‘Critics’ get a rare look into the Big Brother house

August 10, 2007 at 3:01 pm 2 comments

By Gail Pennington
POST-DISPATCH TELEVISION CRITIC
08/10/2007

LOS ANGELES — We are not blindfolded, but we might as well be. Jammed into a van, six TV critics dressed in black are heading toward points unknown. Our destination: the “Big Brother” house.

Our accomplices are a group of CBS publicists, excited as we are about getting a peek. Tours are rare, we’ve been told, because of the logistical challenge of taking visitors to a house where the inhabitants are locked away from the world for three months, seeing only their fellow competitors’ faces and hearing only the disembodied voice of “Big Brother.”

After crawling past strip malls, video stores and taco stands, then edging along shockingly steep cliffs, we finally see a landmark: the Los Angeles River, that almost-empty concrete trench. We turn in sharply, stopping at a checkpoint and giving our code word to the guard.

Our credentials are apparently not in order. The guard picks up the phone, turns his back. Disappointment looms. But then, in a flash, we’re cleared to enter.

And here we are, on the lot at CBS Studio Center, a sprawling production facility in the San Fernando Valley.

Perhaps, as some of us did, you’ve pictured a suburban house, somehow isolated from the world with electric fences, razor wire, maybe a moat.

Although it has always been on the lot, in the early years, the “Big Brother” house was actually a house, its exterior painted retro turquoise. But two years ago, for convenience and security, the interior of a new house was built on a soundstage, enclosed and protected from almost all interference. In other words, no more snacks thrown over the walls, as happened during the first season.

From the outside, Stage 18 looks just like 17 and 19: blank and anonymous. But executive producer Allison Grodner is waiting for us on the steps and escorts us inside, down a narrow hall with the house’s schematics tacked on the wall.

“The challenge in designing this space was that we had to create a house that was complete and livable, with a kitchen where they could cook, and a bathroom with all the plumbing and wiring that those spaces require,” Grodner says. “We also had to create a yard for them.”

That yard, complete with a hot tub and minipool, is open to the sky, thanks to a hole cut in the soundstage roof. But our first stop, the little “courtyard” where host Julie Chen interviews each week’s evicted houseguest on Thursday’s live show, is just another set. There’s a tufted blue loveseat, surrounded by faux topiaries and flowers, all looking a bit cheesy.

Next, Grodner leads us upstairs to what she calls “a city in itself,” the behind-the-scenes infrastructure — human and mechanical — that keeps “Big Brother” running. She ticks off the numbers: three teams totaling 200 employees; 54 cameras and 64 microphones recording the houseguests’ every move.

Cameras in the bathrooms, with a view of the shower and toilet, are shielded for privacy, Grodner explains when asked.

“They’re mainly for security, and so people don’t try to hold secret meetings in there,” she says.

In master control, “where the magic happens,” two rows of producers in headsets watch dozens of monitors that show everything happening in the house and yard. Loggers record everything that happens to lead editors to prime segments for the next show.

“Behind us are the story people,” Grodner says, indicating two more rows of producers, up a tier. “They’re snooping, listening to the various microphones and deciding which stories to tell.”

This goes on 24/7.

“We don’t stop taping, ever,” Grodner says. “The beast never sleeps.”

In addition to three shows a week, four streams go out live to the Internet 24 hours a day, and three hours of live footage is fed to Showtime, which airs it from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. nightly on the ShoToo channel.

“There are no clocks in the house, so they might be up all night or sleeping anytime they’re bored,” Grodner says. “You never know what might be happening anywhere.”

Just in case, the private Head of Household bedroom is equipped with an infrared camera, to capture nighttime activity.

A small room, its walls covered with egg-crate foam, is the flip side of the Diary Room, where houseguests are interviewed by an unseen voice. On our side, a producer sits, wearing a headset, and prods the houseguest to spill his or her deepest emotions.

All this is interesting, but Grodner has saved the best, and now it’s time to explore the “camera cross,” a dark, curtained tunnel down which up to five manned cameras glide on rails.

“Wear black on top,” we had been told, but parkas are available for anyone whose clothing isn’t deemed dark enough. We need to be dark, because we’ll be virtually face-to-face with the houseguests, who are on the mirror side of one-way glass.

Stepping carefully over cables, keeping one hand on the rail, we walk single file, like visitors to some strange zoo. In one room, Dick rocks out to music heard only in his head. In the Head of Household bedroom, Jen sleeps soundly, even though it’s not yet 7 p.m. A pot of slop — the whole-grain cereal to which some houseguests are limited — steams on the stove in the empty kitchen.

We jump when Eric, shaving, looks straight at us. Later, we seem to make eye contact with Zach as he heads to the Diary Room. They’re actually looking at themselves in the mirror on the other side of our glass.

Our path takes us past the Diary Room, where Zach is speaking earnestly to the camera, and on two sides of the small backyard, complete with teacup seating in a nod to this season’s “Alice in Wonderland” theme. With no entertainment or contact of any kind with the outside world, the houseguests spend time talking, scheming and squabbling, or playing improvised games, including what seems to be a round of tether ball.

It’s Day 19 when we visit, and only one of the season’s 15 houseguests has been evicted at this point. Another will go the next night.

Because of the isolation, “Big Brother” is a particularly intense game.

“They can’t escape each other,” Grodner says. “Emotions are exaggerated. There’s no turning on the TV or picking up a book. They have to deal with whatever’s going on. Personalities get bigger, and you can’t predict how that will play out.”

Being so close to the action (or lack thereof) in the house is oddly mesmerizing, and we want to linger, but our slop is ready. By request, a pot is ready for us to taste. With more texture than oatmeal, slop wouldn’t be half bad, but houseguests aren’t allowed to add sugar and milk to it, and Grodner shames us into sampling it plain.

The taste lingers as we pile into the van for the return trip. Our consensus: blah.

But our “Big Brother” visit also elicits a review seldom heard from TV critics: cool.Five things you might not know about ‘Big Brother’

• Co-executive producer Don Wollman might be considered the voice of “Big Brother.” He’s regularly heard giving the houseguests instructions, such as, “report to the Diary Room.”

• Studio 18, where “Big Brother” shoots, was previously the home of the sitcom “Yes, Dear.”

• Dr. Will Kirby, who won “BB2” and returned for “All Stars,” debuted July 30 on the cable series “Dr. 90210,” featuring plastic surgeons and their patients.

• There’s no content delay on the Internet streams, but producers have a list of things to block, including anything defamatory, music that might raise rights issues, and votes and challenges, held back to preserve suspense.

• CBS hadn’t objected to planes flying banners over the “Big Brother” house until this week, when producers filed a cease-and-desist order against a pilot who had planned to pull a banner stating, “Eric Is America’s Player.”

That could have spoiled the game, the producers said; the pilot, who had been hired, desisted.

Source

Entry filed under: Allison Grodner, BB8, BIg Brother 8, Big Brother, Blogging, Entertainment, Gail Pennington, Interview, life, Reality News, TV.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Max  |  August 10, 2007 at 4:17 pm

    Nice find.

    Reply
  • 2. Lazysuzie  |  August 14, 2007 at 2:15 am

    VERY nice find! LOVED IT

    Reply

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