Lynette Rice
February 12, 2008 AT 12:00 PM EST

In her most candid interview yet, Big Brother executive producer Allison Grodner tells EW.com about the show’s first-ever winter edition (debuting tonight on CBS), whether we’ll ever see the end of those tiresome Q&A competitions, and if it’s high time to change the food penalty (goodbye, slop; hello, Madagascar cockroaches?).

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Are you shocked to be on the air in February?

ALLISON GRODNER: I’m still in denial. It’s not happening, is it? I’m not really going to do this, am I?

Do you feel like you had to rush this special winter edition because of the writers’ strike?

You know, no. The idea that this could happen has been in the works for a while. So casting was started quite early on this, but you know, with anything, it always comes down to the wire, no matter what. So it feels no different, to be honest. We’ve had plenty of time to put the house together, and it’s a whole different look that we’re really liking.

Will it still be on three days a week?

That would probably be a better question for the network. At this point, we are planning for three days a week, as we always do, and have heard nothing to make us think that that won’t happen.

Will we see another America’s Player — a houseguest who follows the directions of the viewers at home, unbeknownst to the other players?

There isn’t a way to do America’s Player the same way twice. It’s just not possible, because people coming in will be expecting that and will change their behavior in the house and the way they play the game. That doesn’t mean America will not interact with the game. There certainly will be ways this season that the viewers will be able to be a part of the game, as they’ve been in the past.

Will you give us an update on the infamous Donato Family from last season?

Oh, sure. It’s always fun to do a where are they now look back. They’re still running around and doing their thing. We’ve got hookups that broke up and hookups that stayed together…and new hookups! Lots of news to report. That cast continues to surprise us, even after they’re out of the house.

Will you be more diligent this season to penalize houseguests who break the rules?

Well, that penalty nomination [automatically putting a rule-breaker up for eviction] always looms. We still like to leave that as a producer’s prerogative, at the producer’s discretion [according to] how big is the offense…. Certainly, last year, a lot of those questions came up with the penalty nomination potentially for Jen, with her breaking [the all-slop diet] and eating. And honestly, we reserve the right at this point to still keep that in as producer’s discretion [as to] when we use it.

EW.com readers have sent in a lot of suggestions on how you can improve the show. Here’s one: Would you forbid houseguests from discussing nominations before they actually happen?

We would love that, but it’s a hard thing to police. It’s something we’d like to enforce a little bit better in this season. It would help the show tremendously if there was a way to keep that under wraps. So we continue to brainstorm that.

Do the competitions favor the young?

Oh, gosh, no. There are a lot of quiz-related things. Certainly, we like to keep things active in the endurance competitions. But look how far [last season’s winner] Dick went in that final competition. That was brutal. He’s not a fit guy by any means, and I think he held up obviously better than [his daughter and runner-up] Daniele did and better than probably many of the younger people would have.

NEXT PAGE: ”Peanut butter and jelly creates a situation where people get lethargic, whereas at least slop is protein-fortified and nutritionally balanced.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How about relying less on quizzes and coming up with new competitions?

ALLISON GRODNER: Jeez. Yes, I would like to, and no, I don’t want to do the same old thing over and over again. We always like to mix it up and keep it fresh and exciting, and look, we do more competitions than any other reality show, and we’re doing three a week. So sometimes we do bring back old favorites, and sometimes, especially when it comes to live shows, it’s hard to venture out of the Q&A due to the time constraints and the complications that arise when you’re doing something live. And we’ve tried many, many times to mix it up, but it’s very difficult. As you can see, there certainly was the controversy surrounding the Niagara Balls [last summer], the ball competition during a live show. We went outside the box and said, We want to do something that’s active and exciting and all of that, but you see what can happen on live television [it appeared that an errant ball flew into Jameka’s tube that automatically disqualified her from the competition]. The integrity and fairness of the game is so important, and obviously we want to entertain as well. So it’s a lot we’re juggling.

What if you built a competition arena?

