After 15 seasons, CBS’s ode to voyeurism is as popular as ever. Following its most controversial season yet, Big Brother executive producer Allison Grodner on where the show is heading, how the next set of twists provide a necessary revamp, and why she’ll never let go of the reins.
The gist of George Orwell’s acclaimed novel 1984 is that, in a surveillance state, big brother is always watching. And, since its inception in 1999, the world has watched the concept’s namesake, Big Brother: a Dutch reality show created by John de Mol that, for several months, locks a dozen or so money-hungry people inside a camera-covered mansion, where their every moment is recorded.
CBS picked up the rights to the format in 2000 and, that July, launched an American version that averaged around 9 million viewers over the summer. Despite those ratings, a franchise high to this day, the U.S. Big Brother failed to replicate the uncontrollable frenzy that captured the Netherlands the previous year. In order to up the tension, CBS sought a new executive producer to reconfigure the format for American audiences for its second season.
Enter Allison Grodner, a writer-director with a background in documentaries who worked on History Channel’s Modern Marvels, several animal documentaries, and a slew of inspirational teen-centric stories. Upon landing the job, Grodner quickly identified the show’s biggest problem: Viewers controlled the weekly eliminations. While audience voting was, and still is, an integral component in nearly every other incarnation (versions of Big Brother have now aired in 50 countries), Grodner believed America’s puritanical predisposition to vote for the ethically inclined contestants saddled Season 1 with a cast of vanilla players. So she handed eviction power over to the houseguests, encouraging a “survival of the most manipulative” mentality and — voilà! — reality TV gold was unearthed.
In the 14 well-rated seasons that followed, dozens of additional twists have been implemented (twins have secretly played as one person, exes have become unwitting opponents, singles have been paired up, viewers have dictated the actions of “America’s Player”) and later copied by other countries across the globe, making Grodner one of the most successful reality television executive producers currently working today.
That success has also turned Grodner into one of the genre’s most controversial figures, on screen or off, in history. Every season, fans storm the message boards to gripe that she’s manipulating the show’s outcome through player coercion, vote rigging, or plain old cheating, and demand that CBS fire her.
On the eve of the Big Brother 16 premiere (which airs June 25 at 8 p.m. on CBS), BuzzFeed was granted a rare interview with Grodner inside her Big Brother office, a de facto command center conveniently adjacent to the Studio City, Calif., soundstage where 16 Americans will spend the next three months vying for $500,000.
As Grodner sat next to a flatscreen TV split into nearly a dozen smaller screens — each dedicated to a live camera feed from inside the house — she spoke candidly about her haters, the show’s need for endless revamping, this year’s game-changing twists, how she’s kept Big Brother one of the “least manipulated reality shows on television,” and much, much more. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of the conversation.
When you joined Big Brother in Season 2, you quickly diverged from the audience voting component, which worked very well in other countries.
Allison Grodner: It just didn’t work here.
AG: The popular vote works for a talent based show like American Idol because you know what you’re voting for; you’re voting for a talent. In this case, what are you voting for? You’re voting for a person. You’re voting for their personality. So you’re voting for, usually, the good people. And when you’re voting for good people to stay, then the bad people — the villains — are leaving. So you don’t have the conflict that you need for a show like this. We recognized that immediately and knew we had to turn the action of the show inside the house. We had to do something where the people in the bubble were working against each other so we could create the environment for power shifts and a hierarchy that will keep this what we turned it into: a reality soap opera. I just think it’s an American sensibility to vote for good and to take the high ground. I think things might be different now that people now are very savvy to the reality TV of it all, and we’ve certainly allowed more popular votes into the show — and will continue to do so this season — but I think Big Brother works best when it’s driven by the people inside the house.
Over the last 14 seasons, you’ve rejiggered the show every season, trying new twists. When you look at BB 16 do you feel like it’s the best version of the show possible or simply another version?
AG: I don’t know. And that’s what I love about the show. You do everything you can to make sure you’ve kept it fresh, but this is unlike other types of reality shows where there’s a lot of producing and scripting and outlining. This is about getting the right group of people, setting a framework, and saying, “Go!” And you kind of roll with it, hoping you made the best soup you could. Certainly, we know enough now to know what’s probably going to work, but I can’t say for certain until something happens. Obviously, there was last year — and we’ve had years before where people have left for various reasons or been kicked out of the house, but it’s always something I didn’t predict. Since you brought it up, let’s talk about Big Brother 15. Several of the houseguests were overheard making increasingly insensitive bigoted comments on the live feeds, statements that were, initially, not shown on the broadcast. One of the biggest fan complaints was that it felt like producers only ended up addressing the racist comments made by Aaryn Gries, GinaMarie Zimmerman, and others on air when the backlash became too big to ignore.
