Julie Chen Moonves starts our interview with a prayer.
“Heavenly Father, thank you for this beautiful day, and thank you for providing peace and patience,” she begins, after asking if I’d like to contribute or simply listen.
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I choose the latter and admit that this is a first in the decade I’ve been a journalist.
Faith has become an important part of Chen Moonves’ life, especially in the past five years — following the ousting of husband Leslie Moonves, the former CBS Corp. CEO who disappeared from the limelight after he was fired over sexual misconduct allegations in 2018. While Chen Moonves chose to leave “The Talk” in the wake of her husband’s exit from CBS, she remained at the forefront of one of the network’s biggest shows, “Big Brother,” which premieres its 25th season on Aug. 2.
Now, she and her husband watch the reality show together, along with their 13-year-old son. “We get into it. It is still appointment viewing,” Chen Moonves, 53, says of their family nights. The former news anchor, who departed CBS’ “The Early Show” in 2010 after eight years, admits that she’s too critical of her own hosting, and even leaves the room when she appears on-screen. But she is committed to the show, often watching those notorious “Big Brother” live feeds during her downtime.
Still, it’s impossible to watch it all. Nearly 16,000 hours of “Big Brother” footage is recorded each season, with 40 hours airing on CBS. In 2022, it was the most-viewed reality series in total minutes watched, with 14.3 billion minutes seen across CBS, Paramount+ and the CBS app.
“Big Brother” began in the Netherlands (it was created by John de Mol in 1997), with the idea of putting a group of contestants in a house, cut off from the rest of the world, with cameras recording their every interaction. Each week, the cast compete in challenges and must vote to evict one houseguest until one winner takes home the $750,000 prize. CBS debuted the U.S. version in 2000 and from the beginning took advantage of the slow summer months by airing multiple days a week. But it was the online live feeds that made the series stand apart from the rest of reality TV, allowing 24-hour access to the show.
“There’s so much that happens in the house, and it’s hard even with three hours of primetime to really tell all the stories. What the live feeds give us is another way,” executive producer Allison Grodner says. “It takes courage to put yourself out there 24/7. I don’t know if the audience always appreciates that. That’s what makes it challenging sometimes — because you’re seeing real human beings, some with more flaws than others.”
Those flawed players are often called out by viewers and former cast members. Although CBS launched an initiative to ensure 50% of its unscripted shows’ casts are BIPOC, racism and discrimination have frequently marred the series. During Season 24, for instance, many fans expressed disappointment in the network and the producers after seeing houseguests’ microaggressions against contestant Taylor Hale, who is Black.
Although the producers won’t get into confidential casting details, they say they do “extensive” research, looking into each player’s background and keeping an eye out for red flags.
“It’s a social experiment using a group of people with different life experiences. They all bring that in and learn from each other. They learn, they change, they grow. Hopefully, by watching that, we’re also making a positive impact on the outside world,” says Grodner.
Executive producer Rich Meehan comments on rumors, though, that the show purposely casts problematic houseguests. “That’s definitely 1,000% not true,” he says. “But we do cast a wide net of people from all different walks of life, all different upbringings, so sometimes you do get surprised along the way.”
Most of those controversies come from non-aired footage that fans monitor and recap live. Contestants have been caught using the N-word, making aggressive or racist remarks and making jokes about inappropriate topics. I ask the producers whether they’ve discussed eliminating the 24-hour live feeds.
“All the time,” Grodner admits with a laugh. “Listen, it’s tough. But it’s also what makes the show so unique.”
That, and Chen Moonves.
Over the years, the host has embraced the quirks of the show — including the knocks she has taken for her sometimes awkward tics, like her overuse of the phrase “But first.” In the beginning, she didn’t even want to be there: When Chen Moonves initially was offered the “Big Brother” job at 29, she turned it down. At the time, she was working for CBS’ New York outlet WCBS, hoping to make it to the network and “60 Minutes.”
Chen Moonves was asked to spend 10 weeks at the “Big Brother” house in Los Angeles while simultaneously anchoring the news. Concerned about how that would affect her long-term goal, she asked the president of CBS News whether she’d be able to report on hard-hitting stories in the future if she took the gig.
“He said, ‘Probably not, Julie.’ I was like, ‘Thanks for your honesty. In that case, my answer’s so crystal clear. I’m not interested in taking this job,’” Chen Moonves explains now. “And then he said, ‘Well, technically, you work for the company, and if you don’t take this job, it could be viewed as insubordination.’”
With that, Chen Moonves hopped on a plane to Los Angeles. She juggled that gig while continuing as an “Early Show” anchor. Although she hasn’t made it to “60 Minutes” and was “kind of forced to take” the reality hosting gig, she now says, “I should be sending him flowers.”
“Big Brother” players have turned up on other reality shows including “The Challenge,” “The Amazing Race” and “Survivor,” but it’s never gone the other way around — yet.
“It would be fascinating to see some of the greats of some of these other long-running shows come in,” says Grodner. “But ‘Big Brother’ is still one of the hardest. It’s probably harder than ‘Survivor’ because of the length of time and the psychological challenge of being locked in a house for three months cut off from the outside world. It’s apples and oranges to the other shows.”
This year, CBS is hitting tentpoles in their competition shows, with Season 25 of “Big Brother,” Season 35 of “The Amazing Race” and Season 45 of “Survivor.” The hosts — Chen Moonves, Phil Keoghan and Jeff Probst, are the longest serving reality hosts in television.
“The secret to our longevity is the players we put on the show,” says Probst of “Survivor’s” success. “Our casting team is incredibly talented and they continue to find compelling humans to take part in our ongoing social experiment about adaptation.”
For “The Amazing Race,” Keoghan notes that the group has always “strived for excellence” — and it’s always worked. “One of my favorite quotes is ‘Luck is the Residue of Design,’” he says. “’TAR’ inspires and resonates with viewers who are captivated and entertained by seeing the world in a way they’d never seen it before through the eyes of relatable captivating people … all from the comfort of their favorite chairs. The key to the show’s lasting success is ensuring that we continue to push each other to be better. The passion we all have for ‘TAR’ is infectious.”
Like “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race,” though, both of which also have been on the air for more than two decades, “Big Brother” has its creative challenges: Producers are often hard-pressed to find new ways to keep such an established franchise feeling fresh.
“It’s crazy to think that all these seasons in, there could be something new that we haven’t tried,” says Grodner of Season 25. “And yet, there is. The challenge department worked hard to do something that’s special, different and relevant for this season. I’m also really excited about our cast. These are some unique, interesting, diverse people.”
The producers are deliberately vague about anything that would give away the theme of the latest season. Not even Chen Moonves has been informed at the time of our interview, less than a month before the new episodes air — and that’s how she likes it.
“I like to be in the dark as long as possible,” she says, but notes, “I am most excited to see who from past seasons might pop up and what their role is.”
She’ll learn soon whether her prayers have been answered.
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