Q&A: Reality TV exec says the genre ‘is not going away’

“It's a creative business and it’s up to us to really raise the bar again,” says Cris Abrego of reality TV company Endemol Shine North America.
“It’s a creative business and it’s up to us to really raise the bar again,” says Cris Abrego of reality TV company Endemol Shine North America.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

It was a banner year for television in 2015, with a record 409 scripted series across broadcast networks, basic and pay cable networks and streaming services. But with all the talk of scripted programming’s upswing, an intriguing subplot has emerged about whether reality TV is in a slump.

Although shows such as NBC’s “The Voice” and ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” can still draw sizable audiences, the once-formidable genre has waned. Big bets such as Fox’s “Utopia” and ABC’s “Rising Star” flopped. And after 14 years, “American Idol"— once a ratings juggernaut — has begun its farewell season with a slimmer following.

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Cris Abrego isn’t worried. The former chief executive officer of 51 Minds, a production company specializing in reality TV productions, was recently tapped as co-chairman and co-chief executive of Endemol Shine North America (a role he shares with Charlie Corwin). He oversees operations of the company that produces everything from “MasterChef Junior” and “Big Brother” to “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” and “The Biggest Loser.” In all, the company produces nearly 100 unscripted series.

The Times spoke to Abrego, who has a book “Make It Reality: Create Your Opportunities, Own Your Success” coming out in May, about the state of reality TV industry. Here is an edited excerpt of that conversation.


If you really looked at unscripted right now, a lot of shows are doing really well, especially in cable.

— Cris Abrego, Former chief executive officer of 51 Minds

It feels like the reality TV industry has taken a hit. How do you think the genre is faring?

We’re in a difficult spot. But this is why our business is so brilliant. It’s a creative business and it’s up to us to really raise the bar again. Some of the best stuff on television right now is scripted. And some of the best stories right now are scripted. And I know my colleagues in scripted might argue this, but I attribute it to the success of unscripted back in the day.

Back in 1998 and 1999, scripted had become real stagnant — there was nothing edgy. And reality TV was going through the roof because it felt so real and authentic. Then all of a sudden, someone took a chance on a show about a cop who was dirty and featured an actor who was older. That show was “The Shield” on FX. And then all of a sudden we get two plastic surgeons, one of which is doing crazy things, on “Nip/Tuck.” Then we get (AMC’s) “Breaking Bad.” They pushed the envelope in scripted. They had to get edgier and louder because unscripted was so real and so loud. So, yeah, we’re in a tough spot with unscripted. But it’s only a matter of time before the balance shifts again. Reality is not going away.

When high-profile shows like “Utopia” fail, does that make it harder for you because it furthers the idea that reality is in a slump?

Unfortunately, this town operates a lot out of fear. The minute “Utopia” tanked, if you had the [guts] to walk in a room and pitch something similar to “Utopia,” nobody is going to buy it. If you really looked at unscripted right now, a lot of shows are doing really well, especially in cable. Even in broadcast, “The Voice” still does well. “American Idol” will probably come out and still do significant numbers. Will they be the numbers that “Idol” was doing five years ago? No. But compared to a lot of stuff out there, it’s still doing incredible. Endemol Shine North America is also building its scripted library — you’ve got shows like “Kingdom” and “Hell on Wheels.”

Let’s talk about Spanish-language networks. Traditionally, they didn’t deviate from the tried-and-true combination of telenovelas and variety shows and talk shows. Now, we’re seeing them experiment in ways we haven’t seen before — and some of that is with reality TV.

The billennials that have now matured and have access to everything else, so they need more updated stories, different stories and more choices and brands that are not overly different than what you see in the general market. So we’re taking advantage of that with our own brands. “Big Brother” has been in the U.S. for 16 years. There’s no reason we shouldn’t have a Spanish version, “Gran Hermano,” here in the U.S.

Telemundo, I have to give them credit, they’re the ones really leading the charge on this. They’ve got “The Voice,” they have the rights to “The Walking Dead,” which over-indexes anyhow with Latinos on AMC, so why not have that in Spanish? In addition to “Gran Hermano,” we also have a scripted series we’re doing with Telemundo. It’s called “El Vato,” it looks like a Mexican “Entourage.”

Is there a show out there that you wish was part of Endemol Shine?

If I had to pick, I would say probably “Ninja Warrior.” We watch it as a family. You can make 50 episodes of it. And it’s done really well. If I had come in four years ago and said, “Hey, I’m going to build one big jungle gym and I’m going to run 50 people through it” — I would’ve been kicked out of the room. That pitch would’ve tanked. But someone gave them a shot to do it and they did it right with the lights and the commentators and the execution. We did “Wipe Out” for the longest time. It pains me how many people loved that show and yet ABC took it off the air.

What are the issues you find yourself talking about with people in the industry?

It’s the ongoing conversation that is cresting now: the monetization of these direct-to-consumer services, these OTT (streaming) places and how they’re structured. Should you go it alone? Should you team up with the Hulus and such? Should you just buy into these guys and move on? Should you do it yourself, like we’re doing with Endemol Beyond? Those are a lot of the conversations going on, along with, in every genre, we need a hit. We need a big hit.