Big Brother Oral History
Credit: CBS
Big Brother

Long before sheltering in place became a reality, CBS decided to isolate 10 people in a makeshift house for a unique reality show, which debuted July 5, 2000. Big Brother was already a hit in the Netherlands, but CBS' season 1 format — which gave viewers the power to vote out houseguests — led to some pretty drab episodes that summer. It also didn't help that BB was constantly compared with Survivor, its successful, far more exciting companion on the schedule.

Here, Big Brother host Julie Chen Moonves, together with executives and former players — including "Chicken George" Boswell, who earned his nickname by taking care of the backyard hens — look back on that not-so-memorable first season, and how it led to rule changes that turned BB into the hit it is today.

DON WOLLMAN [coexecutive producer]: Based upon the success of the first season of Big Brother in Holland, there was an assumption made that we'd receive a huge number of applicants. That turned out not to be the case. There wasn't the proactive recruiting process in place that there is today. Rather, prospective applicants were directed to the Big Brother website.

EDDIE MCGEE [BB1 champion]: A friend suggested I audition because I'd be the exact opposite of what people would normally think somebody with a disability would be like. [McGee lost his leg to cancer at the age of 11.] I drove a Camaro, I've been in a fight or two, and I'm pretty good with the girls.

JAMIE KERN LIMA [BB1 contestant]: I saw a flyer for it on my college campus. It's funny 'cause I had seen The Real World, but other than that, reality television hadn't really become a thing yet.

GEORGE BOSWELL [at 41, the oldest male player in the house]: I could have been everyone's dad.

WOLLMAN: I think if you go back and take a look at BB1, it was actually an interesting and diverse cast. We had a very bright woman who worked at the United Nations. There was a Los Angeles-based lawyer who has now become a Superior Court judge. I think we did quite well, particularly considering that no one knew anything about the show.

JULIE CHEN MOONVES: I was working at the network morning news reader for The Early Show for only nine months when I was approached about hosting Big Brother. I asked if taking this job would forever seal the door shut for me to become a 60 Minutes correspondent and when I was told "probably." I said then that makes my decision easy and I turned down the job. Then I was told if I didn't take it, it could technically be assigned to me and if I didn't do it, it could be considered insubordination.

Eddie McGee on 'Big Brother' season 1
Eddie McGee on season 1 of 'Big Brother'
| Credit: LUCY NICHOLSON/AFP via Getty Images

KELLY KAHL [CBS Entertainment president]: It was on six nights a week. It was a very different pattern for anything that had been on American TV before.

WOLLMAN: The theme of the show was back to basics, so the spartan look in the house was intentional. There was a garden in the backyard because they had to grow their own vegetables. We had a chicken coop where they were able to get fresh eggs. The floor plan of the house was an exact replica of the BB house in Holland and could not be altered.

CHEN MOONVES: The whole thing felt very Biosphere 2.

MCGEE: Alcohol wasn't really around, but there were a couple of instances when the producers were like, "Okay, things are getting kind of boring here," so they brought in a case of beer.

BOSWELL: I think we had to dance for a week. It was 24 hours a day. One person would have to switch off in the middle of the night and their partner would dance.

KERN LIMA: People from That '70s Show [which taped on the same lot] threw notes over the fence. I remember thinking, "Wow, people [are] watching."

CHEN MOONVES: What we soon learned is that Americans voted out the controversial people first. Our audience didn't like the troublemakers, even though they made the show interesting.

KAHL: The gameplay that we're familiar with now was then very passive in comparison. There weren't alliances, there was no Head of Household or Power of Veto. It was very much a popularity contest.

MCGEE: I think one of the advantages that I had was that I was the youngest on the show. I didn't have a wife, a family or a real career to protect or look out for. I was a pretty upfront, bold New Yorker and I just spoke my mind. I'm here to win and I won't let you stand between me and taking this money.

Big Brother Oral History
Credit: CBS

KERN LIMA: Whenever you come off of a reality show, everyone has their 15-minute fame kind of thing, where you can't even walk down the street without people saying hi or wanting a selfie or telling you what they like and didn't like about this season. That's fine. And then I met people who were unwell. One guy showed up at the Kinko's where I was making copies. I learned later that he had built a robot and thought it was me living with him during the show. Police got involved. It was pretty scary.

BOSWELL: It changed my life. I have done so many amazing things. I'm on television still to this day, and I owe it all to that show. I work for Mecum classic-car auctions on NBCSN, and there's actually a Chicken George Fan Club. Believe it or not, I'm going to have "Chicken George" put on my tombstone.

KERN LIMA: I created this cosmetics company [IT Cosmetics], where I took off my makeup on national TV. I feel like my experience on Big Brother planted a seed and helped me to become more confident.

MCGEE: I paid off my parents' house and put my little brother through college. He got a criminal justice degree and is now a proud member of the NYPD. I got my first agent a year later. Very rarely do people recognize me from that first season. I'm okay with it.

WOLLMAN: Eddie McGee was someone that every one of us in the casting process liked before the move-in. He was a bright, funny young guy and I think was a deserving winner.

CHEN MOONVES: The reviews of me were not good. But the ratings were decent enough, and they thought if we changed some rules and have American producers take over, it's worth [renewing]. I just had to tap my inner Chenbot and make it my brand. By season 3 I found my way and the body glitter aisle. The rest is history.

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