It’s a cost and space issue. They’ve done that in Europe. But viewers don’t appreciate the technical difficulties. It was a big deal when we moved to a different studio in season 6 and built an entirely different area — which came at a huge expense and was a huge endeavor.

Would you ever have Julie Chen be physically present during the competitions to avoid any snafus?

It’s been a tradition of Big Brother that she’s outside the house, and the houseguests are inside. She’s that person who greets them on the way out, so it sort of would break that for her if she were in there, interacting with them.

Is it time to change the food penalty?

Slop is pretty bad. But we should find out if there’s some suggestions out there. I’d be open to them. Maybe a fresh new food for the summer — awesome! But here’s the thing: Just by naming something slop, you’ve already got something that’s negative, and people dread it. It certainly creates drama, whereas peanut butter and jelly did not. Also, peanut butter and jelly creates a situation where people get lethargic, whereas at least slop is protein-fortified and nutritionally balanced.

Fans continually want to know: Why do you do so many recaps at the top of each hour?

I appreciate the die-hard fans who watch the show religiously, and that’s terrific. But we’re always looking to bring in new viewers, and I think the idea is, with three shows a week, there’s the thought that maybe people aren’t watching all three and that you need to make sure that everyone’s caught up for every show. But I do believe over the years we’ve lessened it a bit.

Here’s another reader suggestion: Why not let the ”power of veto” holder put up the replacement nominee for eviction, instead of having the head of household do it?

Because that really diminishes the HOH’s power. It’s such a big power piece in the house to be HOH, and if you were to take the POV replacement nomination away from the head of household, you cut their power in half. That’s not fair, considering how someone fought to be head of household.

NEXT PAGE: ”That’s the genius of Big Brother contestants, because in order to subject yourself to this kind of thing, there is a certain level of narcissism that makes you not give a damn about the outside world.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Have you considered whether to start giving the houseguests headlines from the outside world, if only to improve some of those excruciating poolside discussions?

ALLISON GRODNER: Since when have Big Brother contestants ever cared about politics? Seriously, I wish they would. That’s the genius of Big Brother contestants, because in order to subject yourself to this kind of thing, there is a certain level of narcissism that makes you not give a damn about the outside world. Why aren’t they discussing things of political importance? Because honestly, they care about themselves. Maybe we’ll have a competition where we make them vote. You can’t leave the house unless you vote. How about that?

Here’s another reader suggestion. Why not offer the evictees the chance to give the money to a dummy winner so they won’t have to reward one of the final two if they despise them both?

A dummy wins Big Brother? Come on. Big Brother has a winner. The good guy doesn’t always win. It’s real. And some years, yeah, you’re going to be disappointed, but hey, it’s life.

Are you in any way influenced by the running CBS.com popularity poll of the houseguests? Like, you might try to keep someone in longer who is popular with fans?

First off, the idea that we’re helping people on the show, please! That does not happen. This is a program where the producers are as removed as you possibly can be, relatively speaking, compared to other shows. We want it to be fair for everybody. As far as the CBS poll, I think it’s fun to see the popularity, but honestly, there’s so many great sites for Big Brother across the Web that everyone is always constantly checking, [and those sites] also have popularity polls. So it’s not like we rely on just one source to find out who’s popular in the house, and it certainly does not mean that anything happens differently to any houseguest, so no.

You’ve stated repeatedly that no other show is scrutinized quite the way Big Brother is. So why stay with it?

You’re right. I quit. It’s stressful. What can I say? I really don’t think our fans appreciate that, ’cause they are so involved in being the scrutinizers. There is no show that has this kind of 24-7 scrutiny, and then add Showtime’s Big Brother: After Dark on top of that, as well as how many websites we have following us. But what makes the show so great is that we have those rabid fans — we have people who are so involved, that get so drawn in that they want to call us on everything. I mean, the truth is, if we didn’t have that, then we wouldn’t have a successful show. It can be stressful, of course, but I’d love everyone to know out there how careful we are here at Big Brother. It really is important for us that the integrity of the game stays as intact as it possibly can and that we can create an entertaining and fair show.

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