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Since pivoting from reality TV producer to corporate suit, Cris Abrego has collected studios and job titles like a snowball. Currently the chairman of the Americas for French media behemoth Banijay and president and CEO of Endemol Shine Holdings, the 48-year-old oversees one of the largest portfolios of unscripted content — with shows such as Fox’s MasterChef and shingles including Truly Original (Bravo’s Real Housewives of Atlanta) — and roughly 1,000 employees and production staffers.
It’s an especially impressive plate considering the Los Angeles County native, one of the highest-ranking Latinos in the industry, spent years logging tapes and lugging cameras before bigger doors started opening — a process he’s trying to make easier for others by spearheading diversity efforts in his side gig as chairman of the Television Academy Foundation. The married father of three met with THR on the balcony of Endemol’s North Hollywood headquarters to talk trajectories, both Hollywood’s and his own.
You were one of many reality producers to go corporate when 51 Minds was acquired in 2008 by what was then Endemol USA. But you’re one of only a few who stayed beyond your initial contract. Why?
One of the reasons I initially took the job was this idea of the CEO title. I didn’t have a traditional business background, and, to be quite frank, my dad told me that I had a responsibility — being Latino, being a Chicano — to take this job so that others could have something to point to. And then we’ve really grown the business.
Was TV always your trajectory?
I grew up in El Monte, 27 miles from Hollywood. I didn’t know anything about the business, but I loved TV. Getting into it was a timing thing. The company that won the cable bid of our city built a control room in my high school.
Wait, what does that mean?
To get the business, they had to create a Regional Occupational Program — so my high school actually offered TV production. They were teaching us how to do news, and we were like, “Fuck that, we’re going to be Arsenio Hall!” We created a talk show called What’s Up. We’d go to parties and interview athletes and cheerleaders, and they’d screen it in homeroom.
What was your first job in reality?
Logging tapes at Bunim/Murray during Road Rules season four. The job got me in the building and close to editors.
Oh my God, that one [about engaged women competing for pre-wedding plastic surgery] might’ve crossed the line. (Laughs.) That idea was actually brought to us by the E! network. Because of the stuff we were making, people brought us wild stuff.
What do buyers want now?
The real estate is unlimited. The only thing that hasn’t changed is people still want hits that define a platform. Look at FBoy Island on HBO Max. Everyone’s looking for their FBoy Island.
You’re rebooting some formats from back in the day. Are you also looking back to past talent?
We’re working with Mo’Nique again. She was brought up for Surreal Life. I didn’t think she’d do it, but I called her. I still have these numbers in my phone: Flavor Flav, Bret Michaels. When I got back in touch with her, I started to hear her story. I didn’t realize she’s basically banned from the business. But she couldn’t be more in touch with what’s happening, so we’ve got a talk show format with her and a one-woman show that tells her story over the past 10 years. We’ll see what the feedback is. We won’t be pitching to Netflix, I can tell you that. [She filed a lawsuit against the streamer over her $500,000 offer for a special, calling it “a discriminatory low-ball.”]
What was the draw, if even she’ll tell you she’s been blacklisted?
The first day we shot Charm School, the assistant director told me, “Mo’Nique’s flipping out. She wants everybody on the show in front of her right now.” “For what, a pep talk?” “No, she wants to know how many people of color work on the show.” I was in a panic. You can’t do that! So, I met with her, and she gave me this speech about representation — this was 15 years ago, by the way, well before everyone was talking about it — and she talked about how hard it had been for her to create opportunities and equity. And she was right. Being Latino and having parents who fought for equity, I hadn’t really checked in on that in my own work.
On camera, I’d argue your earlier shows reflected a lot more diversity than others at the time.
Whatever you thought of our shows, they were real people and diverse casts. We got criticisms about Flavor of Love, but he was who he was. People would say to me, “Where do you find those people?” That’s our country. Those people are here. I wanted those casts to see that the people making the shows were reflective of who we were pointing the cameras at. It started for me with that conversation with Mo’Nique, but it wasn’t until I got in this chair that I was able to push it broadly.
What kind of pressure or expectation comes with being one of few Latinos in Hollywood’s C-suite?
Eva Longoria and I talk about this all the time. She and I get called for every panel. It’s a burden to an extent because we just want to create great content and be successful like everybody else. At the same time, I know what I look like. I know what I represent. It’s important to me to create access for others so I’m not the only one getting these calls in the future.
What’s something you wish more people knew about you?
The main gift I get sent is tequila. I always have to tell people, “Look, I also drink wine.”
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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