AG: We heard that a lot last year. What I will say is that this started happening early in the season and as much of a live show as this is, we’re about a week behind until our first live show. The feeling is that we weren’t addressing something that happened but we were in our catching up phase. At the same time — and I don’t think we need to delve too much into this because we talked about this a lot last summer — but we wanted to show in the broadcasts what was ultimately important to the narrative and gameplay of what was happening in the house. And it was really important that, ultimately, the comments had context. When people ask me why I didn’t show Aaryn on the hammock saying this or that and the other thing, the real reason was — beyond the narrative and the story we were telling — we felt it was important to have the other side. Once other people in the house heard it, it became story in the house and then it was put on TV. When it was just people saying ugly things in a corner and gossiping, it only existed online — which, as far as I’m concerned, is still part of our show. You don’t want to put hate out there for hate’s sake. Until we had that counterpoint and until it started to be heard, it didn’t really become part of the broadcast story.
As much as you’re documenting this experience, you only have three hours a week to tell this story, so you have to create storylines and narratives with these characters. Does any part of you feel like including hate speech, whether it was said last season or in past seasons and much of which has been well-documented online, makes your cast “irredeemable” in the eyes of viewers?
AG: You want to be careful about it, but people go on this show and they are themselves. They can’t help but be themselves. It’s interesting when you say “characters” because, in a way, they become exaggerations of themselves in the house. I can’t take responsibility for creating these people. I think it’s a delicate balance all the way around to be fair while still representing the reality of what was happening.
Did anything change about the way you run Big Brother as a result of last season?
AG: (Laughs) It reinforces the fact that I never know what to expect with this show. It also shows you how real this show is. Racist or not racist, these people said these things and they’re out there and in the end, instead of it being a negative experience, I hope we could turn it into a positive experience so that people who watched it, commented online about it, or just read about it learned something from this behavior about how it can hurt people. As a showrunner, it just reinforced that this is a social experiment and we are working with people who are very real.
The amount of racism in the house last season also made many people question how you cast Big Brother. What makes you feel someone is “right” for the show?
AG: Other shows can look at people and know in 30 seconds if they’ll be great. I can’t here. We know that it’s three months; you can’t help but be yourself in that time, so you have to be more than just a sound bite. You can’t be just a 30-second great edit. We really learned our lesson about that in the beginning because if someone has one great story, they’ll be telling it all summer long. We really look for people with layers. We look for people with life experience, people who are unexpected in some way. I think, if anything, this season — we haven’t seen them in the house yet, so I can’t say for sure — but the one thing I can say about the contestants this year is that everyone’s got something a little unexpected about them. It’s not part of the twist, but that’s what is making us so excited about this season. When you approach a season, do you try to cast a certain number of men, a certain number of women, a certain number of people of color, and a certain number of people of varying sexual orientation, or are you just looking the best 15 or so people who audition?
AG: Ultimately, it’s the best people, but we like to keep it an even number of males and females. A big part of Big Brother is that it’s summer and they’re in bathing suits and there’s romance, so you look for young singles who will mix it up. But beyond that, you’re just looking for great people. You don’t want to cast someone just because they’re cute or single, because that burns out fast.
You also face a unique problem because Big Brother requires a sizeable time commitment, with most houseguests sequestered for three months. Since that means you can only cast people who have lives and jobs they can leave for three months, the cast typically features a lot of unemployed individuals, students, waiters, bartenders, and models. Does being able to cast from a small, very specific section of the population affect the show’s potential?
AG: It’s funny because last year we didn’t have any of those. Oh, wait. We did — Caitlin. OK, yes, we’re always going to have some of that. But it’s not like they’re the leftovers; it’s just that age. We get people who are figuring out what to do with their lives and people who don’t normally have families yet. We don’t choose them just because of that. Certainly you get a lot of young people and a lot of older retirees, but look at Helen from last year — she left her job in politics. It’s great because we’ve been on the air long enough for this to be people’s lifelong dream.
