Julie Chen to Movieline: 'I Have Strong Feelings of Like and Dislike Towards Every Houseguest'
In its eleventh season, Big Brother is one of the most addictive reality programs on television today. Isolating its contestants in a cushy house for nearly three months, nerves fray and tension builds until houseguests are embattled in the most wicked non-violent warfare allowed on network TV. Fortunately, Julie Chen has been there each season to calmly guide us through the increasingly grotesque challenges, action-packed eviction ceremonies and movie-hawking celebrity appearances. Her professional delivery gives Big Brother its shred of credibility and keeps viewers from dipping into the same insanity that sweeps the houseguests. Last week, Julie Chen spoke to Movieline about favoring contestants, the dangerous side effects of the live feed and feeling vindicated by the show's success.
Like the viewers, do you ever get attached to certain contestants? I imagine you have to keep your journalistic distance.
Somewhat, but yeah, I watch it as a viewer as well as someone who works on the show. And I was just saying to my husband [President and CEO of CBS, Les Moonves], "How pathetic are we? We watch it and argue with each other over who is good and who is bad." So that's the extent of it. I wouldn't say I get attached, but yeah, I have strong feelings of like and dislike towards every houseguest every season. By the time we hit midseason, because you really feel like you get to know them. And it's not always what you think. I didn't mind "Evel Dick" [winner of Big Brother 8] because I thought he wasn't a phony, he wasn't trying to be something he's not. He's flawed and he's a human being for crying out loud. I like him for that.
In terms of the show during the week, do you get a digest from the producers about what happened at the house over the weekend? I imagine you're not glued to the live feed all night.
Well, I watch Big Brother After Dark on Showtime. [Laughs] I watched the live feed one season and I never got any other work done, so that had to end.
How angry do you get when the feed cuts to the fish tank?
I know, then I send an email to the producers asking "So what happened when it cut out?" We have this thing called a hot sheet. I asked for that to be implemented Season 2 because I realized Season 1, I was doing Early Show and I was missing a lot of the feed and I hated taking up time during our production meetings asking questions about what happened in the house. So Season 2, we had [executive producers] Allison Grodner and Arnold Shapiro come in and I said, "Is there a way we could do like a daily log of just the highlights and give them to me?" I asked for me, but then they said "That's a great idea, we'll distribute it to the people who need to be in the know." So, since Season 2, we've had the hot sheets, and they're usually about 15 pages, single spaced, with all the highlights.
On Mondays, you get the weekend one and then another one for Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.
So you're eating breakfast and reading about what the houseguests did for the last 24 hours.
Oh yeah, at the doctor's office. And then they'll say "You must shred and burn these afterwards." And then I'll come into the meeting the next day after reading the hot sheet and say, "This happened? Are we going to show that?" And that's already a dead issue by then.
So the show has multiple layers of producers, segment producers, competition producers and obviously executive producers like Allison. What is the overlap between them?
I only deal with the network and their notes and then executive producers Allison Grodner, Rich Meehan, Scott Einziger so it's like any of the content stuff...I'll say something to them like "Are we going to do this?" or "I think we should do that" and usually by the time I raise it, they've talked it through already. They'll explain to me why they're not going to do it or here's how we are going to do it. I don't deal with the segment producers. They're too busy cranking out their segments.
You've seen so much Big Brother. Is there any moment that no one has ever seen, amazing stuff that you, having privileged access to the show, have seen and we haven't?
I would say since YouTube, no. Since YouTube and it being available 24/7 with the live feed and with the rabid fans out there, there's nothing that is secret. And also, these people come out of the house and they talk. The houseguests will go on and do their press tours or whatever, so everything always gets out.
Most people aren't involved in shows that go on for eleven seasons. How does it feel when you have to go back to work? Is it back to the grind?
No, no. It makes me feel proud because I remember when we first came on, a lot of people were critical of the show for a number of reasons. Number one, Survivor was so huge when we came on the air and we came on the air about a month and a half or two months after Survivor was on the air so people thought we were the diluted stepchild. And other people hated Big Brother but loved Survivor. All of these other shows were on like Weakest Link and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. But for us, it was slow and steady wins the race. We do what we do well, and some of the fans are still in the closet, but a lot of them are coming out of the closet and they say, "You know what, it's a guilty pleasure and I love this show." So I feel vindicated.
I can imagine. You have contestants spinning around on an assembly, getting hit by a giant metaphorical diploma. Even on I Survived a Japanese Game Show or Wipeout, the whole show has to be dedicated to that wackiness whereas Big Brother can just have those elements. You have contestants popping giant pimples or dressing up as pigs. Those challenges can exist within this Machiavellian framework and that's very unique in terms of reality shows.
I agree. You'd be surprised. I always use my cousin or her husband as a perfect example. They don't fit your typical profile of Big Brother fans, and I remember, it was probably Season 3 that they signed on. You know, they went to Stanford and Penn and they're investment bankers and they were like, "We checked out your show and we are obsessed." And I said, "I've been telling you!" They've been spreading the word in their community with their friends and they love just watching the human behavior. And they get that we do something similar to Wipeout, that it can get a little cheesy, but you sit there and you just laugh. They get it, they get the humor behind the show.
Is there talk of the show ever not being part of the summer lineup? I know it was on during the writers strike, but moving forward, do you think CBS would move it to the fall?
Probably not because that is three hours of programming. [Laughs] There'd have to be a big strike for that to happen. ♦