Modeled after CBS' “Big Brother,” the local reality show comes into its own

On a recent Friday night, there were signs of a party taking place in a five-bedroom Franklinton house. Fourteen young men and women milled about in the living room and kitchen, or on the front porch. Sipping beer or vodka, the guests talked about vegan diets, TV shows and job histories.

But just a few hours later, two people were nominated to leave, and one was sent packing after the house took a vote.

That's because the Franklinton house was not hosting a party at all, but rather “Big Brother Columbus,” a cutthroat game modeled after CBS' long-running “Big Brother” reality show. The cast of 14 was composed of local Ohio folks, as well as others who ventured in from more far-flung states, including Illinois, New Hampshire and Louisiana. Contestants sent in audition tapes and were cast by a five-person core production team: Jason Porter, Matt Watson, Stephen Phillips, Aaron Fancey and Zach Meyer.

“A lot of people, I think, don't realize what they're getting into,” Porter said in an interview before season six kicked off on June 22. “[But] the people that are coming in from out of town [this year] live and thrive off of this, so we don't have to convince them, ‘Hey, will you spend 48 hours locked in a house without your phone, struggling for power, not trusting anybody?'”

On the national “Big Brother” show, contestants are confined to a house for an entire summer. Each week, a Head of Household (HOH) is crowned, who then nominates two houseguests for eviction. After a houseguest is voted out, the entire cycle repeats each week until one winner is selected by a jury of evicted houseguests.

The Columbus production team members began watching the show several years ago, and decided to play their own version of the game in 2014.

“When we did our first season, it was very small,” Fancey said. “It was basically like a house party with rules.”

“It ended up being so much fun that we were like, ‘We have to do this again, but bigger and better,'” Porter said.

“Big Brother Columbus” remains limited to a single weekend — there are “rounds” instead of “weeks” — but the production has grown. The entire weekend is filmed with four cameras, with footage transmitted to a live feed on bigbrothercolumbus.com. Edited shows, which are uploaded on YouTube (season six will be available in September), have been viewed by thousands.

The local competition has been recognized by the national Live Reality Games (LRG) community, which tracks other, localized versions of national reality shows. That acknowledgment has increased the show's pool of applicants.

Season six wrapped on Sunday, June 24, with a live finale at Club Diversity, and the winner went home with a $500 prize. The show now runs like a well-oiled machine, but the production crew reminisced about some early mishaps.

For example, there was an endurance competition that lasted too long in the scope of the short weekend; contestants balanced a tray of glasses of water for so many hours that the staff had to cut the challenge short. They also experimented with punishments such as having participants eat “slop,” as they do on the national show.

“It was a failure because it was good,” Watson said of the beer, whey protein, heavy whipping cream and MiO Energy they mixed in a blender.

“The beer may have been raspberry-flavored,” Porter said. “I overlooked that part.”

The best “Big Brother Columbus” contestants are those with an open mind and who are able to adapt even if things don't go their way, Porter said.

“[They] realize that they're being lied to and there's people not working with them and they might feel like they're on the bottom of a totem pole and get really overwhelmed by it,” he continued. “And that happens. We luckily have never had anybody quit the game midway … but we have had a number of people drop out right before the game starts.”

“It is, at its heart, a social experiment,” Phillips said. “You see these people act in certain ways and you're not sure if they're playing it for the camera, or they are just under so much pressure that they just unleash something that they didn't know was part of them because they're in such a weird situation.”

None of the production team members want to audition for the CBS show; they'd rather keep planning the Columbus version.

“One of the reasons I do this is because I have so many great friends I do it with,” Phillips said. “I just hope we [always] have the time and the space and the resources.”

“Every year, more and more people are watching us,” Porter said. “[But] we don't have citywide recognition yet. … I think that more and more people from the [national] LRG community will apply here, but I'd love to see more locals.”