Big Brother’s Grodner, Meehan on live feed cuts, manipulation: “We’re not trying to hide anything”
For years, I’ve had questions about Big Brother, the reality show I usually love to hate and sometimes actually love. Last month, I got the chance to ask a few of those to executive producers Allison Grodner and Rich Meehan, who formed Fly on the Wall Entertainment together last year. My interview came a few days after Grodner’s conversation with critics about houseguests’ bigotry, feed watchers, and more, so I didn’t rehash those points, even though we obviously disagree and have different perspectives about those topics.
Just as I appreciated the way they allowed me and other critics to tour the house in the middle of this season, I also appreciated that Grodner and Meehan were willing to engage me in conversation, and even when I asked the most confrontational questions, they didn’t seem like they were trying to be deceptive. Ultimately, I think they just believe what they’re saying, and believe what they’re doing is best for the show. The reality probably lies somewhere between their perspective, which is tinted from being immersed in the production 24/7, and the conspiracy theories that float around online.
They also talked to me for about 15 minutes—a really long time in this sort of context. As to that, the interview took place in the middle of a packed, incredibly noisy tiny hotel bar that was hosting a Sony event for TV critics. I point that out because listening to my questions, I’m frustrated with my own journalism; there are follow-ups I should have asked and other questions I wish we’d gotten to, but here it is. Finally, this interview was conducted about a month ago, at the beginning of August, when this season seemed to peak, so I wasn’t focused as I would be now on asking why this season was so awful.
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- Rachel and Brendon: While Grodner clearly finds them to be amusing and engaging, she also mocked them and, as she said, their “ridiculous arguments. It’s constant. ‘Well, maybe we won’t be together. No, I love you.’ And you’re like, what is going on in this house? These people have fallen in love in 30 days!” Later, she continued making fun, imitating both sides of their arguments: “‘You’re more than just Vegas.’ ‘No, Vegas is just me.’ It was damn funny, actually.”
- The house’s effect: Grodner said, “People do strange things when they’re locked in that house.” Meehan added, “I think we all would.” Considering how small and how disgusting it was, it’s hard to disagree.
- Houseguests’ emotional state: Grodner said that “it’s certainly a tense, stressful situation. So everyone at one time or another is in the Diary Room, crying. It just happens. And we tell everyone that before they go in that it’s going to happen, but they’ll get through it, and they do.” Meehan said, “They all deny that it’s going to happen, but it always happens.” And Grodner pointed out that people always ask, “‘Why do people act like people die when they leave? It’s just a game.’ Well, wait until you’re in it.”
- Cutting the feeds: I asked Grodner about her claim to critics that “armchair producers” (feed watchers) keep the show honest, which doesn’t hold up because the feeds are cut and/or the houseguests are yelled at when they discuss anything remotely related to the way the show is constructed. Why do they do that? “We tell them we don’t want production to be discussed, we don’t want casting to be discussed. It’s overall confidentiality. It’s no big conspiracy when it comes down to it,” Grodner said. Meehan added, “We want the show to be about them and their relationships, and we want to just stay out of it.”
- Diary Room questions and producer manipulation: Grodner said, “I would go on record and say I think it is the least manipulated reality show and that’s because we have checks and balances in the live feed and our armchair producers. But also because [houseguests] don’t see us. They do not see the person interviewing them. And it’s really important to us that there’s no one being told how to play the game. They’re questioned about their opinion, they’re questioned about their point of view and the pros and cons of what they do. But that’s it. No one is telling them what to do in that Diary Room. And there’s no body language or disappointed looks to read from a producer that you might get on another show.” I thought that argument was interesting, though I later remembered the footage of a producer flirting with a houseguest in the Diary Room.
- The house’s conspiracy theories: Meehan brought up what I found to be the most plausible argument against Diary Room manipulation. He essentially acknowledged that the houseguests themselves think the producers are trying to sway the game, which live feed watchers hear and pick up on, but that’s because the houseguests think everything is a conspiracy. “The thing that’s interesting in the house is that they’re locked in this bubble. So, not only do they have theories about the Diary Room, but people start creating messages of things in the gerbil cages. It’s not just that; conspiracy theories abound all the time, and they kind of manifest in all different forms. That’s just one of the forms.”
Grodner added, “So, no we’re not trying to hide anything,” she said. Then she laughed nervously. Later, she said, “Like Rich was saying, there are conspiracy theories and they start over-thinking and over-analyzing everything in there, including the gerbil cage or the fish tank, or what piece is missing from the chess board and what does that mean? When honestly, someone just forgot to put it back. But that happens, because what else are you going to do in there?”
