Big Brother is a summer staple for CBS, and for reality TV: a competition that spans three months that can be watched online 24/7, and three times a week on television.
Let’s look behind the mirrored windows to explore what happens behind the scenes on Big Brother, from casting to the house design, the producers’ decisions to the live feeds.
The Big Brother casting process
Before someone enters the house to compete $500,000, they have to make it through finals casting, an arduous process that lasts more than a week.
The Big Brother casting process is similar to that of Survivor and other reality shows: Casting selects a number of people to come to L.A. for interviews with casting producers and CBS executives, and other things like psychological testing.
I interviewed a person who went through it, and detailed the entire finals casting process in this story, which includes copies of documents that Big Brother finalists are sent.
Fun fact: My story and those documents have actually been discussed on Big Brother itself.
On the Big Brother 14 live feeds, eventual winner Ian Terry told former winner Dan Gheesling about reality blurred, and receiving documents that were “exactly the same, typos and all,” as he said. Watch:
The Big Brother house
While the design of the house changes every year (here’s what’s different for BB20’s house), the house has used a soundstage at CBS Studio Center, also known as the Radford lot, since season two.
The design—which is changed for every season, including the winter Celebrity Big Brother seasons—is created by production designer Scott Storey.
In my in-depth interview with Scott, he explains everything from how the design process works to how the design has to prevent cheating.
Julie’s studio and the house are both in stage 18, as is the control room and the back yard.
The houseguests are confined to the space for the duration of the game, of course. But Big Brother contestants can go outside, kind of.
During season 12, CBS opened the house to a tour for TV critics. Our tour started from the yard, which is not as open or expansive as it seems on TV.
Then we continued into the control room and into the camera cross—the space behind the mirrors where camera operators do their work. (That’s how George Clooney secretly toured the house during season two.)
I wrote about what it’s like behind the house’s walls and in the Big Brother control room,
Then we went from behind the scenes into the house itself, as the houseguests were in the back yard participating in a challenge. We saw everything from smelly food to hair extensions.
Speaking of food: Houseguests who are have lost challenges or are otherwise being punished have to eat only something the show calls “slop.”
The Big Brother contract and rules
All potential finalists are sent Big Brother’s contract, which is actually multiple documents in one: 36 pages that include releases for medical information and documents that family members sign.
The contract also specifies some rules and also how much Big Brother contestants are paid.
Big Brother’s producers and CBS’ CEO answer questions
One way to learn about what happens behind the scenes is to ask the people who are responsible for producing the show. Its producers and network executives—even the person who runs CBS—have given insight throughout the show’s history.
During season 12, after TV critics toured the house, executive producer and showrunner Allison Grodner talked to TV critics about the show. Among the things she said:
- Big Brother is “the least manipulated reality show out there”
- Producers “embrace” and “love having” live feed watchers
- They do not show sex because the show is “conservative”
I interviewed Grodner and her producing partner, Rich Meehan, a few times, and have asked them about things including:
- Why they cut the live feeds
- If Diary Room questions can affect the game
- twists, and twists involving people with relationships
- the safety of houseguests
- the random nature of the final HOH competition
Finally, former CBS CEO Les Moonves—who is married to Big Brother host Julie Chen Moonves—talked publicly about the show when he was running the network.
Specifically, he defended it during the season of bigotry, BB15. He also said he watched every episode of Big Brother.
Two years later, he criticized the casting of BB17.
Moonves left CBS in the fall of 2018 after multiple women said he sexually harassed and/or violently assaulted them, and also retaliated against them.
Host Julie Chen Moonves started using her husband’s last name on the air during that time, and return for Celebrity Big Brother season two and Big Brother 21.
Thoughts and ideas about BB
I’ve published quite a few essays and arguments about the show over the years—some written by me, and some written by others.
Here are a selection of those:
- Confessions of Hamsterwatch, the Big Brother live feed watcher
- The problem with Big Brother’s disingenuous Diary Room interviews
- Why Big Brother stays toxic
- What a Big Brother fan learned watching BB18 with houseguests
- Why Big Brother Canada tops Big Brother US in every single way
- Big Brother Canada 6 was supposed to be ‘for the fans,’ but it was actually a fiasco
Updated June 2019.