People/Biz

Realscreen’s Trailblazers: Cris Abrego on building ladders, creating access

As 2022 begins and 2021 recedes into the rear-view mirror, Realscreen looks at three executives who have been forging new paths within the non-fiction and unscripted screen content industry — ...
January 25, 2022

As 2022 begins and 2021 recedes into the rear-view mirror, Realscreen looks at three executives who have been forging new paths within the non-fiction and unscripted screen content industry — not only over the course of the past year, but also throughout their careers. Through a deft mix of strategy, innovation and risk-taking, these execs not only serve as transformation agents for their own companies, but also for the business itself.

Cris Abrego isn’t shy about the fact that he started his television career from the bottom.

“The very, very bottom,” he says with a chuckle. “I don’t think there’s [anywhere] more bottom than where I started.”

Despite growing up just around the proverbial corner from the hub of television production, Abrego felt like a stranger in a strange land in the early days of his career.

“I actually grew up just 28 miles from Hollywood here in Southern California, in the city of El Monte. And as I joke, it might as well have been the moon, because I had no connection,” Abrego tells Realscreen. “I didn’t know anyone who worked in television, or anyone who even knew someone who worked in television.”

Abrego began his career at Bunim/Murray Productions, the unscripted pioneer prodco behind The Real World and Road Rules, which Abrego worked on. He went on to co-found 51 Minds Entertainment, one of the original purveyors of the celebreality genre with such hits as The Surreal Life and Flavor of Love. At one point, the company was producing more than 150 hours of programming annually for VH1 alone.

After selling 51 Minds to Endemol in 2008, Abrego joined Endemol Shine North America in 2014. He’s currently the chairman of the Americas for Banijay and president and CEO of Endemol Shine Holdings, where he’s in charge of Banijay’s North American and Latin American divisions.

Abrego now oversees a raft of production studios that include his old stomping grounds, Bunim/Murray, as well as 51 Minds, Endemol Shine North America, and other labels. As one of the highest-ranking Latinos in the television business, Abrego has made diversity and inclusion a priority for his team, as well as within the broader industry. And he’s put his money where his mouth is, developing programs that a young Cris Abrego would have benefited from. He created a scholarship program at his former high school, and also teamed with his former boss Jon Murray and other industry notables to launch the Television Academy Foundation’s $1 million Diversity and Inclusion Unscripted Internship Program.

When you started your career at Bunim/ Murray, did you foresee just how big unscripted TV would eventually become?

No — in fact, it was the complete opposite. We felt like we were living on our own very little island at Bunim/Murray. Obviously, Jon [Murray] and Mary-Ellis [Bunim], I consider them truly the pioneers of the genre. And not just from the content side of it, but also from a process side — how to take a documentary process that people were familiar with from as far back as the ’60s and ’70s [and] turn it into a serialized series and get it done, even down to the microphones in the house.

Diversity and inclusion are obviously big priorities for you at your companies. What has your experience been like coming up in an industry that hasn’t typically been very diverse?

It becomes hard, because you don’t feel like there’s any value to your story. It’s already one thing to not see yourself represented on screen, but then when you start to make your way behind the scenes, it’s even less representative, and then you have this disconnect.

But the truth is, I look back now [being] more mature and more experienced, and it’s actually my strength — the diversity and the differences and bringing those to the table for different stories. It really goes back to shows like The Surreal Life, Flavor of Love and Rock of Love. It really contributed to my success in those areas because I connected with that casting pool, and then that audience, in the end, because of my background.

So now that you’re in a leadership role, what kind of things are you doing to try to throw the ladder down after you to help those following your path?

I’m so excited, first and foremost, about how so many are now driving towards this initiative of inclusivity. It’s obviously something that I have been doing every step of the way of my career. So every time I’ve stepped on another rung of the ladder after I jumped on from the very bottom, I’ve brought others along and I continue to do that, but more so now from where I sit. To answer your question more directly, I’m doing it with much more reach, with more scale.

People always say that the hardest thing in this business to do is to win an Emmy. The truth is, it’s even more difficult getting access, if you’re not from the right place, to this industry. And that’s my work now, especially now as the chairman of the [Television Academy] Foundation… with the Academy’s help, to truly try to make it the largest kind of pipeline and resource that creates access for young people and the next generation of content makers.

This story first appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of Realscreen Magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for HMV.com. As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.