Sunday, January 23, 2022
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Banijay’s Cris Abrego

Cris Abrego pioneered celebrity-reality programming, establishing 51 Minds Entertainment as a well-known provider of buzzworthy content—one that would catch the eye of Endemol Shine Group in 2008. Abrego remained with the company, rising through the ranks to today serve as chairman of the Americas at Banijay and president and CEO of Endemol Shine Holdings. With NATPE, World Screen is presenting Abrego with the Premio Ícono TV Latina 2022 for his pioneering work in unscripted content, being a champion of diversity and a driving force behind Banijay’s slate across Latin America and the U.S. Hispanic market.

***Image***WS: When the pandemic began, productions shut down. How have your teams been able to get so many shows back up and running?
ABREGO: When the pandemic first hit in March 2020, we were one of the last studios to shut down. We were doing MasterChef in the U.S. as Covid was starting to spike, and we were understanding what it was. We were also one of the first to get back into business by that summer. It was a combination of our big shows like Big Brother and smaller shows like Swamp People. For the most part, we were able to get back up and running with smaller crews and create small bubbles.

Once the vaccinations came, we worked hard to get back up to full production safely across all our labels. As divided as things were in this country, what did come together was the unscripted community. I was on the phone with Jennifer Mullin [the CEO of Fremantle], Rob Wade [the president of alternative entertainment and specials] at FOX Entertainment and Brandon Riegg [the VP of nonfiction series and comedy specials] at Netflix. We kept connecting, asking, “What are you doing? This is what we’re thinking.” We had regular phone calls and Zooms, and we were all sharing best practices. We were talking to the folks at ViacomCBS. That expedited our ability here in the U.S. to come back as safely as we could.

WS: Tell us about Endemol Shine Boomdog in Mexico.
ABREGO: It’s an area where I saw a lot of opportunities, mainly because of what the streamers were focusing on. It was such an underserved territory. The buzzword back then was “premium” content. The chance to give that audience and territory a lot of different choices was exciting.

With Boomdog and some of our other labels, we wanted to make sure that [their output] was equally balanced between unscripted, which Banijay and Endemol are known for, and scripted programming. With Boomdog, we are now producing many of the top shows in the region: MasterChef Mexico for TV Azteca, ¿Quién es la Máscara? (The Masked Singer) for Televisa and Minuto para Ganar (Minute to Win It) for Televisa. Then we started focusing on scripted series like Súbete a Mi Moto for Amazon and Nicky Jam: El Ganador for Netflix, and we have new dramas coming for HBO Max, Amazon and Pantaya.

We even got Boomdog to begin producing in the U.S. in Spanish, which it had not done before. Shows like Mira Quién Baila for Univision and La Casa de los Famosos, which is Celebrity Big Brother for Telemundo. And we’ve got MasterChef Latinos coming for EstrellaTV in the U.S., which will launch early this year.

And we just announced a new studio, Banijay Mexico and U.S. Hispanic, which is led by Marie Leguizamo, who has produced some big hits for Boomdog and our teams. That studio will be based in both Mexico and with our team in Los Angeles.

WS: Your English-language production is quite robust, too, right?
ABREGO: Extremely. With Banijay’s acquisition of Endemol Shine, my purview is the Americas. We have nine different studios, including six in the U.S. Endemol Shine North America—what I call the mothership—is driven by Sharon Levy, our chief creative officer in scripted and unscripted. She keeps our flagship shows like MasterChef, LEGO Masters and Wipeout up and running. And that team launched a new series for Disney+ called Foodtastic, and they’re preparing to launch their most ambitious show to date for Peacock, Pride & Prejudice: An Experiment in Romance. We have in the family, through the Banijay acquisition, Bunim/Murray Productions, which oddly enough is where I had my first job. The company is headed by Julie Pizzi. She’s so smart and such a visionary. 51 Minds, my old company, is doing very well, headed by Christian Sarabia. It has four different versions of Below Deck in production for NBCUniversal and a number of shows for the streamers. Truly Original is run by Glenda Hersh and Steven Weinstock. They are New York-based and behind a number of The Real Housewives hits, and they’re prepping the first international version of the franchise in Dubai. Steven David Entertainment is another exciting label that came to us through the acquisition. They do a lot of shows that are a combination of scripted and documentary. And, we have our team in São Paulo at Endemol Shine Brasil. We just named Nani Freitas as our new CEO in Brazil.

WS: Do different platforms need different types of programming?
ABREGO: As the streamers mature, we are starting to see what they are looking for, based on our relationships with buyers. It’s not different from traditional linear when hits were defining each brand. You are starting to see that a little bit on those platforms. Of course, they want to offer their subscribers something different, so they are trying not to do the exact same thing. We are talking with our partners and hearing what shows they are interested in. We’re making bespoke shows for each buyer.

