Big Brother has left the building

Big Brother 2013What happens when Australia’s largest reality production wraps for the year? In a piece that first appeared in Encore, Brooke Hemphill visits the set of Big Brother for the final two days of the 2013 shoot to find out.

It’s one hour until show time on the Gold Coast set of Big Brother and an eerie silence has descended over the back-of-house production offices. After 101 days of filming the reality series that sees a group of strangers shut off from the outside world, it’s all over bar the shouting – the shouting of the fans during the live finale that will run more than 20 minutes over schedule, the shouting of the contestants when the winner Tim Dormer is eventually crowned and of course, the shouting of the many crew members behind the scenes that make the show come to life.

From seamstresses to directors, producers, publicists and everything in between, the 300 plus team have been working around the clock for more than three months to churn out more than 70 episodes and up to 90 minutes of television per night – the most of any series of the Australian version of Big Brother. And while many of the crew are planning to take a nice, long rest after the production run, others are off to the sets of shows including the UK version of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, which is currently shooting in Queensland, and the new Working Dog series on Ten, Have You Been Paying Attention? Nonetheless news announced during the show’s finale that Big Brother will return in 2014 must come as a welcome relief to the dedicated team who eat, sleep and breathe Big Brother.

Chris Blackburn, executive producer and the man responsible for pulling together footage for the daily show for each weeknight, says: “To put it in perspective, when I started on this we used to do half an hour a day. We used to think it was amazing that we got that out.” The current series has seen the crew produce several 60 and 90 minute shows each week with the latter equivalent to 68 minutes of content plus ad breaks. Blackburn says: “Now we have eight segments, 68 minutes with pretty much the same team but we have much better technology. This year was the busiest we’ve been.”

For this crew, which Janneen Faithful, Southern Star CEO, calls a “sect”, “it’s sort of like a cult. I now belong to it”, life doesn’t go back to normal when they eventually leave the Queensland set each day. Blackburn reveals that this year, he and fellow EP Alex Mavroidakis, series producer Matt Bath and one of the other editors have pooled their living allowance to share a house in Sanctuary Cove. But far from being a debriefing zone for the team who have worked together for many years, they rarely see one another on account of their mismatched, manic schedules. Blackburn says: “The other guy that did this job with me, he would go home at four in the afternoon. I would go home at about six in the afternoon. We’d just go to bed and sleep. And then at midnight, Alex would get in, and about 2am Matt would get in. So it’s like this revolving… For three months we don’t see anyone outside of this world.”


You can easily imagine that the experience, fueled by an ongoing rush of adrenaline, must be addictive and while the crew looks ready for a break, they will also find it hard to let go at the end of the series.

Walking around the production offices on the day prior to the finale is a weird sensation for series producer Bath. Offices that were bustling only 24 hours prior are cleared out and on the whiteboard in one room, a farewell note has been scrawled to the remaining crew on site. Even the house itself, where the three remaining housemates are still contained, is beginning the process of being readied for handover to Dreamworld and facilitated house tours. The roof has been lifted from the area known as the ‘showdown arena’ where housemates competed against one another each week. Thousands of props sourced and built specifically for challenges and events in the house are soon to be logged and stored or repurposed for other use.

While the crew set up the backyard for the finale episode, complete with a giant screen and lanterns hanging above the swimming pool, the final three housemates have been banished to the lounge where their only entertainment is a series of DVDs selected by Big Brother himself.

With the rest of the house open, Encore gets the chance to walk around several rooms including the plush presidential suite complete with a round waterbed – a room used for rewarding the housemates after winning challenges. The Garden of Eden is also open for inspection, a lush green space with a canopied day bed that played host to TV legends Bert and Patti Newton in an episode where they met contestant Ben Zabel. More than 300 butterflies were released into the space for the meeting. The kitchen is also open and flies circle crumbs on the bench left over from the housemate’s pie making efforts a few hours earlier. Being in the rooms feels like you are intruding which seems apt.


Entering the house while the housemates are still present is one thing, being able to communicate with them is something else entirely. During Encore’s tour of the control room, Leon Murray, deputy Big Brother and the man behind the most recognisable of the three Big Brother voices, hands over the microphone. Encore is asked to read a prepared script from the producers directing the housemates to do 50 star jumps before rewarding them with a snack. Murray demonstrates how the sound panel works – a series of lit buttons show which sections of the house the ‘voice of god’ will be heard in and another button is pressed and held down to deliver the lines. He recommends releasing the button between lines to take a breath. “The housemates are going to wonder who you are,” says Murray, “but just plough on.”

The experience is surreal as the housemates jump to and follow the orders delivered by a strange female voice. Surely this sort of power must go to Murray’s head. He laughs at the suggestion and describes his job as part counsellor, part voiceover artist. When he’s not playing the role of Big Brother, he makes a living doing voiceovers, writing and producing.