Aside from the life experience that a job affords you, does a contestant’s occupation become irrelevant once they enter the house because, on some level, the only thing that really matters in Big Brother is what you do inside the game?
AG: Yeah. That’s true. This show is high school times 1000. It really brings you back. You regress a lot in this house — and how could you not because you don’t have those other real-life distractions. It’s all-encompassing. You’re constantly focusing on the game and that’s why it’s so cliquey. There’s also the paranoia: Who’s my friend? Who’s my enemy? Who’s lying to me? There’s a lot of that, so while I still think it’s important that we have people from different backgrounds, in the end, I don’t think someone is better for the show because of their job. In this game you aren’t what you do, you are who you are.
If the show is high school, do you see yourself as the principal?
AG: Gee, I don’t know… I don’t make the decisions for everything that happens. I feel like the nurse and a lot of people come in for counseling.
I’m curious about the amount of time you dedicate to this show.
AG: It’s insane.
Could you quantify it? During the season, from premiere to finale, how much of a 24-hour day is dedicated, both physically and mentally, to Big Brother?
AG: My family would attest to this, it’s nonstop. Even if I physically leave here, and the same goes for my staff, we are on call. We are living it because the cast never leaves. The crew works in 24-hour shifts, so this is going nonstop. It’s 24/7 from the moment the cast enters the house to the moment the finale ends. Now, physically, I am here six days a week because we’re turning around an hour of television every two to three days. It’s very fast. We’re constantly in post-production, pre-production, and production. In Season 5, I did a calculation, so double that now, but I had physically spent three straight years here. So, now, talking about 10 years-plus, I don’t want to know because it would scare the crap out of me. It’s years of my life.
Given how much time you spend so intensely working on the show, do you ever worry about developing “favorites,” given you have to remain an objective party?
AG: It’s not about being connected to one person, but it is emotional. It really is. Last year was emotional. We go on the roller coaster ride because we never know what these people are going to do. We do not live in the house, but we are right here on the other side of that wall and we live the emotion of the summer as well, which is exhausting. But that comes from the stress and the exhaustion of putting on a show that demands so much. But I think you have to be passionate about a show to be doing it this long — and I am still passionate because it’s new and exciting and different every year. If I was emotionally disconnected from this, I wouldn’t be able to do the show any more.
Unlike other reality shows, Big Brother offers viewers the opportunity to pay to watch 24/7 live feeds from inside the house. As a result of that, I believe the show creates an incredibly engaged fan base — which can be a double-edged sword.
AG: Fans make this show and they have from the very beginning. What I love about this show is that there are so many chat rooms, and they’ve existed online even before everyone had high-speed internet. Those die-hards online with strong opinions have helped this other element of the show that exists in the internet space become successful. I welcome them. We have great fans. We certainly have opinionated fans.
That’s an understatement.
AG: It’s insane. I know.
Are you surprised by just how opinionated the fans can be?
AG: After all these years, I’m not surprised. And just like we tell our houseguests, we have very passionate fans, so when you leave here, wait a while before you go online. And with some houseguests, they should never go online again. I’ve never seen it, but I’ve been told it exists; maybe I should feel proud that I am one of the only showrunners that has an I Hate Allison Grodner Facebook page. I don’t know if Mark Burnett has something like that!
A lot of that hatred comes from the impression that you’re actively manipulating the outcome of the show — that you intentionally edit the show in favor of some contestants, make houseguests change their votes, and skew the results. How do you respond to claims like that?
AG: If you’re talking about any emotional separation with the show, it’s gotta be that. I’ve learned over the years not to read stuff online. I embrace our fans and their opinions; if they weren’t talking about us, we’d be dead, so it’s great that people have those back-and-forths, but, yeah, it’s hard. They don’t know [me] and, it is unfortunate that people think there’s devious manipulation going on behind the scenes, because it’s not. It’s really and truly not. My company produces all kinds of unscripted television, so we know what goes into producing one kind of show over another and Big Brother has to be one of the least manipulated reality shows out there. It really is. We put a framework in place and then stand on the other side of a wall and look through the glass. Even in the Diary Room, they don’t see us, so they can’t read our facial expressions or see us smiling unintentionally at something they do. There is no way that we are in there pulling those strings. People who talk about conspiracy theories, I guess that’s part of the fun, but I’m here to tell you it’s not true.
For transparency’s sake, have you ever considered making the Diary Room footage available on the live stream since fans cite its exclusion as proof coercion is happening?
