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The problem with Big Brother’s disingenuous Diary Room interviews

The Big Brother Diary Room segments have been insufferable for quite some time. The producers’ insistence that the houseguests amp up their energy results in a lot of shouting and grating voices, but that’s so typical now that it’s become part of the charm—or lack thereof—for this mess of a series.

But there’s a new problem. In their Diary Room answers to a producer’s interview questions, the houseguests this season just don’t sound like themselves. At all. They sound fake and scripted, and it makes the show less entertaining to have to sit through one insufferable soundbite after another.

Whether the houseguests are being fed lines directly (doubtful), are just being asked to talk about very specific things (likely), or are being told to rephrase what they just said (very likely), it’s not working. What they’re saying sounds like poorly written dialogue, not answers spontaneously delivered in response to questions.

The Diary Room interviews have been changing—i.e. getting worse—for years, but it seems particularly bad this season. My end-of-season brain purge prevents me from remembering many details from previous seasons, however. Compounding the effect of these awkward interviews is that this season’s episodes so far have been quite boring, so it may just be that the Diary Room segments are standing out more.

But regardless: they’re a problem. And there are so, so many!

I counted the Diary Room segments during tonight’s episode seven, and got to 58—which is probably low because they’re so common and come so fast that keeping track wasn’t easy. That’s well over one per minute, though there were several periods in the episode when that were blissfully free of the Diary Room, and some minutes that included multiple cutaways to those interviews.

A count of the Diary Room segments by Twitter user @clamperls found a total of 505 DR sessions so far this season, an average of more than 72 per episode. That’s too many for such weak content, a parade of cliches and beyond-obvious statements that add nothing to the show.

How Big Brother uses the Diary Room segments

The overuse of confessionals and/or interviews is not a Big Brother problem. It’s a reality TV problem.

Confessionals have become the go-to device for easily guiding the narrative in reality TV. Instead of offering actual insight from the cast or contestants, telling us something we don’t know, they’re narrating, filling in the gaps that the footage and/or editing cannot fill on their own.

So often, what we hear from reality show cast members is completely useless. During the Power of Veto competition, Corey, who was hosting the competition, said there was one minute left, and then the editing cut to Paulie in the Diary Room saying, “So I hear Corey…” Yes, editors, we know! We heard him, too!

Besides raw narration, confessionals on Big Brother are also used for:

  • Summarizing strategy, such as when Tiffany said, “Am I really going to risk my entire game for a back-door plan?” This can be useful in some cases, because the privacy of the Diary Room allows the houseguests to talk through all options and say things they can’t say otherwise. But these strategy lines rarely offer any kind of penetrating insight; it’s just a broad summary of a thing that is already obvious.
  • Introducing scenes or conversations. Here’s Victor: “I’ve just got to talk to him to see where his head’s at.” Why couldn’t we just figure that out by ourselves when we saw Victor having a conversation?
  • Stating the obvious, perhaps for people who just tuned into Big Brother for the first time because they thought NCIS was on and thus have no idea what’s going on. “I have to win this power of veto to make sure I stay in the house. If not, I might get evicted this week,” Bronte said. Another example came from Tiffany, who said, “I want to win this thing so I have the option of what to do with the POV.” No kidding: You wanted to win power in the game so you could decide what to do with that power?
  • Judgement. Yes, just as in real life, judgement of others is a central part of reality shows—and that’s especially true in competitions that are primarily social games and require analysis of others’ behavior. For example, after Victor was nominated, Paul told us, “He kind of dug his own grave.” Often on Big Brother, that’s superficial judgement. Here is Frank’s dripping-with-sexism explanation of why he might want Tiffany out: “Tiffany’s confrontation, she’s overly emotional, and that is a big question mark in my book.”
  • Showing off one’s personality or trying to force a personality, such as Paul referring to his facial hair to proclaim his safety in the game when he said, “Looks like this beard’s here to stay,” or Paulie saying, “I think I’m going to have to nickname myself Two Chains for the week.”
  • Comic relief. This season, nearly 100 percent of that comes from Da’Vonne, who’s just genuinely funny and fun to listen to—even when she’s doing one of these other things, like narrating. For example, discussing the veto challenge, “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s feet, and right now Big Brother got me right in the middle of a big toe party. Like, ya’ll got a foot fetish? What’s up?”
Da'Vonne Rogers, Big Brother 18, BB18, Diary Room

Da’Vonne Rogers, who’s excellent in her BB18 Diary Room interviews. (Photo by Monty Brinton/CBS)

As that last example makes clear, the only person who can consistently handle confessionals this season is Da’Vonne. Nearly every confessional she’s given is one full of life and humor, and it matches her personality in the house, even if it feels like she’s been asked to talk about something very specific.

Frank is on the opposite end of the spectrum. He is absolutely the worst at making what he’s saying sound believable. There’s a heavy artificiality masking a lack of conviction when he talks. For example, at one point he said, “These are definitely not qualities we want, in an alliance member,” and he dropped off at the end like he was running out of air.

But Frank isn’t alone.

Why Big Brother’s interviews are so terrible

The BB18 cast shows up repeatedly in the Diary Room to talk directly into the camera and speak in cliches and platitudes in their odd, affected personas.

Contrast that to the insight and emotion we get episode after episode from Survivor’s interviews. Survivor is often guilty of overusing some contestants’ interviews and underusing (if not ignoring) others. But Survivor’s editors make good choices—and the people asking the questions don’t coach or lead the cast members down a path toward mendaciousness.

Why is this happening? Why does it feel so phony?

A few years ago, Big Brother 4 winner Jun Song wrote about the Diary Room process, and offered a lot of insight, including hypothetical questions that might be asked by a producer. She wrote, in part,

“The diary room only puts words in your mouth when you have to explain instructions for a competition, or if they need you to repeat something more clearly, but that’s about it.”

Not anymore. Jun updated to add an acknowledgement of how much the Diary Room interviews have changed since she was on the show in 2003:

“Alison Grodner and Rich Meehan and crew now cast a very different breed of Houseguest, and it’s only natural that some of them need to be fed lines because some of them are just plain dumb. But most of the time you’re seeing ‘rehearsed’ lines is because the first time the HG said something original in the diary room, it probably wasn’t a perfect thought. And so the diary room may ask the HG to repeat what they said in an exact way.”

And that is exactly the problem. These aren’t perfect people; they don’t speak in perfect sentences, or even coherent ones, so why ask them to be perfect? Let them talk and be themselves! Even if every single thing we hear on television is a version of something a houseguest said organically, having it be rephrased or repeated created a terrible outcome, like a cookie that was baked three times in a row.

Whatever’s happening in the Diary Room is resulting in a product that sounds increasingly less genuine. And if there are 58+ examples of inauthenticity in a prime-time network reality competition every week, something is broken.

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.