Outside the soundproof booth, two loggers enter information about the scene that has just unfolded taking down information about who said and did what and whether the scene is any good on a scale of excellent to poor. They mark the housemate’s star jumps as excellent and note the moment as being funny. Not much else has happened so far on their shift as the housemates laze about on the couch. It’s possibly the most relaxed the control room has been all series but it won’t be for long.

The man who oversees this part of the team, and helms the outside broadcast van during the live shows, is director Mark Adamson. Last year Adamson told Encore that the loss of regional network hubs and the local productions they facilitated had meant a vital funnel for television talent had been plugged. This year, he is more optimistic as networks embrace shiny floor shows. He says: “The interesting thing about the network’s demise, when they sacked all their internal people and everyone went freelance, what’s happening now is the stuff that’s rating on networks are big, local productions because the consumer can’t get that anywhere else. They can’t download it. It can’t be fast-tracked. It has to be made locally and mostly is live – LIVE live. And that’s a really good thing for the industry. It’s sort of swung around again. In an attempt to stop declining viewer numbers, and in fact increase their viewers, the networks have had to make massive investment in local production. Big ‘shiny floor’ local productions.”

The opportunities look to be opening up and while Adamson waits for this talent to work it’s way to the level required on a grand-scale live production like Big Brother, he continues to call on highly experienced industry names like Richard Goffin who is currently having what Adamson calls a “mini meltdown” on account of the epic task he is about to take on the following night – vision switching the live finale. Adamson says: “He’s one of the best in the country. He originally came through the ABC as a very young trainee and has an aptitude for all things technical and so has ended up being a very competent and capable vision switcher. For shows as complex as this, you can’t just have any ordinary vision switcher. They absolutely have to be one of the best and thankfully he’s happy to work with me. I get him on board whenever I can.”


The live finale is, according to Adamson, one of the toughest gigs in Australian TV. He says: “It’s a very full on show. Technically it’s very full on. We’ve got a live site this year – a live fan site down in Sydney. Having a live site always brings in an uncertain element because lots of things can go wrong. Plus we’ve got housemates in the house watching one thing while we’re doing another. Technically, it’s probably the most complicated show you can do in Australia.”

According to EP Mavroidakis, it’s all within the crew’s capabilities. He says: “This is the most phenomenal crew in TV. We’ve got supervising producers that should be EPs, producers that should be supervising producers, APs that should be producers and runners that should be APs. It makes it a pleasure to come to work every day when you know that you’re surrounded by great people. This job is hard. Every job on the show is very hard. We’re all stressed. We’re all tired but the number one thing that you need to get a job on Big Brother is you need to love the show and if you love the show, you love being here and the hard work is all worth it.”

Getting around the set and speaking to the various crew members, it’s obvious that every job is a big job. From the publicity team that have to wrangle evicted cast mate interviews which, due to time differences around the country, can begin as early as 3am, to the crew members behind the beach set up inside the backyard of the house during the final week which involved 20 tonnes of sand and took a conveyer belt and industrial vacuum to remove, no-one is sitting around with their feet up.


In its second incarnation for Nine, Big Brother has continued down the family friendly path it set out on last year.

Southern Star’s Faithful says: “The fact is that it’s just accessible. There isn’t anybody who would object to it. We’ve got grandmas watching it with their grandchildren. We do, as families, want to sit around and watch tele. Certainly with where we started last year, and what we built on from last year, we did actually manage to get a little broader. My family watched it. Even my husband, who only watches sport, is furiously voting.”

This desire to appeal to a broad demographic was an influencing factor in the casting of the series this year which technically began when they cast the reboot in 2012. The 2013 winner Tim Dormer had been ready to enter the house in 2012 but was pulled out by producers at the last minute for fear the house would have been too “noisy”. Other housemates were identified in the 2012 search which the producers kept in their back pocket for this year’s series. Mavroidakis says: “We met Ed when we were casting for last year. We met Xavier when we were casting for last year. We met Boog when we were casting for last year. So when we went on the tour this year, we knew that these people were sitting on the side lines. They had come within this far of getting into the 2012 house.”

Another strategy employed in the casting this year was the ‘fast-tracking’ approach where potential contestants identified as having the gift of the gab in submitted videos moved past the audition rounds and straight on to a sit down with the show’s producers. Mavroidakis says: “You skipped the first round where there are hundreds and hundreds of people and went straight through to the intimate producer panel. That really worked for us because it meant that everybody that was particularly articulate, or funny, or intelligent, or engaging in their video, someone that you could see had housemate potential, it gave them this fast-track pass. And they all turned up because the biggest thing with Big Brother auditions is ‘yeah, I’ll turn up, I’ll come along’ and then they drop out at the last moment because they had too many beers last night.”

The consensus on set is that this is the best group of housemates ever seen on Australian Big Brother. There is particular praise for Dormer who, at times, singlehandedly drove content that made it onto the air. Blackburn, whose day begins at 3am each morning to go through the scenes from the day prior and cut together the daily show says: “I’ve never seen a guy get the show so well. He was almost like the ringmaster. Wherever he was, things were happening with him and around him and I haven’t seen it that good myself before. Michael (Beveridge) from the year before was very good but Tim has taken it to another level.”

