Though currently in its 11th season, CBS's "Big Brother" is not showing any signs of aging and continues to attract huge summer audiences. Case in point, the reality series posted season-high ratings with Tuesday's episode where contestant Chima Simone was given the boot from the "BB" house. At the helm since the first season of the show in 2000 is Julie Chen, who is set to have her first baby with husband/CBS Corporation CEO Leslie Moonves right around the time that the current season's finale will air. Chen recently talked to Jim Halterman about how retooling the show in the early days helped its longevity, how she defends her tough grilling during the contestant exit interviews and how she really feels about being called "Chenbot."
Jim Halterman: You're in the home stretch of your pregnancy. How are you doing?
Julie Chen: I feel bigger by the hour. [Laughs.]
JH: Do you have any thoughts on whether your child will inevitably end up in television due to the careers of his very successful parents?
JC: I don't know. I hope not in many ways. I feel like the pressure of being who his parents are... if he does it because he loves it and he's great at it, then yeah but I just think to myself all the time that there must be so much pressure on kids born in Hollywood or acting families because that's all they know; they have such access. But acting is so much more difficult because you either have the talent or you don't.
JH: Did anyone have any idea when "Big Brother" started in 2000 that it would grow into the still-huge hit that it is today?
JC: I don't think anybody, including me. Especially after we came out of the gate and it was like a month after "Survivor" became this big overnight sensation. We were viewed as this watered down, cheap version, not as well executed. I wonder how the public would have received us if we were on before they were but, then again, I do think there were problems with the show during the first season with the rules because it was such a success the way we were running it the first season in other countries but culturally other countries were so different from us. The main difference was the first season we had America voting who they wanted off from week to week and we found that Americans voted off the most interesting people who were trouble makers.
We, as Americans, don't like conflict whereas the other three countries we were running � Holland, Germany and the UK � it was huge because culturally over there in Europe they take more risks than we do. Maybe their programming is not as exciting on a day-to-day basis so they voted on the JR Ewing to stay. They liked that turmoil. We had to change the rules around but I never thought we'd go this long. Season two, to this day, I still think that was our best season yet but people were so either turned off from the first season or there were people who watched season two but they weren't sure if they liked it but then we had these closet fans who eventually came out of the closet. I always tell people if they can get their hands on season two, it was amazing.
JH: Since you've seen so many crazy things on the show, is there nothing that surprises you anymore?
JC: Yes and no. Nothing crazy surprises me but what does surprise me is when diehard fans who have been there since day one, season one, they come on the show, they've made it on the show and they don't learn from other people's mistakes but I guess I've been doing the show for awhile and if I were a houseguest I'd make the same ones. I guess what fascinates me is that year after year people who go to the show and they've sat there judging from their couches at home... you don't know who you are until you're faced with the "Big Brother" house. You don't know all sides of your personality; the good and the bad. I always compare it to the movie "Crash." Essentially, the story to me is that people are not all good or all bad. We're all flawed and we all have good and bad. It's just a matter of who brings it out in us. That's what surprises me; people don't realize how hard it is until they get there. They all think it's going to be easy... the old adage is true � "Try walking a mile in my shoes. Don't judge me."
JH: The "Big Brother: After Dark" has really blown up, too, right?
JC: That is great because if you have Showtime, it's free. I'll be brushing my teeth or washing my face and getting ready for the next day I'll put it on and it's so easy to get sucked in because even if you're not into the show, there's something that happens to you if you're behaving like a voyeur. It doesn't have to be like people fooling around. They could be having the dullest conversation out in the backyard or cooking dinner and you just feel so privileged to be listening to this conversation that they know you're listening but they also don't know. You feel sneaky and feel like you're getting away with something. It has this delicious feeling to it. "It's so naughty and it's so good!" My husband will be like, "Are you still watching that?" And I'll say "I can't help myself. Any minute something is going to happen!"
JH: Recently, Lydia was climbing into bed with Jessie without his knowledge and it was kinda creepy. It was allowed to happen but what if it had been the other way around?