- Eric’s claim about producer manipulation: I know feed watchers could probably cite a few thousand examples of houseguests talking about Diary Room suggestions, but the most damning one I could recall on the fly was Eric’s claim that he was forced to play the veto, thus keeping Daniele and the obnoxious Dick and Daniele reunion storyline. “He was America’s Player, so I believe—wasn’t that one of the directive’s of America’s Player?” Grodner asked. I told her, no, I didn’t think it was. Meehan then explained, “He had to do America’s bidding, so if America wanted him to do something that was against what he personally wanted to do, his job was to do America’s bidding. So, at points in the game, it probably conflicted with what he wanted to do, but ultimately he was America’s Player, so he had to figure out how to do America’s player.” Grodner added, “Once again, it was season eight, but I’m fairly certain that went back to an America’s Player situation. Once again, I’d say that no one is told how to play the game in Big Brother. They’re not.”
- Another all-star season and Dick and Daniele: I joked that I’d appreciate it if they’d retroactively evict Dick and Daniele, and Grodner said, “So I guess you wouldn’t want to see them in an all-star, huh?” I said that I understood why they’d cast them, but no, I did not want to see them back. “As a human being, do not put them back. You didn’t think the father and daughter story, coming together in the end?” she asked. No, I said. “Didn’t win you over, all right,” Grodner said.
- Rachel and Brendon kissing: I compared Dick and Daniele’s reconciliation storyline to watching Brendon and Rachel making out, and both producers again made fun of this season’s star couple. “There is something weird that Brendon does which is talking and just starts kissing her,” Grodner said. And Meehan added, “And then she picks up right where she left off. It’s impressive.” Grodner then said, “It’s disturbing, I agree with you.”
- Pre-existing relationships and unfair twists: A built-in unfair advantage always bugs me, yet many seasons (though thankfully not this one), there’s an inherent imbalance in the twist. Grodner referenced the twin twist, and said, “it ended up being a disability for them once they were found out. I think when we look at those things, yes, we look at that. It’s a blessing and a curse. From their perspective, you can say it’s actually worse because being found out tears them apart. Look at season nine, with the couple in the house, the boyfriend and the girlfriend, instantly they were a target.” Meehan gave another example: “The fact that Dick and Daniele made it to the end together is something we could have never predicted. They let them stay in the house week after week and didn’t evict them.”
- The Brigade: Grodner called Lane, Enzo, Hayden and, at the time, Matt’s alliance “that great secret alliance. I don’t think any group of people has kept their alliance that secret so long.” When I suggested that they hadn’t done much, she agreed: “They haven’t actually done anything yet, but they kept their secret.” Meehan, however, said that they deserve credit because “they subtly sway the house with the votes. Because they all have friends, they’re able to subtly sway the house.” Grodner added, “You think Four Horseman; they’re definitely not that. They’re smarter than that. And actually good personalities in there. They’re fun to watch. An Enzo and Lane…” At another point, they asked me if I liked any of the contestants, and I said Britney’s Diary Room comments were growing on me, and Lane seemed to be a good guy. Of course, that’s before he said awful things. Grodner said Lane is “funny; he’s a good guy.”
- Matt Hoffman: When I mentioned the houseguests’ general stupidity and how that both contrasts with shows like Survivor but is also fun because we can revel in being superior to them, Grodner brought up Matt and said, “Matt’s the smartest guy in the room, what are you talking about?” Meehan said, “He’ll be the first to tell you.”
- Whether the show will ever be filmed in HD: There’s a reason why the show isn’t likely to be in high definition any time soon, and it has to do with the way Big Brother is produced. Rich Meehan explained, “We would love it, but it’s very difficult because of the amount of footage and tape that we have. And as fast as we have to turn it around, and the sheer space that it would require to have all that media in our Avids would be massive.”
- The final HOH competition: As Grodner was pulled away into another conversation, I asked Meehan about the third part of the final HOH competition, during which the two competitors are asked to predict the answers jury members give to inane questions. “Now that we’re doing a two-hour finale, we’re doing it live. So you have to have a competition that fits within that hour that you can turn the living room around or do something outside, so it allows us to do that. These are the people deciding your fate, you should know what they think. If you’ve lived with them and know how to play the game. That’s been the theory behind it,” Meehan said. I pointed out that the questions are random and force the contestants to guess, rather than demonstrate what they know about each other because they lived and played a game together, which I think would be far more interesting and fair. Meehan said, “It is more about how well you know them and can anticipate how they would respond to this question as opposed to a fact about their life. You’ve lived with this person for two and a half months; how would they respond to this. You can never predict what they’re going to say, and sometimes they may be trying to—depending upon who the final two are, everyone kind of goes in with different motives.”
- The biggest misconception people have about the show: “This conspiracy theory that we’re out there to manipulate the game and change people’s opinions in the Diary Room,” Grodner said, reiterating the argument she made to critics. “It’s pretty much all out there.”