is completely a TV studio, from the lights overhead to the visible soundstage walls. This year’s design does not look any better up close. My impression is that Julie’s studio is about the same size as the house’s interior, so that gives you an idea how small the house actually is.
  • Julie’s couches are kept off to the side when the live show isn’t going on.
  • We entered the yard from an exterior door that’s on the opposite wall from the houseguests’ entrance to it. Outside of that were storage sheds and work areas where they build challenges. Visible were the plastic cars from Sunday’s reward challenge and the red, yellow, and green panel with the teams’ time on them. There were also pinatas from the mayo challenge.
  • The yard is ringed by mirrors and, above that, by a wall and a fence. (To see that, check out this 3-D view; you can just close the box that pops-up about installing something, which isn’t necessary to see the map.)
  • Because of the high walls and fences on top of those, it’s not quite like being outside. Instead, it’s like being inside with a huge skylight overhead. Of course, it’s better than being in the claustrophobic house, but the space is not that big. I was surprised that, in previous seasons, multiple conversations could happen at once out there.
  • Wednesday’s veto competition, a giant crappy-looking fake pinball machine, was set up in the yard. The couches and pool table were covered with camouflage tarps, and surrounded by potted plants. Producers told us that they like to completely transform the space.
  • The grass in the back yard is fake, which Rich Meehan said helped save water while noting that having real grass just didn’t work.
  • The hot tub, surprise, are both small. They seem like they are made from cement. I briefly debated dipping my hand in the water and then sucking on my fingers so I could later get tested for various communicable diseases, but I did not.
  • The houseguests never see the producers or camera operators, with one exception: they may actually be able to see the jib operators, who are on the roof of the back yard, during challenges. The jib camera was swooping overhead as we wandered around.
  • Actual rock music started to play over the house’s speakers when we were in the back yard, and we were quickly shuffled out so the houseguests could enter for the competition. That’s to get them pumped up, which may explain why they always shriek when they run into the back yard.
  • My group headed upstairs to master control, which is in the stage’s mezzanine (PDF diagram). Areas 182D, 182E, and 182F are all the same room, except 182F is a booth where producers talk to the houseguests in the diary room. Directly to the left, on the raised platform in front of the booth, is where loggers sit, and at the front (or, using the diagram, far left) on the room is the panel of monitors that show every single camera in the house, labeled things like “STORE” for the storage room.
  • Eight people were in the room watching monitors, not including the booth, and the second of two rows included the loggers, people who sit and type everything that is happening, 24/7. Using special software that had selections like the houseguests names and specific rooms, one wrote down what each camera was showing (e.g. “CU ENZO”), while the other appeared to be typing what they were actually saying.
  • The show has a different team of people for every episode.
  • A monitor at the top right had all four Internet feeds on it, and they appear on other monitors throughout the space, too. In other words, they always know what you feed-watchers are seeing.
  • The booth is where producers interview the person in the Diary Room. That booth has glass that looks out on the wall of monitors, but it is also capable of pulling up any camera in the house at any time.
  • Downstairs, we entered the “camera cross” or “camera ring,” dark, black hallway that circles the house and all of its rooms. It has windows that are, of course, the mirrors in the house.
  • We were instructed to wear dark clothes, and also remove things like our white name tags. There are two reasons for this: First, it’s possible the houseguests could see you through the windows. Also, because the cameras film through glass, the reflection of light clothing in that glass would appear in the shot.
  • Directly under the windows is a shelf, basically, that extends into about a third or 50 percent of the way into the space. It has a roller coaster-like track on which cameras sit on tripods and roll along the track. (Forgive my lack of technical terminology here.) When we walked through, all of the cameras had been rolled along the track all the way to the back yard for the veto competition.
  • Underneath that shelf are blacklights, and things like cables or protrusions from the wall have glow-in-the-dark tape to prevent tripping or bumping into them, and there are arrows and “emergency exit” written on the ground in glowing tape. It’s kind of like a haunted house.
  • We entered and walked parallel to the front of the house, with the living room and then kitchen visible through the windows to our right; it did not occur to me as we were in that space that the “door” to the house must cut through that space.
  • The camera ring is kind of like a large 8, and wraps around the back yard and goes back into the house. The part of the 8 that encircles the house is cut mostly in half by a stretch that juts into the center of the house space, which means camera operators can basically be behind three walls in each room. To provide that access, the house’s interior is shaped like a U, with the have-not bedroom at the top right, and the bathroom at the top left. The door is at the center bottom, the kitchen to its left and living room to the right.
  • The camera ring connects to the back yard, so we followed the tunnel, turned left, and then turned right, and we were on the pool/hot tub/couch side of the back yard, watching the veto competition.
  • Besides camera operators filming the challenge, there were several producers with headsets observing the challenge from behind the glass. I saw three who were recording the results of the challenge as it happened on score sheets that were specific to the competition, which had multiple rounds. It was still going on when we left.
  • The houseguests looked bored as shit, and in between turns and rounds sat and waited, perhaps for the go-ahead from producers.
  • Watching this group of dummies in person, on the other side of glass, was weird, and very much the “human zoo” that Grodner called it. Having observed Survivor challenges, I was struck how different that is, since those contestants can see gathered producers
    and crew members (and visiting journalists). The hamsters see nothing. Thus, the urge to tap on the glass or scream something was overwhelming.

Next: We enter the house through the storage room, and invade the houseguests’ personal space without them knowing.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.