His Time to Shine
Related: How Abrego Sold ‘The Surreal Life’
Cris Abrego,CEO of Endemol Shine North America and chairman of Endemol Shine Americas, has come a long way since he was logging tape for Bunim/Murray Productions and going agency to agency, hat in hand, to try to get celebrities to appear on his first-of-its-kind reality comedy, The Surreal Life.
But more on that later.
In November 2016, Abrego was promoted to his current position, overseeing both the North American and Latin American divisions of global content creator, producer and distributor Endemol Shine Group. That puts under his purview not just a wide array of reality shows, but also scripted programs including Kingdom on the AT&T Audience Network and syndicated programs, including The Steve Harvey Show and the upcoming Page Six TV.
That’s a pretty full plate, but none of it seems to daunt the energetic Abrego. When he looks forward to the next five years, Abrego says he just wants more—more unscripted, more scripted, more formats, more first-run, and so on. That drive, and his steady ascension through the ranks, resulted in Abrego being named Producer of the Year by B&C and Multichannel News.
Heading into NATPE, Abrego chatted with B&C contributing editor Paige Albiniak. An edited transcript follows.
You got your start in reality TV at Bunim/Murray Productions. Are you one of those people who was always obsessed with television? What led you into this business initially?
In reality TV, my start was at BMP for sure. My career really started at Palm Springs [TV station] KMIR. I worked my way to L.A. and then came across Bunim/Murray and was hired to start there.
A hundred percent, I was always a TV fan. I am old enough to remember when the TV guide would come every Sunday in the newspaper. I’d take it out and set my schedule for the week and cut and paste it out. My dad gave me the nickname “Walking TV Guide.”
What did you think of this crazy new world of reality TV?
I was so hooked. When I got to Bunim Murray, I was already familiar with the success of Real World New York, so I was a little in awe of their fame. It was my last year in college [at Cal State Fullerton]. I was at Bunim Murray for nearly five years. I worked my way up from logging tapes to postproduction. I was in the field for Road Rules, working for the guy who runs Shark Tank now.
They were just true storytellers. Real World couldn’t even happen today. They would shoot for five-and-a-half months. They were true documentaries.
What led you to launch your own production company, 51 Pictures?
I was always excited about the idea of creating and generating ideas. I wanted to run a production company, and I had a lot of ideas.
A big turning point for you was The Surreal Life, which aired first on The WB and then on VH1. What did that show do for 51 Pictures andyour career?
It wasn’t a clean-up home run, but it was critically acclaimed because it was a comedy. Mark Cronin and I worked really hard to produce comedic bits. We were storytellers, but we worked hard on creating comedy and editing for comedy.
Survivor, The Amazing Race and all those big shows came along, and [The WB president Jordan Levin] felt like he wanted to turn Surreal Life into a competition format, so we moved it to VH1.
When it was on VH1, all mayhem broke out. It ran for six seasons and there were all these spinoffs like Flavor of Love, Rock of Love, Charm School. People thought of them as guilty pleasures, but they were extremely well-crafted.
Related: Endemol Shine North America Preps 'Page Six TV' for Fall
After all that work to build it, what led you to then sell the company? It seems like it might feel like selling one of your children.
Exactly. In 2008, Endemol acquired 51 Minds, which was the combination of my company, 51 Pictures, and Mark’s, Mindless Entertainment. I said no numerous times to the deal, but I finally came to my senses and saw that it would be extremely beneficial.
It was a six-year employment contract. The day after the deal closed, we expected someone to walk in and tell us what to do, but that never happened.
At the end of those six years, in 2013-14, Mark was looking to move on. Charlie Corwin [who was tapped to run Endemol Shine North America with Abrego and just departed the company in November] was running another subsidiary of Endemol that had been acquired before us.
It was definitely a transition, and somewhat of an arranged marriage. Before we jumped into this relationship, we spent a lot of time talking about our ambitions and our goals, what we saw for the company. Having had a partner before, I was pretty forthcoming with Charlie. We’re very aligned on a lot of the same things.
