Big Brother finals casting process: how it works, rules finalists must follow

Big Brother debuts its 13th season this week, introducing us to eight new cast members and several returning cast members. All went through a process that we’ve often heard mentioned but that, until now, has never been revealed in detail: finals.

That refers to the final stage in the casting process, when finalists are brought to Los Angeles for several days of screening which may end in them being immediately rejected or kept around for days. In an interview, a finalist for a recent season of Big Brother explained that process in detail to me, and showed me related documentation, some of which I’ve included below. (That person asked not to be identified by name because producers may still consider him for a future season.)

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Big Brother‘s finals is an intense and highly structured process which is outlined below, and there’s more information in the two documents that follow: a letter preparing finalists for the process, and details they are given once they arrive.

  • Finals took place at the Sheraton Gateway hotel at LAX over nine days.
  • Of those brought to L.A.–the finalist estimates there were 40 to 60 people–the finalist was placed in a group of 15 to 20 people of the same sex. They did not all arrive at the same time. After the IQ and personality tests, the finalist’s group was cut in half. By the end of the week, it was cut in half again, to four people.
  • Upon arrival, finalists are given a grid for appointment times (hilariously misspelled twice as “appointmnets”), and times are written in as they are assigned during the week. Possible appointments are listed as Producers, Medical, Psych A, Psych B, Call Back, and Written Test.
  • Finalists are assigned daily times for “Personal Breaks”: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Pool, and Gym. Each of those was a 45-minute block except lunch (required to be room service “in your room”) and gym (which is an hour.) If producers schedule an interview or other appointment that conflicts, the finalist cannot reschedule that break.
  • Finalists spend the rest of their days in their room, where they can watch TV, use the Internet (producers pay for it), or call people, but are not permitted to tell others where they are.
  • Finalists leave their room for appointments on their own, but are required to call the production office when they return to their room, giving their initials–the primary way they’re identified during finals–to check in.
  • The same handlers/PAs interacted with the finalist, with a different person assigned to watch over each break: meals, pool, and gym. While the instructions below insist that “You may not press anyone for information about the finals process,” some PAs were forthcoming with information. The finalist was told on his last day that just 20 people remained overall, and thus he was doing very well in the process. Likewise, while finalists are instructed to not look at one another, they do anyway, just like at Survivor finals.
  • Finalists are given a stipend of $50 a day that must cover all meals, and said that because the hotel’s restaurants were so expensive, he only bought breakfast and dinner. Other finalists used their stipends–or their own money–on alcohol in the bar. For dinner, they had the option of eating in the restaurant or the hotel’s bar.
  • Producers collect finalists’ keys every night, essentially locking them in their rooms. Hotel staff is instructed to not help them if they are locked out.
  • Producers insist that they have moles among the finalists (the instructions say producers have “people we call ‘spy’s'” [sic] who “will try and test you to see if you engage in conversation”), and threaten them with disqualification. This scare tactic worked, as the finalist I talked to said he was extremely paranoid and was convinced his room was bugged.
  • On day one, two tests were administered: an timed, standardized IQ test, and a personality test. The personality test was broken into three parts: an hour-long multiple choice test, and two 15-30 minute shorter exams. Some of the questions, he said, asked things like if the finalists had ever considered suicide; what they would do if they discovered their sister was a lesbian; and what they’d think if their mother was revealed to be a murderer.
  • On day two, producers interviewed him for just over a half-hour; he understood that the longer the interview, the better. That group included his casting producer; executive producers Alison Grodner and Rich Meehan; casting director Robyn Kass; two camera operators; and three interns who typed everything he said. The hotel room’s TV set showed his own face, so everyone could see what he’d look like on TV.
  • Grodner had a large binder that he guessed had applications from the semi-final rounds, because she kept referring to things he’d said or written previously. At this point, he said, it was already very clear exactly how he would be edited and portrayed on TV. There were questions about why he wanted to be on the show, who he’d previously slept with, and which contestants from previous seasons he was most like. (Those finalists who’d never watched the show were given DVDs to watch.)
  • Later, the finalist met with the show’s psychologist for five or 10 minutes, but said that was more of a meet-and-greet rather than an interview.
  • The finalist had a separate appointment with psychologist Alan Downs (who has appeared on Oprah and is the author of The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World). That interview was different, he said, because while producers were asking questions about why finalists wanted to win and how they’d interact with others, Downs asked internal questions about his internal motivations.
  • Several days later, the finalist had a call-back interview with the producers (Grodner, Meehan, and others) and CBS executives, including Jen Bresnan, CBS’ reality TV executive, who he said was more confrontational than the others and debated everything he said. While the medical test was scheduled for later that day, the finalist was told he’d be leaving the next day and would do medical tests at home, which he understood to be code for being cut.
  • The finalist’s flight home was on a different airline, even though production booked a round-trip ticket for the initial flight.
  • The finalist learned two to three weeks before the show debuted that producers rejected him, following weeks of e.mail messages from the casting producer saying producers were still piecing the cast together; he was also told that producers kept going to between him and a person who actually made it to the house.
  • The finalist was told that producers would call a week in advance of sending a camera crew to make sure that they’re home. In other words, and as is obvious on television, houseguests are not blindsided when they are confronted by a camera crew.

Below are documents given to finalists. The first two pages are sent to finalists before casting begins, while the second, the letter from Our House Productions, is given to them at finals. Take note of the following things:

  • Finalists “MUST have seen at least one FULL season” and already know what their strategy will be, both of which contribute to giving us similar seasons year after year, rather than allowing a group of houseguests to approach the game in a new way.
  • Finalists are told that they absolutely “DON’T” get along with all kinds of people–and of course, producers want to know exactly who they don’t get along with, likely so they can cast for conflict.
  • Multiple sections of these two documents refer to contestants’ appearance: their clothing (they’re encouraged to buy new clothes for the casting process) and their bodies (they “should be looking and feeling [their] best for pool time”)
  • As noted above, the rules for finals say that producers have “spy’s” (they’ve pluralized it with an apostrophe and S, rather than spelling it correctly: spies) who will report back to producers.
  • Judging by what producers have chosen to communicate in ALL CAPS, there are two things that are important in the rules: Talking to other people is “ABSOLUTELY NOT PERMITTED” and they “CANNOT TAKE SPECIAL REQUESTS FOR SNACKS.” I love how those two things are essentially weighted the same.

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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.