The host hopes that a more diverse cast and deeper conversations will make unacceptable behavior in the Big Brother house a thing of the past.
Big Brother

Another summer means another season of Big Brother. But it's a critical time for the long-running CBS reality franchise. Premiering on July 5, 2000, Big Brother was hardly the instant hit Survivor (which debuted one month prior) was. The show aired up to six nights a week, featured super clunky segments like AOL Online Advisor Regina Lewis coming on to awkwardly discuss internet reaction to the contestants, and, worst of all, allowed America to choose which players were evicted, meaning all the interesting personalities (Will Mega 4-eva!) were booted at the very start of the season.

Many were surprised when the series was renewed after that disastrous first outing. And then the surprise turned to outright shock when a completely retooled season 2 made it to air a year later… and was good! No, better than good. It was great! (Thank you, Dr. Will.) Big Brother has chugged along ever since. Like all long-running reality franchises, the series has had up years (especially during this epic moment) and down years, but for the past few seasons (including last summer's Big Brother: All-Stars) the show has seemed stuck in a rut.

Part of the blame goes to super safe gameplay in which large majority alliances are sticking together and picking off smaller groups. And while players in their confessional interviews often talk big games, they don't actually play them — seemingly refusing to make risky moves after bragging to the camera of their intent to do so.

Another problem has been something that has plagued many a reality television show (and, well, America), as a barrage of racial incidents over the years has sullied the franchise and taken much of the joy out of watching.

But plans are in place to hopefully fix both of those issues in season 23, which premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. New twists are being introduced to keep giant risk-averse alliances from dominating/sleepwalking their way through the game, and the show will be following the network's new diversity guidelines implemented last fall that all reality show casts be at least 50% people of color. More representation in the game means a more level playing field, and, hopefully, the end of non-white contestants being targeted early and often.

After speaking with executive producers Allison Grodner and Rich Meehan about the changes, we rang up host Julie Chen Moonves to get her perspective on the new look of Big Brother, and what else we can expect… besides the unexpected.

Big Brother
Julie Chen Moonves of 'Big Brother'
| Credit: CBS

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let's get to the biggest question first: Will the Have-Nots door open on the live premiere this year?

JULIE CHEN MOONVES: Okay, that was not my fault. And yeah, I'd say that's going to open. And to make up for that, we're going to show you who the Have-Nots are on the premiere this year.

It sounds like there are tons of moving parts on the live premiere. Tell me what you can about what's going down.

This year, the 16 brand new Houseguests are going to be forced to play in teams. These teams will form on the opening night. The minute a group of four moves in, they're going to have to compete right away. And the winner of that competition becomes a team captain who gets to pick their teammates at the end of the night. And then after we've established the teams, the team captains are going to face off against each other for the first Head of Household of the summer.

And then at the end of the night, when they think it's good night time, and everything is good and they're safe for a week, I'm going to present the Head of Household with an offer that he or she probably cannot refuse. It's a double or nothing. So that's a pretty big deal. It's the summer of big risks and big rewards. It's a summer that we're calling the BB Beach Club, but it's a beach club that is kind of Monte-Carlo if you will. So it's a good season if you're a gambler.

I feel like when we've been doing our weekly Q&As for some of the recent seasons you and I have both been lamenting that there were these big alliances just mowing people down and nobody really challenging the big threats in the game. I think the team element could help change that.

Absolutely. Yeah, I never like a unanimous vote on live Eviction Night. Once you get that, whatever, seventh vote that tips it in the balance, and then everyone just falls in line, I don't like that. And I agree. I think with this, forced teams, it kind of makes that very hard.

Tell me your thoughts on having a more racially diverse cast with the new guidelines that all CBS reality shows feature casts that are at least 50% people of color.

Oh, I'm excited about it. In summers past, we've seen some people who are used to their bubble, where their world outside of the Big Brother house is not very diverse, and then they behave in a way that is unacceptable. So hopefully with this diverse cast, those who are, quote-unquote, minorities, are going to be able to have deep conversations and school people who maybe come from a neighborhood or an area where there's not a lot of diversity.

