At an event for TV critics Wednesday night, I talked with Big Brother executive producers Allison Grodner and Rich Meehan about this season, from its twists to its nauseating couple, Brendon and Rachel. What follows is the majority of the conversation, and there is some fascinating information, particularly about how their idea of “story” drives everything we see and the decisions they make as producers.
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The duos twist and bringing people back
Allison Grodner said, “We did it this year to twist things up. We thought it would be interesting to see the couples in the house that honestly have found relationships on our show, or whose relationships, as in the case of Dick and Daniele, had evolved on our show.”
I pointed out how all CBS reality shows are now bringing contestants back, and asked if that came from the network or was just complete coincidence. Grodner said, “There’s no network mandate to bring back people. It is just part of the game and part of the twists we planned for this season.”
Having someone come back into the game
The next twist was spoiled by CBS.com, and involves having viewers vote for someone to compete against the next evictee to return to the game. “It’s always fun to have America involved,” Meehan said. Grodner told me, “It will be a surprised as to how it’s done, because that didn’t go out on CBS.com.”
How they think the twist worked
I asked them to rank the season on 0 to 10, where 10 would be the best possible outcome and maximum drama. They didn’t give a direct answer, but Grodner said, “It’s certainly better than–what was our twist last year?–the saboteur. I think this twist actually generated a lot of conflict, but really what it was. Bringing back those duos gave us a lot of story, and that has been what’s driving this particular season are those pre-existing relationships. The two couples that met in the house, both very different, opposite ends of the spectrum.” Meehan said that while “Big Brother’s ultimately an individual game,” the twist of bringing back duos was “a fun, unique idea we hadn’t heard before on other shows.”
Jeff’s homophobic rant
Jeff ranted about how gay men shouldn’t teach kids, but that never made the air, which CBS explained with its predictable and bullshit response. I asked the producers about that specifically, and the answer they gave was very, very similar to what they said last year when asked about the bigotry that often surfaces on the live feeds. Grodner said, “We certainly don’t condone that behavior,” and also called it “a very interesting conversation. … I would go and say that it did air. Big Brother is a number of things: it’s Showtime After Dark, it’s live on the Internet, and it’s the broadcast. And for the broadcast, we’re taking the story that we’re moving forward and we’re putting everything there that moves the story forward and helps to keep the story going. This particular element wasn’t necessarily that. We also try not to–we weigh it very carefully, though, but try not to put things out there on the general broadcast that will proliferate hate–hateful ideas, and things like that. Although we did not censor it because it’s out there live on the Internet, which is part of it, we certainly don’t support that viewpoint and don’t necessarily want to repeat it on the broadcast.” Meehan added, “If it became a critical point of the show, and the story within the show…”
This is an interesting argument, and reveals one way in which reality TV is less than real: what we see is what producers want us to see, and they select only those things that go with the storylines they’ve selected. Grodner told me, “it’s about relationships, if it had turned to something where all the sudden Jeff found himself on the block and Kalia was in power, or Kalia had some sort of influence in the game at that time, I could see us going, ‘Well, is this something that we should–but we would still consider it because, like I said, it’s not a viewpoint, whoever says it, by the way, Jeff or anybody, we certainly don’t done it and that we would want to willingly put it out there for the sake of putting it out there.”
Grodner said, “We never say never. I think in this case–it was also, if you remember, an incredibly really short little bit that didn’t really have an ending to it, so you have to weigh it, you have to weigh what you want to put out there and also what we have going for the story.”
Meehan said, “The challenge is that in the early, in the first three weeks of the season, there’s so much story happening, it usually gets kinda complex, and we wind up using a lot more time to try to tell that story. Whereas once we hit the middle of the season and some of the houseguests have been evicted, we have more time to start with the slice of lifes and the evergreens and the character pieces.”
I also noted that Survivor has had difficult conversations, like about race this past season. “That’s Survivor’s only way of showing anything, and as far as we’re concerned, it was out there, it’s out there all over the Internet, people can judge for themselves how the want to feel about Jeff. It is part of Big Brother,” Grodner said.
First, as to Brendon showing his penis to people online, I asked if that’d ever be discussed on TV, and she said, “I don’t know. It wouldn’t be because we’re purposefully not using it; there’s so much other drama, especially if one of them’s leaving. If that’s why Daniele nominated them, well, then hey.” Meehan said, “We thought when Dick was in the house, we’re like, this is obviously going to become a story at some point, because he’s going to use that.”
As to the couple themselves, Allison Grodner loves the material Brendon and Rachel give them. As another critic and I expressed annoyance at everything about Brenchel, she said, “Come on, it’s so funny though. That’s so funny. Oh, but it’s genius.” She also said, “You can’t script the stuff Brenchel says. Come on. She’s actually competitive. They’re so not self-aware. … Come on, sitting in the bush? Crying in the bush?”
How they’d change Big Brother
I asked Allison and Rich how they’d change the show, given unlimited resources and time–would they make it like the UK version? Or is there something they’ve always wanted to do but haven’t? Grodner said, “I think what we implemented season two is what drives the reality soap opera, that has honestly been working very well for the show all these years. It’s the upstairs, downstairs, it’s the power shift. And to have that power shift every week, and it still amazes us to this day what happens. …. It’s so fascinating to see and really drives the game and the reality.”
Meehan said, “The format works. Bottom line, the format works,” and Grodner added,” “we to continue to keep it fresh by throwing in–look, we tried the duo twist this year. The golden key was something we never had before, the idea that you could be safe and get a free pass. It was interesting to see. We try different things each year; you have to, to keep these fans that come into our house on their toes.”