Big Brother UK Is Back: Execs Talk Sifting Through 30,000 Casting Applications, Prioritizing Welfare & Making Reality Real Again

“This is the perfect opportunity for us to make reality ‘real’ again,” says Peter Tierney, the commissioner who has spent the past two years overseeing ITV‘s rebooted Big Brother.

Speaking as ITV prepares to become the third UK network to premiere the world-beating format, Tierney says his team have listened relentlessly to audiences “telling us that they want real, authentic reality.”

“They are aware of the way in which [some of] these shows are made, the directions you can push contestants in and the hands of the producer,” he adds. “But Big Brother presents us with the perfect opportunity to make reality ‘real’ again, providing a better opportunity for an environment that is conducive to real life than many other reality shows afford you.”

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In a world of over-polished, glossy hits, Tierney says his reality commissioning team and producers at Banijay label Initial have repeatedly stressed that they will do their best to let things play out.

Hosted by AJ Odudu and Will Best, ITV is aiming to make a splash with Big Brother’s return five years after it ended on Channel 5 and it will launch Sunday across ITV 1 and ITV 2 with a pre-recorded show, before subsequently airing weeknights on ITV 2 for six weeks alongside companion program Late & Live. The show was initially slated to launch several months ago but was pushed to Q4 due to a downturn in ad revenue.

Exec producer Katy Manley, who runs Initial, believes reality TV is coming “full circle” from the days that Big Brother first wowed the nation on Channel 4 more than 20 years ago, when the likes of Nasty Nick, Nikki Grahame, Jade Goody and Pete Bennett bedecked UK tabloid front pages.

“Lots of polished, glossy TV is out there but hopefully we are going back to something raw that has a hands-off producing style with a very fast turnaround edit,” adds Manley, who has worked on the ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 versions, starting as a task assistant two decades ago.

“Being yourself and being interesting”

To achieve their authenticity goal, the casting process was essential to ITV and Initial.

“The beauty of Big Brother is all you have to be is yourself and interesting, you don’t have to sing or dance or look a certain way,” says Manley, drawing a line between Big Brother and the likes of Love Island and Britain’s Got Talent.

The casting process took a colossal 10 months and Manley’s team sifted through 30,000 applications, eventually interviewing 500 people.

She says the “ubiquitous nature of Zoom” helped move the “thorough” process along and allowed for a new breed of contestant to put themselves forward. “Everyone is always changing, society is always shifting and the show can reflect that,” adds Manley.

The team was also inspired by the “range and diversity” of contestants on BBC smash The Traitors, which has somewhat changed the game, she adds.

With a laser focus on casting while ensuring the contestants are given room to breathe, the team felt they could re-engineer Big Brother for the modern age.

“Satisfying superfans” while tapping into a new generation was Manley’s biggest challenge. “There is this core fanbase that have a connection to the show and we want to make them happy and live up to their expectatoins while also appealing to 16-24 year olds.”

For Tierney, making Big Brother “relevant and pertinent for young people in 2023” while handing it an ITV DNA was the aim.

“The Channel 4 version felt like Channel 4’s and ditto Channel 5 so it was really important for us to take ownership of that brand and give it a sense of ‘ITV-ness’,” he says. “We didn’t want to tinker and change things too much but you can pull certain levers and do certain things around the edges that make it feel like an ITV 2 show.”

Tierney flags the decision to introduce two ITV-friendly hosts in AJ Odudu and Will Best, along with playing with the design of the iconic house, which has moved from Hertfordshire to London. Tierney describes it as “the best Big Brother UK house ever and potentially one of the best anywhere in the world.”

The team has also learned from the flood of international versions that have launched in the five-year interim period, according to Manley, who points to successful iterations in the likes of The Netherlands, Mexico and Australia, along with the evergreen Big Brother U.S. on CBS.

Initial was particularly inspired by the pre-recorded Australian version, which influenced the casting and voiceover on the upcoming Big Brother UK.

Russell Brand

The industry was rocked a fortnight ago by the Russell Brand allegations, some of which date back to his time hosting Big Brother’s Big Mouth in the mid-noughties, and both Banijay and Channel 4 have launched investigations. Brand denies criminal wrongdoing and says all relationships were consensual.

While neither Manley nor Tierney worked on Big Mouth, the former says broadcasters and indies need to “look at what processes they had in place and rigorously examine the way in which they work.”

The pair stress how seriously they have taken the welfare of contestants on the new Big Brother, with various codes of conduct and aftercare regimes in place that already apply to other ITV shows such as Love Island.

“Everyone used to know what Big Brother was but it’s been off air for five years so we wanted to make sure [contestants] understand what the show entails,” adds Manley. “Life in the house is really challenging – you are cut off from the outside world, your phone and the internet. It can be very boring at times and no one can predict what it will be like coming out of there.”

The British TV industry is “in a different place” since Brand allegedly committed some of his acts, Tierney says, and “duty of care and welfare of contributors is now as important as any other element of the show.”

The pressure is on for Tierney, whose boss Paul Mortimer told the Edinburgh TV Festival “this is just the start so watch this space” as he unveiled a second season prior to the first’s launch.

ITV isn’t targeting a specific rating as a measure of success but will be closely examining the degree to which Big Brother “makes a noise,” Tierney says.

“You don’t stand up a show like Big Brother with the thought that you might do a series, see how it goes and then maybe not do another,” he concludes.

“Hopefully on launch night people will look at the show and say ‘OK they are not messing around here’.”

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