We've had contestants of color on reality shows in the past talk about how they have to work that much harder to form connections with contestants just because the white players who were always in the majority often unconsciously gravitate towards those they are more familiar and comfortable with. And Big Brother folks like Ovi Kabir and Da'Vonne Rogers, as well as some other contestants, have talked about this in Big Brother. So hopefully we're going to have a more equal playing ground moving forward.

Yeah, there's either unconscious bias or affinity bias — you naturally bond with someone that you think has the same background as you or something in common. Even if it's like, "Hey, your name is Julie too?" You know? Something as silly as that. You might have nothing in common other than that name. But yeah, it will be interesting to see how that plays out. I'm excited about it.

Race has obviously been something we as a country have been struggling with for a VERY long time. And Big Brother, as a reflection of our society, has had its struggles over the years as well, like pretty much all reality shows have. If having more representation is the first step towards addressing that, what is step number two in terms of how you all handle things if, say, an incident occurs in the house with a slur or something else of that nature?

Well, we've never shied away from addressing any racial issue that comes out. We air it, and then when the person ends up leaving the house, they get questioned on it. And for better or for worse, that person gets judged and tried on the internet. And the hope is that people will own it, learn from it, and move on from it. And everyone can move on from it. If someone truly changes and apologizes, who are any of us to judge?

Big Brother
Julie Chen Moonves of 'Big Brother'
| Credit: Monty Brinton/CBS

What's this time like for you now as you're getting ready for the premiere? I imagine you're probably familiarizing yourself with the players and the new twists.

I'm always nervous about, okay, 16 brand new names. And we're playing so many competitions on the fly. I have to say, "Oh, you've been eliminated. You're out. Congratulations, blank." The most nerve-wracking thing for me is knowing the right names for the Houseguests. And somehow, someway, by opening night, it all just comes together. So that's the big challenge right now, is knowing 16 brand new people in one night.

Do you have little flashcards of the Houseguests that you make for yourself?

We do! We have this cheat sheet and there are posters all around where you have the 16 faces, and the name underneath, and their age, and maybe what state they're from. And I keep that as my scorecard, it's like a bingo card. And as people get evicted, week by week, a big old X goes over one face at a time. And then I think we raffle off my card with the winners' circle, or something, on social media.

You should make the photos go black and white when they get eliminated, like they do in the house. And it just sort of fades from color to greyscale.

I like that idea.

What else can you tell me about season 23?

We have a brand new competition that we are unveiling on the first Sunday night show. So that's something that I'm excited about. And that adds a whole new element and level to the game. So Sunday night won't just be about "Who did the HOH nominate? Who are the two people?" There's also a new competition that we are unveiling. And I just think it's a season this year with no risk, no reward. It's always been a little bit risky to play Big Brother because everyone at some point is faced with tough decisions on their own — like "Whose side do I pick? Did I team up with the wrong people?"  But now you have us as Big Brother producers of the show presenting you with these big risk decisions. So it's kind of do-or-die time this summer.

Last summer, obviously we talked a lot about you guys had all of these new COVID protocols you had to deal with and you were in different zones and you had colored badges. You had to stand in certain places. What about this summer? Obviously, we have the vaccines out there. But we also have some variants out that we're reading about in the news all the time, and things can keep changing. What's been the process for you guys in terms of preparing?

It is the same exact protocol. Look, it worked last year when there was not a vaccine and COVID was kind of at its height. And I think we may have been the very first show to go back into production during that time, because there aren't that many shows in production during the summer and we are a live show. So again, no live audience this summer, everyone gets tested every week. Everyone still works in pods. Everyone still has to wear a mask the entire time. And I only get to take it off when I'm on stage, and I'm the only person. So it works. The good news is when the Houseguests get evicted one at a time, you're going to see their whole face. So that's one thing that's different.

We're obsessed with your fashion on the show. Have you picked out the premiere outfit yet, Julie?

I have picked out the premiere outfit, but it's still in the works. The hem is coming along as we speak. There is a drop-off tonight and hopefully, I will fit into it. So I have a few more days to do some crunches and some leg lifts.

Expect the unexpected when it comes to Julie Chen's wardrobe.

There you go.

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