Endemol Shine’s Cris Abrego

Cris Abrego, CEO of Endemol Shine North America and chairman of Endemol Shine Americas, talks to World Screen about keeping legacy brands fresh, collaborating with other units in the group and the benefits of diversity.

The Endemol Shine Group produces and distributes scripted and unscripted content around the globe, notably the mega brands Big Brother and MasterChef. Abrego has been growing the group’s production and businesses from Canada to Latin America. He also spearheaded the creation of the Endemol Shine Boomdog studio. His teams have more than 50 scripted shows on the air or in development in the U.S. and Mexico, including the new series The Masked Singer on FOX. They have relaunched Trading Spaces and Deal or No Deal, and recently announced Extreme Makeover: Home Edition for HGTV. The company has also been boosting its slate of scripted projects, with a remake of the U.K. series Utopia in the works for Amazon Prime Video.

WS: Endemol Shine Boomdog just celebrated its first anniversary. What motivated the merger with Endemol Shine Latino and what have been the benefits?
ABREGO: It’s been a year, but the truth is, we started working together when I took on the role as the CEO of Endemol Shine North America. One of the priorities for me was to begin to work in the U.S. Hispanic market and Mexico. And Boomdog was a company that we identified and got into business with. Over time, we started to realize a couple of things: first, that they were an incredibly talented crew led by Alejandro Rincon and his team, and second, they were already making premium content. It just became a very organic relationship and we started to look at whether we should align our interests so that we are mutually incentivized in the right direction. The relationship developed and we looked to make it more official, which we did last year. Even though it is one year officially—that’s the anniversary—we’re going into our sixth year of working together.

WS: For decades, Spanish-speaking viewers were offered primarily one main type of storytelling, the telenovela. How have tastes changed among Spanish-speaking viewers and how has Endemol Shine been providing different kinds of stories?
ABREGO: The truth of the matter is that tastes have not changed; it’s what’s been available. I grew up in a house where we were fortunate enough to have two televisions. I would walk into my mom’s room and all the novelas were on. Then I would go into the living room and The Fall Guy or The Jeffersons or That’s Incredible! was on and I’d watch with my dad. We loved watching both [telenovelas and other programs]. We were a bicultural, bilingual house. There just weren’t as many storytelling opportunities. The biggest opportunity [for storytelling], which has been incredible and disruptive, has come with direct-to-consumer services. They have given this market the chance to tell a ton of great stories that were just sitting there waiting to be told, and to become more contemporary and more on par with premium content in production values, story and character arcs. For Boomdog and us, it has created an incredible opportunity to do things like El Vato, which won an International Emmy and, of course, MasterChef Latino, which we do for Telemundo and is coming back, and Mira quién baila. We also have Nicky Jam: El Ganador on Netflix, which has done really, really well. These are contemporary stories that probably otherwise wouldn’t have seen the light of day.

WS: And you have a lot of projects in development.
ABREGO: Endemol North America has a strong reputation in unscripted programming. Boomdog was equally strong in scripted and unscripted. We were excited about our deal with Jessy Terrero, who did Nicky Jam and is going to be bringing other stories to the forefront that are even more current. We’re doing the scripted series Súbete a mi moto, which is the story of Menudo. We’re doing Juan Diego: The Story of Guadalupe, the story of the first Mexican-born Catholic saint. We’re excited about these great stories that are in development. And, of course, we continue to push unscripted entertainment, too.

WS: In English-language TV, with so many scripted series in development, there’s a premium on talent in front of and behind the camera. For your Spanish-language productions, are you finding enough talent for all of these series you’re producing?
ABREGO: The answer is yes, but it is absolutely our biggest struggle. To be honest with you, what’s put us in a position to be leaders in this space and deliver across all platforms—from broadcasters to pay TV and streamers—is the partnership with Boomdog and Endemol Shine North America. In Los Angeles and Miami and Mexico, we behave as one unit. We share talent. We will source people who are bilingual working in the U.S. and have worked with Boomdog in Mexico. We have people from Mexico come work here in the U.S. with our development or production teams. We share best practices and because of that, we have been able to find this balance in what is premium content and give viewers a level of production values and storytelling that they’re more used to seeing.

WS: Endemol Shine Latino also has a stable of very successful unscripted shows. Taking MasterChef as an example, is there a certain amount of customization that goes into making the show that airs in Colombia different from the one that airs in Brazil?
ABREGO: MasterChef is an amazing story on two fronts. First—and this is a credit that predates me, and what separates Endemol Shine Group from others—it’s the ability to create a format that can travel. Think about this: under my purview, we make about nine MasterChefs, just between Canada, the U.S. and Latin America. And for the most part, it’s the exact same show. Obviously, every budget is different, and how they schedule the show is very different and very local. But the format is such a great format. Where it gets customized and where it feels like a very local show is in the casting, the contestants and, of course, the food they make. Food is universal, but what is prepared is different in every territory and so is who prepares it. That’s the part that brings its own little specialness to each territory and why it’s honestly one of the most successful formats in the world—which again, I don’t take credit for—but we have the ability to do that in the group. It’s a very successful format for us, which we’re very proud to be making.

