Visiting the "Human Zoo": A tour of CBS' Big Brother 12 house
LOS ANGELES – Before you enter the elaborate studio space CBS has converted into a sprawling home for its competition series Big Brother, the producers drop their joke nickname for the joint: The Human Zoo.
But the multi-level studio set built to house folks who have renounced TV, the Internet, music, books, pen and paper to live cooped in a space with a bunch of strangers for 2 ½-months, feels more like a giant behavioral experiment no one is analyzing – a look at what happens when 12 super-self-obsessed people are stuck in a space with nothing to do but bounce off each other for an entire summer.
On Saturday, I joined a group of TV critics in a tour of the Big Brother set, carefully managed to ensure that the contestants never knew we were there. And that may have been the creepiest part of a really odd day – looking through the piles of dirty clothes and half-eaten food left laying around the place, while the show’s contestants competed in a pinball-themed veto challenge viewers will see tonight, totally unaware we were rooting through their most private stuff. (above right, I'm standing in the area where Julie Chen conducts the live eviction episodes each Thursday, just in front of the door which ejectees use to exit the house and speak with the host)
“We say in casting, you really won’t get it, until you live in here,” said executive producer Allison Grodner, herself a prisoner of Big Brother in a way, shackled to the show’s breakneck pace of cranking out three shows weekly for 2 ½ months, cobbled together from footage gathered by 52 cameras and 95 microphones.
“(New contestants) always say, ‘Why are people crying? Why do they act like they’re dying when they leave?’” said Grodner. “But it’s intense – these relationships develop at hyperspeed. I always say its high school time 10,000 – you regress, and their personalities get exaggerated under pressure.”
Most of Big Brother’s living space is ringed by large lights around the ceiling, which drench the common areas in illumination to make the camera shots better. Though contestants can sometimes hear workers around them – the space is plopped within CBS’ Radford studio lot in North Hollywood – they rarely see the camera people themselves, who shoot from behind an array of two-way mirrors, gliding along darkened hallways set outside the living spaces and marked with luminescent tape.
The Big Brother “house" isn’t really a house at all, but a giant setpiece, featuring an outdoor area with fake grass, circled by a high wall, and an interior living area with a kitchen, living room, bedrooms, “diary” area where contestants can talk alone with producers and a bathroom where even the showers are mostly open to the cameras’ view. This season, the house's decor has a South Florida flair, with lots of fake palm trees and pink art deco stylings.
(at left, I'm sampling slop, an oatmeal and vitamins concoction houseguests who lose food challenges must eat; tasted like gruel mixed with construction paste, to me)
Annie Whittington, the 27-year-old Tampa bartender who had a short-lived reign as the show’s first secret saboteur, blamed the debilitating effects of the house’s isolation for the erratic behavior that led the houseguests to eject her first, ending the show’s biggest new twist before it barely began.
“Watching the show, I can barely recognize myself – a lot of times I was crying and the opposite of who I am, overreacting to everything” said Whittington, who only returned to Tampa last week, sequestered by the producers after her July 15 ejection while they considered bringing ousted players back into the game.
Grodner said Whittington miscalculated by playing too aggressively and hiding her bisexuality, which led fellow houseguests to guess she was keeping something from them. Whittington agreed, saying the decision to keep her sexual orientation secret came from worry about upsetting her parents and girlfriend; looking back, the pressure of competition and being the saboteur proved too much of a challenge.
“People kept calling me crazy, but when you have nothing else going on in the house, you try to keep your mind occupied; that’s why I kept talking,” said Whittington, who would have earned $50,000 if she had survived five weeks as the saboteur (On Thursday, viewers will pick a new saboteur who can earn $20,000 by staying undiscovered for two weeks). “I went into the house saying, ‘Of course I’m going to fly under the radar.’ But I freaked out; there’s no other way to describe it.”
Producers monitor all the available video feeds in a control room resembling a NASA facility, with a team of four staffers directing the video feeds, while four others watch for story elements (there’s even a camera in the toilet room, mostly to keep houseguests from going in there to talk off camera). Even network CEO Les Moonves has a monitor displaying the four main video feeds in his office, ratcheting up the pressure.
Tonight, viewers will see the competition we watched Saturday, featuring the houseguests playing a game based around the song Pinball Wizard (with no music allowed in the house – CBS doesn’t want to pay royalties – houseguests jump at any opportunity to hear songs, so such events really get them worked up).
Grodner recalled how the houseguests even had trouble understanding the 9/11 attacks when told about them in 2001. One of the three houseguests there had a cousin who died in the World Trade Center, another built a plane out of Lego blocks and smashed it into a Lego building, horrifying producers.“This is the least manipulated reality show out there (because) we have a 24/7 brigade of armchair producers watching this online,” said Grodner, noting the show’s camera feeds are available on the Internet anytime. “We can’t change things and we don’t know what’s going to happen. So we just have to expect the unexpected.”