Cris Abrego was named as boss of MasterChef and Big Brother producer Banijay in the U.S. and Latin six months into the Covid-19 pandemic.
Abrego oversees a group of production companies that produced the aforementioned Fox food format and long-running CBS series during the pandemic as well as a reboot of Wipeout for TBS and multiple reality series including the final season of Keeping Up With The Kardashians and hit Bravo format Below Deck.
He told Deadline that the last twelve months have shown that non-scripted – a producer’s medium – is full of a group of professional problem solvers.
“For me, once I took this role, I started to realize that [this business] ran on IP, ideas and makers. As much as this business has evolved, and I think Covid accelerated where this business was headed already, with the streamers and everything else that has impacted our business, it’s still going to matter who’s making that project, and as I’ve transitioned from producer to executive, I realize even more so the importance of those producers and those storytellers. I came in to support them and add value to that,” he said.
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The co-founder (left) of Below Deck producer 51 Minds Entertainment was well versed in many of the seven U.S. operating labels – including Endemol Shine North America, Truly Original, Bunim/Murray Productions, Authentic Entertainment, Stephen David Entertainment and YellowBird U.S. – in his previous role as CEO, Endemol Shine North America and Chairman, Endemol Shine Americas.
But he said that he’s spent the time to get to know better the likes of Bunim/Murray, with new boss Julie Pizzi, and The Making of the Mob producer Stephen David Entertainment.
One of his main roles in the new job is overseeing the rollout of Banijay’s international formats in the U.S. Abrego said that he’s the “gatekeeper”. “You’re not supposed to have a favorite kid,” he joked. “I’m in the middle of it now, actually, with four labels here asking for the exact same [format].”
But he said that the process is not “overly complicated”. “When I think about a [global] idea, you really think about who is the best partner for it, who would believe in the label, who has a great take on it, who has a relationship, where do you think it’s going to be a place where this could turn into a franchise? I use those filters to make a decision as to who can take the format out,” he added.
Endemol Shine North America is currently working on an adaptation of British format Starstruck, which was recently ordered by ITV and is produced by Remarkable Television. The show sees ordinary members of the public with an exceptional talent team up to transform into some of the world’s biggest music icons from Amy Winehouse to Ariana Grande, Lionel Richie to Lady Gaga, Marvin Gaye to Michael Buble.
Sharon Levy (right), Chief Content Officer at Endemol Shine North America, said that she’s very excited about the format.
It is one of a number of big entertainment formats in the works at the division including a second season of Lego Masters at Fox and Foodtastic at Disney+ as well as Wipeout for TBS.
Two titles that she is particularly hot on right now are an adaptation of the classic game Guess Who? and a dominoes show hosted by YouTube star Lily Hevesh. On the former, she said it was a piece of Hasbro IP that it “chased down with all our might”. “It’s something that people have a brand connection with, a familiarity with, a perceived marketing position about, and elevating that. It is bonafide IP,” she said. “That’s a very enticing thing to buyers when you are competing with so many other platforms. How do you get seen, watched, heard, talked about, and I do think IP helps.”
The latter is an original format with Hevesh as the star domino builder. “She’s an exceptional builder, an exceptional woman. I know that sounds a little kid in me, but she’s really awesome. She serves as inspiration for everyone, young kids especially,” she said.
The show has been picked up in France by M6 and in Holland via RTL 4 and Levy is confident that it will topple a U.S. buyer soon. “This was one of those unique concepts where we decided to pitch it globally. It’s one of the first times we’ve done that. It’s an experiment, in a way, and we’re really excited about what’s coming back.”
Levy said that she’s very proud of her team and the non-scripted business in general over the last twelve months.
“These are the people that we should put people on an island and see how they survive, or should go swimming with sharks. It’s a kind of moxie-led nation of folks. It was a challenge that people probably will look back on fondly, in many, many years. Many years, after many vacations later,” she joked.
She added that she believes out of the chaos will come creativity and said that internally there’d been a “development renaissance”. “Whenever the world goes through a cycle of change…creativity comes from change. You look back and look what happened after every World War, look at the art that came out of that, or what was the art that came out specific social movements, and I think, we have gone through a series of events that are world changing. Whether it be politics, pandemic, social inequality now becoming top of conversation and mind, the world kind of upended this past year, for a lot of reasons, and I think, we will look back at that and see what art emerged from it. You always hear of people under house arrest then go on to write the greatest novel every written, and I think sometimes just getting out of your comfort zone, enables that change to happen.”
Similarly, at 51 Minds, the company ploughed through the pandemic, literally setting sail into the sunset when it comes to its hit Bravo franchise Below Deck.
President Christian Sarabia told Deadline that shooting season two of Below Deck: Sailing Yacht in Croatia during the middle of the pandemic put wind in the company’s sails.
“Bravo was amazing, really super supportive and told us however we figure it out, to make it safe. We weren’t not going to do it unless it was safe, and with the help of the Croatian government, with protocols, systems, travel, and testing in place, we were able to figure it out,” he said. “Being able to shoot a show in Europe while the pandemic is going on was a big thing for us as a company and to get it done safely and you know, all the crew and cast was very appreciative of getting back to work in a safe environment, so it felt good to be able to do that and do that as a company.”
The original show, which launched in 2013, just aired in 8th season and along with Sailing Yacht, there is Below Deck Mediterranean, which has five seasons. “It’s a monster,” said Sarabia. “It’s just the ultimate reality show. We always talk about producers always want to create bubbles and put people in situations. There’s no better bubble than a ship that you can’t leave if you’re going to get in the middle of a fight and the furthest you can run is the front of the bow. It’s really an Upstairs, Downstairs or the reality version of Downton Abbey.”
There’s more in the works, as well, including a show that is reportedly planned to set sail in Iceland. Sarabia said Bravo is very “precious” about the franchise. “[Any spinoffs] have to fit into the brand and fit it into what the show is and what the show represents,” he added. “Any time we’re thinking if we’re going to launch a spinoff, it’s always thinking about what’s a new way in but still holds the premise of what is special about the show.”
Abrego knows a thing or two about spinoffs – he said when he was at 51 Minds, they produced The Surreal Life, initially for The WB and then for VH1, which spawned nine spinoffs including Flavor of Love, Rock of Love and Charm School. “It’s really about the timing and really the characters,” he said. “Bravo’s been a great partner in [Below Deck]. They get a lot of the credit, when looking at the timing of when to do or not, much like they’ve done with the Real Housewives.”
In addition to creating new franchises, part of Abrego’s mission is to ensure that its juggernauts such as MasterChef and Big Brother continue. MasterChef, which took a year off, is back on Fox this summer, as is Big Brother. It’s one part, don’t fuck it up because they have such a loyal audience that follows them. The trick, then, is how can you grow that audience season to season. It does take some refreshes and twists… when people ask me if I miss producing, it’s on the set of Big Brother when I see them working.”