How Big Brother is getting back on the air in a pandemic
If ever a show made sense to air in quarantine, it would be a show based on quarantining. After all, the whole purpose of Big Brother is to lock a bunch of people in a house and cut off all communication from the outside world. And since the contestants generally have zero direct physical contact with anyone outside of the house — including the crew, who film and talk to them from behind walls, it would seem the CBS reality franchise was practically built to film during a global pandemic.
If only it were that easy. Not only do the returning cast members coming back to play Big Brother: All-Stars (premiering Aug. 5 on CBS) have to spend two full weeks in quarantine before even entering the official Big Brother quarantine, but new protocols have to be put in place to keep them safe once they are actually in the house. Not only that, but there is the entire crew to keep safe as well — the people who actually produce, film, and edit the show on tight turnarounds.
Executive producer Allison Grodner called into EW Live (SiriusXM, channel 109) to talk about the process of bringing CBS’ summer guilty pleasure back on the air, revealing that the show’s return “certainly was touch and go, all the way up until quite recently.” Grodner also explained how the show put together “an over 200-page document, a detailed document that had to be written up step by step, thinking through everything that could possibly go wrong to make sure that we could pull off what we do every summer safely.”
Of course, even outside of the COVID-19 concerns, this is no ordinary installment of the program, as Big Brother: All-Stars will mark only the second time the show has brought back a cast of all returning players. That combination of coronavirus precautions and a celebrated cast of seasoned veterans means that more than ever, viewers truly should expect the unexpected. “We're really looking at throwing a lot of new twists and turns at these houseguests because they're all-stars and expect things like that,” says Grodner. “The house is built in such a way that there are nods to the past and potentially some rooms here and there that that could hold some secrets and powers and twists to the game.”
Read on for more on how producers are bringing Big Brother back, and what to expect when it gets here on Aug. 5.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is a show all about quarantining in a house, so it is the perfect show for a pandemic, but obviously I’m sure there were a lot of hurdles to clear and procedures to put in place to make it happen. Tell me what it was like putting together a plan to get this show back on the air.
ALLISON GRODNER: Well, it wasn't easy. That is absolutely correct. And truthfully, I think up until recently when we did make the announcement — even though we're prepared and we've been working for months and everything — you never know. We are all living in a very uncertain time right now. And we were only going to do this if everything was absolutely approved and we can do this safely. So it certainly was touch and go all the way up until quite recently, but we are ready. We are so excited, 'cause it's an all-stars season and it's a brand-new house and a lot is brand new actually. And it was a lot to pull off and a lot of people came together to do it and we're happy they did.
There’s no direct contact between cast and crew, which in some ways makes this easier to pull off than pretty much any other show out there, but you do bring things into the house. You have to set up competitions in the backyard, for instance — so what did you have to do to make sure that will all be done safely?
Yeah, and Big Brother does lend itself for sure to a quarantine. It is safe because of the cast and the crew being separate, but we still had to make sure that the cast going in and living together could be safe. So they are currently undergoing a sequester period, and undergoing multiple tests to make sure that they're completely and totally negative — COVID-free — before moving into the Big Brother house.
And the crew, yes, we're separate, but to pull off three nights a week for three months straight — we’re a pretty substantial-sized crew. And so there is actually a lot more behind the scenes that needs to happen to make sure that everybody doing the show can be as safe as possible. And so there's a lot that went into this — actually an over 200-page document, a detailed document that had to be written up step by step, thinking through everything that could possibly go wrong to make sure that we could pull off what we do every summer safely. Look, we're so excited to do this, but it's very complicated and yet at the same time, we wouldn't have done it until we felt that it was in a place where we could do it safely.
Is there anything you normally do as part of this show that you felt like, “You know what, we just can't do X this year just because of what's happening. We're not going be able to pull that off.” Is there anything we're going to notice different about this season as opposed to previous ones?