Do you feel like reality and unscripted is your true passion? Have you always had a yen to try your hand at scripted?
I love all spaces of television. Part of this role was to spread my wings beyond unscripted. I love scripted, I love a good story, good comedy. It’s just a tougher business. Unscripted I took to like a fish to water. I’ll be the first to say that the craft and the work is no less than any other genre.
How would you describe the current state of the U.S. reality marketplace? All of the big reality hits are either quite old (Survivor, Amazing Race, Dancing With the Stars, even The Voice) or off the air (American Idol). It seems like we’re primed for a fresh format—kind of like The Great British Bake Off in the U.K., although that doesn’t seem to have taken off here on ABC. You have Hunted coming up on CBS. Where do you think the next big reality hit will come from, and will we ever again see a reality hit that is dominant the way Idol was?
I absolutely believe that there’s a breakout coming down the road. The genre is so great at reinventing itself. The creative community is up to the task of bringing really big new ideas. We need our partners, our buyers, to feel the same way and to take some risks with us.
Hunted on CBS is a very exciting format. The idea is basically: Do you think you could disappear off the grid for 30 days? We put together a 100% bona fide team who do this for a living—a former FBI director, a Navy Seal, hackers who have worked for the CIA. It’s different, fast-paced and tells a great story. Shine TV first premiered the format last summer on Channel 4 in the U.K. It’s kind of a drama and it fits perfectly on CBS.
What makes Endemol Shine so great is we focus on our territories, and we are considered experts in our own territories. We only develop, create and sell for our own territories. We have the ability to look at the bones of another project and figure out how to tailor it to a specific territory.
The biggest lesson that I’ve learned is that it’snot getting the best deal for a show, it’s finding the best partner for it. You want the right support, creative, marketing, programming, scheduling, all of those things.
Netflix is about to enter the unscripted fray with Sylvester Stallone’s Ultimate Beastmaster. What do you think about a streaming service getting into the reality TV market?
I’m excited about all the opportunities with the over-the-tops and streaming guys. Much like all the networks, they feel that they need a balanced schedule between scripted and unscripted, comedy and specials. They are perfectly set up for exactly what we do. We are talking to all of them and we have a lot of things in the pipeline with those guys.
What do you see happening in the Latin American market right now that you feel is new, exciting, innovative?
Latin America has come under my purview in the last year, and we’re focusing on Mexico and U.S. Hispanic. Those are exciting markets. We started a company in Miami, Endemol Shine Latino, headed by Laurens Drillich, and we’re finding there’s a lot of opportunity in that market for updated storytelling. The competition has become so fierce with the streamers, those old novelas aren’t going to fly any more.
To that end, we have El Vato on NBCUniverso. We did a Latino version of Big Brother for Telemundo. We’ve also optioned a book written by Selena’s widower, Chris Pérez, in which he tells the story [of the popular Mexican singer who was killed by an obsessed fan] from his point of view. You look at success of shows such as Jane the Virgin and Ugly Betty. We’re right behind those with a couple of formats that we are looking to bring up this way.
My parents are from Mexico and I’m bilingual, so it’s great to do business in Spanish-speaking countries.
I know that as someone who comes from a Hispanic background, it’s important to you to give other people the kinds of opportunities that you had. What efforts are you and Endemol making in this area?
For a few years now, I have run the Carlos Hernandez Jr. Memorial Scholarship, and we’re about to have our first graduate this year from Syracuse. We also have students at Georgetown and the University of Oregon.
[Endemol Shine] does various things locally here in Los Angeles, and as a global group we run a huge initiative for Habitat for Humanity.
Growing up just 40 miles east of Hollywood, I didn’t realize Hollywood was in my backyard. I didn’t think it was an opportunity because I didn’t see any one who looked like me. The book I wrote, Make It Reality, is really a road map for young Latinos looking to succeed. Diversity is incredibly important to me.
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Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.