The other thing that has been great for us is that we have a brand ourselves. We do game shows very well. We do large formats very well. We do docuseries, from Below Deck to The Real Housewives, very well. We have enough of a diverse portfolio and a reputation that we know how to make shows. In the unscripted space, we are pretty much leading in every genre, from docuseries to game-show formats to social-experiment shows.

WS: I was speaking to several international buyers who said The Real Housewives helped fill their scheduling gaps when Covid-19 halted productions.
ABREGO: Five or so years ago, that franchise did not travel. Now, maybe it’s the pandemic, but it’s so international. We are seeing that with Below Deck,too. It’s shot internationally but has an American cast. That’s another docuseries that I’m always blown away by how well it does internationally.

WS: What opportunities are the Spanish-language streamers providing you?
ABREGO: In my experience, bringing Spanish, Latinx programming out was hard; it was hard to get to the gatekeepers. One of the reasons there was a lack of diversity was the limited real estate, and the gatekeepers didn’t think this was an audience that needed to be served and given this premium content. With the direct-to-consumer model, streaming, you can reach a specific audience. It gives you the ability to tell many different stories and broaden the diversity pipeline, which is incredibly important to me. I’m excited about the Spanish-language streamers getting up and running. We are producing for almost all of them now, and we are having further conversations with them about how we can be partners.

WS: Everyone is talking about diversity and inclusion, and you are doing something about it. Why is this important to you?
ABREGO: I lived and live the struggles of what it means to be in this business without a shared background with most other people. I didn’t go to the schools that most people attended and were recruited from. I didn’t travel to Europe for the summers. It was difficult, and I had to create my own pathway. As I ascended, even into this job, I found that often I was the only person of color in the room. The murder of George Floyd [in the summer of 2020], as tragic as it was, shifted a lot of people into starting to get involved.

I had been doing a lot before. I created a pipeline at my high school. I started a program with Jon Murray and others with the Television Academy Foundation. We put $1 million of our own money into an endowment to create a paid internship program in the unscripted space. Three years ago, we started a diversity and inclusion program at Endemol Shine.

It’s good for business. I would bring diverse talent into our conference room when they had just come from ABC, CBS or NBC. They saw how diverse the company was, and we wound up getting the deal with them. Take our partnership with Kate Del Castillo, who brought her label Cholawood to us.

It was and is good for business. It’s also good for the creative part of our business. When we are in a room, and somebody submits a cut, we watch it as a group, and someone says, “Hmm, I know what so-and-so is saying, but that can come off as offensive.” We get the opportunity to look at it in that way, and that’s really good.

At the beginning of [last] year, I became the chair of the Television Academy Foundation. Through my unscripted internship program, I got to know the work they were doing. I thought that if I wanted to create more impact and scale, it made sense to get involved with them because they were already doing a lot of good work. I said to them, People think winning an Emmy is the hardest thing to do. No, the hardest thing for a person of color or coming from an underserved community is getting access to this business. Internships usually go to a relative or somebody who can return a favor to the person giving the internship. If your parents don’t have anything of value to offer to the person who’s giving the internship, then you’re probably not getting an internship. We had to change that. Getting involved with the foundation and using the Academy’s resources and cachet, which they were already doing, is to create even more access. That’s a lot of what I’m doing now. I’m also excited because for Banijay, the global group, diversity is a priority. They are really supportive of what we are doing here.

WS: What more can be done across the industry?
ABREGO: A lot more across all groups. It really does matter who’s sitting in those rooms. [It takes] people who understand and are committed to [diversity] in a way that’s not undermining this business, because it’s still about quality and content. That’s why I did the partnership with the Academy for the internship, because it involves a very thorough search process in finding young talent. You still want to do good work. You want them properly trained and ambitious. More can be done to create more access, and not just pipelines from seniors leaving college entering this business, but also more executives and people in charge who share a diverse background.

WS: It’s not fair that the zip code you are born into should determine what life you have. I’m sure there are many talented young people who just don’t have opportunities.
ABREGO: That’s 100 percent correct. [If you were born in a certain] zip code, your story is not so similar to everyone else’s, so you felt that your story didn’t have any value. In hindsight, looking back now, that actually was my value. I have a different perspective now, looking at all the shows that are doing well and the stories being told. To try to break in and break out, you want to have a different perspective, and that is of value, even if in the beginning you felt that it was holding you back.

About Anna Carugati

Anna Carugati is the group editorial director of World Screen.


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