AG: You know, there’s so much that goes into an interview that ends up not being all that interesting that I don’t know how interesting that would be. We produce this show with hundreds of thousands of armchair producers; and there are some things that are just not that interesting. Maybe someday though.
The show has evolved a lot of over the years and many of your inventions have been stolen by other editions of Big Brother, but is there anything you’d like to steal from them? For example, would you ever do a celebrity edition?
AG: It’s been talked about over the years, but what really works for us is being able to view them live online and in the U.S., I think it would be hard to find celebrities who are willing to let you see them all times of the day without makeup. If there ever was to be something like that here, it would have to be more of an event. Also, the idea of getting celebrities to commit to three months is absurd.
What about an all-female or male season?
AG: I don’t think that’s our show. I think a lot of the fun of our show is bringing different genders together — different opinions, different backgrounds, different people. I don’t see how we would benefit from having an all-female cast. We exist with showmances.
Are there any other formats you’d like to snatch?
AG: I think we like to be the first ones to ever do a twist. Like The Exes. I know Real World claimed that was a big twist, but we did that in Season 4. It’s fun when you see that. Just like we were first in this world of being online and live, I think that it’s nice to keep the twists as fresh as possible.
Speaking of twists, let’s turn to this season: Every week will now have two Heads of Household, four nominees, and winning HOH no longer automatically mean you’re safe. What made you want to implement these changes?
AG: We’re always looking to keep things fresh and the show has been on long enough that a lot of the people we cast are die-hard fans, which is fabulous — we love having people in the house who aspire to be the next Will, the next Dan, tor the next Janelle. What we wanted to do was keep them on their toes. We want to take any sort of preconceived strategy and turn it on its ear, so these game twists are both fun and ultimately necessary to do that. Everyone counts on that HOH for safety and this year, that’s not for sure. And it’s really going to add an interesting power shift to the middle of the week where we don’t usually have as much. There’s a new competition now in play that will be in the Sunday show. It will impact gameplay as a whole, but really in the Sunday show.
What can you say about this new competition?
AG: It’s a competition with higher stakes. It’s the first time we’ve ever had a competition like this; and since adding the Veto, we’ve never added a whole new competition. Ultimately, at its core, Big Brother works with HOH and the social experiment and them being in the bubble, but it’s nice to be able to play a little with the format to make sure that people are always on their toes. It’s “Expect the unexpected,” so we wanted people to rethink their gameplay this year and it’s fun to see how that slightly changes things.
In retrospect, have you ever implemented a twist that you feel didn’t work?
AG: Certainly The Saboteur. That wasn’t a huge game twist, but we knew it was possible The Saboteur would get voted out the first week, which happened. Although that goes to show we’re not manipulating the show. It was also possible that America’s Player could have gotten voted out, but that ended up being really exciting and he made it really far. If you were to put those next to one another, America’s Player was “more successful.” But I still think The Saboteur was fun.
AG: I’ve been here so long they’re all my children. But I think there are quite a few and all for different reasons. Season 8 was insane with Evil Dick, but what was amazing about that season and the Enemies Twist was the father-daughter drama that was so real and so amazing. And then having them get to the end as a pair? We couldn’t have scripted it better. That was a wow moment, and we just sat back and watched it happen. I’m a fan of the Twin Twist always — also, having the brother and sister who didn’t know each other in the house was great. Oh, and Dan’s second time playing with the way he turned the funeral around was so amazing. Also, the Jeff and Jordan of it all; just having that story in that season was great.
You’re now 15 seasons in; what keeps you coming back for more?
AG: Yes, it’s a format that’s all over the world, but I think there’s a sense of pride and ownership in what we’ve created here. I take pride in having pulled off some crazy stuff, and it doesn’t feel like something you just hand over or leave.
So, barring a real-life coup d’état…
AG: Uh-oh, is it happening? Is that why you’re really here?
I hope not.
AG: Well, go on that Facebook page and tell them.
Will do. But, barring that, do you envision yourself staying on as the executive producer of Big Brother until the show is no longer viable?
AG: From my perspective, yes. I can’t imagine not doing it. I do take ownership and pride in having brought the show to this point, and ideally — hopefully — reinventing it ever year to keep it fresh without losing the essence of what it is. That’s important. There are times every summer where I imagine leaving, but that’s just the stress of doing this job. At times you feel sick to your stomach and other times you’re elated. But that’s Big Brother.