The truth is you really should not notice it, other than the most obvious, which is we don't have a studio audience. That's not possible in these times. Opening night, everything is there. It's big because we have a brand-new front of house for Julie [Chen Moonves]. It's spectacular. But there won't be obviously the energy and applause that a studio audience brings to this. So that'll be slightly different for us. Other than that, I'll leave it to the viewers to notice.
There are a couple of things that we've had to do a little differently with some of the background designs and speaking for the competitions due to the amount of bodies that can be in the yard at one time. So that's something that we hope people don't notice, that you understand that it ultimately is part of the show and you embrace it. But that's the only thing that really we had to think through is, how do we deal with that? You know, we transform that yard every single time we go out there, and I think you're going to notice that maybe we've come up with a creative solution for that.
So when you say that, because I know some of these competitions you build are massive in this space. And I have to imagine you have to construct them relatively quickly cause the backyard's off-limits to contestants. So you probably have an army of people in a normal circumstance create these massive builds. Are we going to see sort of a scaled-down version of that? Is that what you're alluding to?
I can't give it away completely. It's not necessarily scaled down. I don't want anyone to think that they're not going to see our Big Brother competitions, but in terms of the transformations that we're doing, we've come up with a creative solution where maybe the Big Brother yard is its own world. This season is going to be a little bit different.
Traditionally the folks that have been voted out in the first few weeks have a chance to get back in the house through the Battleback competition, but obviously I’m guessing you want to limit the number of people going in and out of the bubble. So does that mean you may do something like last year where people who are voted out early stay in a different section of the house waiting for a chance to return or could there not be a Battleback this summer?
There are a lot of new twists and turns for this group of houseguests, because they're all-stars too. We don't want them to think this is like a regular season and to count on certain things. So there's a lot that they haven't experienced before in terms of the twists and the powers that could be thrown into the game, and how people in some cases might be eliminated and that kind of thing. So I wouldn't count on everything being exactly the same, but it doesn't necessarily have to do with COVID. It's because, “Hey, we're in an all-stars season and we need to kick this group of players who are returning — some of them for possibly the second, third, fourth time — we need to keep them on their toes.
Will the Zingbot be delivering zings via Zoom this year?
Well, he will be there. I promise you, the Zingbot will not be taken down. He's actually kind of built for this with the shield and metal, right? So do expect Zingbot, but maybe expect him to interact with the house a little differently.
I have to give full credit to my coworker Kristen Baldwin, who has suggested that Otev wear a mask this summer.
Otev may have to do that. There's no doubt. Well, we all will. You'll see little things here and there that are different, but really what we wanted to do was bring some sense of normalcy back for everybody
You’ve brought back players a lot on this show, but this will only be the second time in 22 seasons — 25 if you want to include Over the Top and celebrity editions — but only the second time that you have brought back a cast of entirely returning players. Why All-Stars now and was that decision tied to the extra hurdles you had to clear with the pandemic?
Yeah, it’s been since 2006. It is amazing that it's been that long. So almost 15 years. Every year we talk about it and we go, “Is this a year?” And here we are 20 years on the air and we thought, this is a good year to do that. We actually, at the end of last season, talked about it and started to plan for it. But as we always do, we kind of plan for everything. And so we were actually going down the track of building an all-star cast and a casting for a regular season, and this was happening. And then once everything with the COVID hit and we went into a stay-at-home situation in March, we decided that the all-star track was the way to go. It certainly was the way that we could cast remotely much better and figure out how to do that. And so we decided to stop the casting on the regular season and go down this track instead. So it was a plan where we didn't know and we wanted to reserve the right to go either way at a certain point, depending on how it went.
And then when your casting department went out to former players to gauge interest and explained that they were also going to have to spend an even longer time than normal holed up in quarantine before they could even enter the house, what percentage of players were like “Sign me up!” and what percentage did not want to make that commitment?