And this year’s cast has taught Blackburn an important lesson that will stick with him for series to come: Big Brother works best when the cast is made up of intelligent people.

Blackburn says: “People always think reality TV is for dumb, bogan idiots who get thrown into a house and misbehave but I’ve decided this year, they have to be smart, ultimately. If you look at someone like Tim, he’s a clever guy. All the other stuff you get that people like – people hooking up, and the rows, the bad human behaviour, you will still get that off doctors and lawyers and politicians, university academics. We all are capable of getting pissed, saying the wrong thing, arguing, being surly, being trivial – all those things, human beings do anyway. You just need the baseline of someone who is intelligent enough to know what’s going on around them and form an opinion and articulate that opinion because you don’t have any show unless people are talking about shit.”

“Now casting – we proved it this year – we just go for people who are switched on and interested in life. I don’t think it gets any more complicated than that except that they are quite hard to find.”

But that’s not to say there won’t be a few lookers in there as well. Blackburn says for the “soap opera” element of the show, a couple of housemates who are easy on the eye are necessary and allow the producers to cast others who are less about looks and more about personality. Although this year, the two ‘beauties’ made it through to the finale on account of having a combination of both looks and personality. Blackburn says: “We got good beauties this year.”

And to all the industry types that poo-hoo reality television, Blackburn has this to say: “People go ‘oh reality TV’ and ‘oh, the worst of the worst is Big Brother’. But a soap opera is a guy or a girl sitting in a room making it up. Out of their head comes this story and they put it on a piece of paper and then they give it to actors and a director and they pretend. Then you go to the other kinds of reality TV like Beauty and The Geek or Temptation Island and in those situations you have people with cameras on their shoulders following people around. They know all the time that there’s a camera there.”

“This is where I think Big Brother is the pureest reality because although they know the cameras are just behind the screens, and they know they’ve got a microphone on, there’s no switch off time. They have to ultimately forget about the cameras and get on with daily life. It’s the only show where people have completely forgotten they are being filmed especially in moments of crisis and high drama.”

“When you see two of those guys having a fair dinkum argument, when it actually becomes completely real, then you have three or four cameras rolling on it. When you see it, you see pure human drama. Especially subtleties. You never get subtleties when you’ve got a camera on your shoulder.”


While a group of senior production staff have a confab on the deck outside the OB van, the three remaining housemates are getting dressed for their final moments of fame inside the house. It’s almost show time and you can feel the tension in every office behind the scenes. While Blackburn’s job is over for now, with the last of the daily show episodes in the can, Adamson and Mavroidakis have a few hoops to jump through yet.

The voting to decide the winner of the 2013 series has been close and when the second runner up, Tahan Lew-Fatt, is evicted, a ripple of shock travels through the crew behind the scenes. While many have been tipping Dormer to win, it looks possible there could be an upset that sees model Jade Albany Pietrantonio taking out the title. When Dormer’s name is called, there are high fives all around.

The finale will go on to rate an average metro audience of 1.31m, growing to 1.98m for the winner announcement. When asked to predict how the episode would fare the day prior, EP Mavroidakis said: “We’d be happy with anything over a million. To do a million on a Wednesday night, in this climate, anything over a million is a massive win. 800,000 is the new million in today’s television.”

Host Sonia Kruger announces to the 1.31m people tuning in that the series will return in 2014. Mavroidakis says: “We’ll be back in 2014 and with any luck we’ll be here in 2015, 16 and 17. It was kind of a no-brainer for Nine.” The ratings success will merely be the cherry on the cake for the jubilant crew still on a high from delivering two and a half hours of live television.

With the broadcast complete, the cast and producers head to the Hilton Hotel to celebrate. The following night, the crew will have their own wrap party. In the days that follow, there is still work to be done packing down the set and compiling department reports. While we may have seen the last of some of the castmates whose 15 minutes of fame may already have expired by the time this article is published, the crew will be back in a few months time to get the ball rolling on the 2014 series.

Mavroidakis is headed to the Big Brother exchange – a meeting with representatives of the franchise from around the world. Although Southern Star’s Faithful says the EP is already bubbling over with ideas for next year, Mavroidakis is likely to return with a whole new bag of tricks.

When asked at the wrap party what he has planned for the coming year Rodney Brunsdon, production designer and the person in charge of the build of the house, says: “Everyone has been asking me that.” He’s yet to come up with a plan but is likely to have some thoughts after that much needed break.

Three days after the final episode, a bushfire threatens the perimetre of Dreamworld and with it the Big Brother house. The park is evacuated leaving many wondering what would have happened if the fire had occurred a week earlier. Encore learns the contingency would be to put the cast back in lockdown until a proper plan could be hatched. But that’s all part of the thrill of the show – watching everyday Australians deal with unexpected situations – and that’s a statement that applies equally to the cast and crew.


Encore Issue 38This piece first appeared in EncoreDownload it now on iPad, iPhone and Android tablet devices.



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