On June 8, longtime Big Brother executive producers Allison Grodner and Rich Meehan tweeted, “Get ready for some fireworks from us tonight.” And then, boom! Those fireworks came in the form of pop star Katy Perry.
In a move to promote her latest album Witness, Perry invited fans to a 96-hour YouTube live stream, which eventually raked in 49 million views and made the singer the first person to pass 100 million followers on Twitter. The format emulated the trappings of CBS’ flagship summer reality series — heading into its 19th season in the U.S. — and fans were quick to pick up on the similiarities. Even live-stream guest Sia pointed out how much the setting reminded her of the show, and Perry quipped, “I’ve always been a fan of Big Brother.”
So when Perry set out to create this live and unfiltered event, there was only one team to call: Grodner and Meehan’s boutique production company Fly on the Wall Entertainment. In addition to their 17 years of experience allowing online subscribers 24/7 unfiltered access to the Big Brother cast, Fly on the Wall also produced the spin-off series Big Brother: Over the Top for CBS All Access this past fall, and the show was heavily based on live streaming.
In a sit-down interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Grodner and Meehan walked us through the making of Perry’s live stream in partnership with YouTube, their push for more live content, and why that’s where the reality genre may be heading.
The name Fly on the Wall Entertainment is a nod to [Big Brother], yes?
Allison Grodner: It’s also the programming and unscripted world that we’re in. I come from a documentary background, and the way that we like to do these shows is [to be] a fly on the wall, eavesdropping on real life. Big Brother is an example of that. Maybe it’s not completely real life, but within the confines of this bubble, it is as real as can be. It’s the ultimate social experiment.
A digital venture you produced this year is Katy Perry’s Witness World Wide, where she invited fans in to watch her live for 96 hours in an effort to promote her latest album. Throughout the live stream she confessed her fandom for Big Brother, with guests including Sia pointing out how similar the setup was to the show. How were you approached for this?
Grodner: Live stream has been a big part of Big Brother since the very beginning, and it’s interesting how technology has caught up with it. We’ve always been a multi-platform show. Katy Perry had this idea to live-stream her life at the launch of her album. It had a lot to do with the themes of her album. It was all her idea. Her and her camp came to us…
Meehan: And said they wanted to do a reality event.
Grodner: We thought it was an interesting way to use the live feed.
What were the biggest challenges you faced with this project specifically?
Meehan: Trying to build the production, scheduling it, booking it all while keeping everything a secret. We had six weeks to pull the production together. It was like putting together a reality show, a talk show and a musical performance all at once with limited time.
Was it produced out of the same studio as Big Brother?
Grodner: Not at all. It was a four-day event on location. It was very different in terms of the way that it’s technically set up. We had to invent how to do live-stream from a remote location, not a studio where we have the infrastructure and the wiring and everything that’s here. Because of our experience with [Big Brother: Over the Top] and Big Brother, we were a logical company for them to come to. This year we’ve been doing more live programming.
We also had This Is Life Live on TLC. It was a four-day event as well, just by coincidence. We went live across the country where we did four nights in a row, two cities each night, opening it up to live moments for each episode. TLC announced that we are doing it again. It’s something we’re uniquely qualified for and something we really like. The way to use live and or live feed in unscripted is fascinating. With Katy Perry, it was a giant marketing stunt.
What was Perry looking to get out of this?
Grodner: She wanted it to be streamed live and she didn’t want to see any of the crew. She wanted to feel like she was just her and not on a television show.
Meehan: She wanted just real people around her. Why we’re diving more into the world of live streaming is it seems like you need to figure out ways to get something to cut through. What the cool part of Witness World Wide was, something would happen and it would become the pop-culture news of the day.
What makes someone an ideal subject for this format?
Meehan: You need a subject who is willing to allow an unfiltered look at their lives. If you are going to be live 24/7, you can’t hide who you are, and the audience is savvy enough to know when you are not being genuine.
Big Brother premieres Wednesday night (June 28).
A version of this article was originally published by The Hollywood Reporter.