Well, I have to tell you the sequester process — the extra sequester time and the safety and all of that — was not a concern of anyone. I don't think anyone balked at that. When we went out to a lot of people early on, with the usual suspects, some of them were, “Yes, I'm in!” And some of them also wanted to do it, but they couldn't do it because where they are currently in their life. We have so many players to choose from and so many amazing names that we wanted to go out to. But there are some people right now who are dealing with really small kids or are expecting or are at a place in their careers where it's just not possible. And so we respect that. And then there are some that surprised us with a yes. “Yep! Not a problem. I can't wait to get in there.” And so it's a really good mix. We're really happy with this cast and very excited to reveal them all on premiere night on Aug. 5.
It's a live premiere, which you guys have never done before. So tell me about the logistics of putting that together, because obviously in the past, the houseguests would be in the house for a little bit, and that would give you some content to work with and you'd be able to give us this all-killer, no-filler premiere. You're going live now, and I'm sure you have to be very cognizant of how they can't just sort of be sitting around shooting the S like you've got to show. So tell me what we're going to see on Wednesday, Aug. 5.
For the first time ever, we are having a two-hour all-live premiere, which means that everything is happening as it's happening. And it's going to be expect the unexpected and a roller coaster ride for everybody. But in order to do this, we certainly have made this an incredibly active jam-packed two hours that is going to keep these all-stars really busy. So there's a lot going on. It's completely different than a regular premiere.
You’re not going to see the players talking to us in the diary room. That's not possible on a live opening night to edit that in. So there'll be a lot of action and a lot of Julie guiding the conversation, but it's bound to be really exciting. For us, we realized we could really take the chance to do this because it's an all-stars cast and an all-stars cast that understands the process of Big Brother and just how things work. So we knew it'd be easier to do with a cast that’s been there before.
Players are traditionally completely clueless in terms of what is happening in the outside world. Are you going to bend those rules at all with all the medical uncertainty out there, especially if they are worried about their families? What's your process going to be in 2020, obviously a very unique year with a very unique set of circumstances?
Yeah, and I think we're going to take this day by day and figure out how best to work our show within these uncertain times. As of right now, the houseguests are playing as they played before. They are in this bubble more than ever, quite honestly. I mean, this bubble is so tight. We will rarely be walking into that house because every time we do where there was a massive procedure to disinfect it. But, I think as always, in the case of family emergencies, we've had people who've had unfortunate things happen with members of their family passing in the summer — grandmothers and things like that, that we obviously break the bubble to to tell them these things. So if there were a family emergency, then certainly that is something we have precedent for breaking the bubble for.
We've been on the air long enough that we've lived through major world events. Season 2 was 9/11 and a very dramatic and crazy time to have people who had no idea what was going on in the outside world. And so we have dealt with it before and we will continue to do the same. As you said, safety comes first and certainly anything that involves a family emergency we aren't looking to keep anyone in the dark about.
Do you know how long your season is because you usually end in mid-September as the fall season begins, but you're starting almost a month-and-a-half later than last summer and who knows how much new programming CBS will have for the fall. So do you have a target end date or is it flexible at this point?
We have a target date. I don't know if that's been revealed yet, but I expect that this is a regular date for a Big Brother season. That means we'll be saying summer for a bit, and then probably, you know, having to transition into, “Hey, welcome to Big Brother fall!” It is playing a similar length of game. So yeah, expect that the weather may change a little bit, although this is California. So I don't know if you'll notice it that much.
Last thing before I let you go. Every year, I ask you to bring Pandora’s Box back, and every year you leave me hanging. I feel like this is the summer for the return of Pandora’s Box, Allison. Can we make that happen?
Well, I love Pandora's Box too. And listen, we're really looking at throwing a lot of new twists and turns at these houseguests, because they're all-stars and expect things like that, but you never know. The house is built in such a way that there are nods to the past and potentially some rooms here and there that could hold some secrets and powers and twists to the game. So I'll leave it at that. It may not be exactly what you're saying, but it's in the same vein.
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