JC: There are two things: they're always being monitored and we can jump in at a moment's notice. These people go through serious screening and background checks before they come in so there are a couple of levels of security that they have to go through to get in that position. What most people don't know is that the exit door is never locked. We say "locked inside" but here are the rules we tell [the contestants] � you are here because you choose to be here. You can leave at any moment you want whether you are sick of the game, you miss your family, you're homesick, whatever reason but once you walk through that unlocked door you cannot come back. So they are well aware; it's not as scary as it seems. These people, you know, are playing their hearts out to stay in it if they want to be.
They complain and complain and complain but the door is unlocked, they can walk out at any time. And, another thing, because they always know they're being watched and we are always watching them and, after 10 seasons, we're prepared for everything. We weren't concerned with her jumping into bed with him because when Europeans started it, we are way more puritanical. The Europeans were more like, "That's life! This is part of the social experiment, seeing human behavior, choices people make, reactions that they'll have living with these strangers who become like family, they're going to cry, love, laugh." So we expect the whole gamut. They're consenting adults so there's going to be some messing around. Jessie wasn't exactly kicking her out.
JH: When Ronnie was kicked out of the house, some of the fans thought you were grilling him a little hard. How do you work those exit interviews?
JC: I do two interviews. I do a very brief one on the live show and I try to keep that as broad strokes as I can with the short amount of time and then the uncut 10-12 minute one that we run on the website, that's when I get more "grilly" because I have time to and that must be where they thought I was a bit tough on him. I don't mind that criticism because Ronnie had a lot of fans but I think there were many people out there that wanted those questions asked because I think, for the most part, the majority of the audience were not fans of his so I had to ask that questions like, "Aren't you being a hypocrite? You just called Michelle out, totally humiliated her, which was a little bit of a bully move."
Here's my question as a woman � would he have said those same things to Jessie if Jessie behaved exactly the same way Michelle did? I'm not so sure. We live in a very sexist society. How is she different from you? You're accusing her of not being loyal and lying [but] you were priding yourself on having that behavior until you got called out... so it's kind of like... also, I try to ask it not in a tone where I'm being judgmental. Well, justify it here. Almost like a cross-examination. Let's hear it. And he can defend himself.
JH: You have such a great sense of humor about the whole "Chenbot" name that was tagged to you. Did it bother you when you first heard it?
JC: It stung the first time I heard it when my best friend from college told me. She said it matter-of-factly and said, "You know they call you the Chenbot?" I was like, "What?" Automatically, you know it's insulting, it's not meant to be nice and then the second instinct was I kind of knew exactly what they meant and that's why it stung. I thought if they had no truth behind it and it was just hilarious I would've laughed instantly. Yeah, I'm a human being. I was like, "Oh...," and you kind of don't want to hear it, you don't want to think it through but you kind of know at the same time. I really embraced it when [my agent] sent me a link that showed all the spliced together moments and I was in my office when I started watching and I laughed out loud and I said, "Oh my God! I am the Chenbot! They're so right! I can't blame them!" If I wasn't me, I would have criticized me the same way.
And then I saw another website where they had coffee mugs, posters and t-shirts that have my hands up in the air like a robot or a Y in YMCA and it says "Chenbot" so I bought a sweatshirt and I bought some of the posters to put up in my office and I bought some of the mugs and then my husband's office his assistant bought the same stuff as a gag gift so we have all this Chenbot stuff in the house and I think it's hilarious. I love when someone appears on "Saturday Night Live" to make fun of themselves whether it's an Eliot Spitzer-type, though he hasn't done it, or a Paris Hilton or Donny Osmond or whoever we make fun of in our culture and they go on and embrace it. Sarah Palin didn't do a great job of it but good for her for going on there to kind of laugh at herself but I think she did it more for the PR and don't think she quite got it but those people who are in some scandal and then they scoop themselves on "Saturday Night Live" and I always respect them afterwards. I thought, "You know what, I should be the bigger person and laugh at what it is."
"Big Brother" currently airs Sundays at 8:00/7:00c, Tuesdays at 9:00/8:00c and Thursdays at 8:00/7:00c on CBS. "Big Brother: After Dark" airs on Showtime 2 seven nights a week at midnight/11:00c.