Another aspect of MasterChef that is so cool is this energy we share. The judge on MasterChef Latino for Telemundo is actually a MasterChef winner on the English-language show. Claudia Sandoval, a single Latina mom, wins MasterChef with Gordon Ramsay. Truly talented. She then goes on to be the judge on MasterChef Latino. It’s a great story.

WS: How do you keep a show like Big Brother or MasterChef fresh year after year so that they continue to be such audience favorites?
ABREGO: Big Brother is a 20-year-old format and headed into its 21st season. We successfully launched our first celebrity version of Big Brother and it’s coming back now. MasterChef continues to do well, These are cultural, iconic television shows, so keeping them fresh is a business priority that we do not take for granted. How do we keep them fresh without over-changing them? How do we keep the audience growing without losing any of the retention? The way it’s done is really by these incredibly talented showrunners like Allison Grodner and Rich Meehan on Big Brother, and the team at MasterChef, who continue to freshen it. And of course, and I’m not just saying this to say it, the partners on both shows, like CBS; Big Brother is equally important to us as it is to CBS. Therefore, they invest in it. It’s a priority for them. And, the same at FOX; [MasterChef] is a priority for them. And again, I’m not just saying this. Gordon, he’s Skyping me now about creative for next season. No matter where he is in the world, Gordon stays involved. The partners and the people who make the shows, I have to give them all of the credit because they continue to really make each of those brands.

WS: On the other hand, how do you decide to take a previously very popular hit like Fear Factor or Deal or No Deal and reintroduce it to a new audience?
ABREGO: The Fear Factor story is interesting. We started to realize that it was doing well in its repeats on MTV in an old second-window deal that was still existing. More so, it was thriving on Facebook and the digital community was still very much into it, and people were still finding it. So, we started thinking how do we revisit it, how do we contemporize it? Bringing Ludacris in obviously made a huge difference. And it worked. Then we thought, let’s not stop there. Deal or No Deal was an incredibly successful show. Through one of our subsidiaries, Truly Original, and Glenda [Hersh] and Steven [Weinstock] there, and our relationship with CNBC, I started talking to them about what it would look like. It just quickly evolved into making Deal or No Deal, which was such a huge show, and you saw how well it’s done. We’re not stopping there. I can’t say yet, but you can probably look at our other big formats, they could be coming soon.

WS: You also have scripted projects at Endemol Shine North America. Tell me a little bit about those.
ABREGO: We’re excited about that. Sharon Levy, who heads up television for us here is a triple threat—she does scripted, unscripted and was a buyer. She really encompasses all of it in terms of developing and even selling. For North America, our role in scripted is to be strategic partners within our group. In Endemol Shine Group and Endemol Shine International, we have an incredible number of talented producers like Kudos and the House of Tomorrow, and the guys who make Peaky Blinders and Black Mirror. We look to either find IP that we think would be an asset to them or look at projects they’d like to bring to the U.S. and that we could provide added value to, like Utopia, which we’re making with Kudos. We’ve optioned books like Like Water for Chocolate that we’re developing, The Talented Mr. Ripley. Then we’ll look for partners within the group.

WS: Diversity is helping Endemol Shine attract talent, but it’s also boosting the bottom line, isn’t it?
ABREGO: It is. Obviously it sounds biased coming from me because I’m a person of color, but diversity has genuinely helped the bottom line. We have, without a doubt, received certain business or talent because of the diversity in our team, so it’s been helping the bottom line. It has been absolutely a benefit in the fact that it helps us in our best practices in making shows. Look at El Vato. It’s made by a Mexican production company, but it’s a story that takes place in Los Angeles. We have Flavio Morales [executive VP of Endemol Shine Latino]. Because he’s here, he’s actually from L.A. and he knows the city, he’s able to read scripts and add value to the consistency [of the storylines]. We have a deal with Essence magazine. We’re going to be doing a lot of projects with them. They’re very particular about who they partner with. I don’t think they would have partnered with us if they hadn’t walked into our boardroom and seen the diversity in our company and thought there was value to it, and understand that we are able to bring an authenticity to the stories. Ayesha Curry, which we’re very excited about, is doing a new series for ABC called Family Food Fight. Ayesha was being pursued by a lot of people. I think she sees that it’s easy to connect with the team here. So now we’re doing all of the projects in development with her. The diversity here is incredibly beneficial. It’s what makes sense now in storytelling.

WS: You also have an initiative to help students?
ABREGO: I run a scholarship program for young Latino kids to pursue a four-year college education at my high school in El Monte, California. And a couple of the kids actually work here now. We also are involved in a number of internship programs with a veterans’ organization and with the TV Academy Foundation. And I also have a project that I am currently working on that will be announced later this year that hopefully will give more opportunities to minorities to be in our industry. And I’m lucky because it’s not just me. The entire team here embraces the initiative, including Joe Schlosser, senior VP of communications, and Denise Rodine, who heads up our HR department. It’s definitely made easier when the whole company gets behind it.