Abrego in his North Hollywood, California, office

Rocco Ceselin

At his alma mater, Mountain View High School in El Monte, Abrego joins his former wrestling coach, Frank Alonzo, in the office

Rocco Ceselin

Abrego strolls the campus with principal José Marquez

Rocco Ceselin

In the gym, where Abrego used to wrestle, the  school motto appears on the floor: Inspire greatness.

Rocco Ceselin
Fill 1
Fill 1
April 20, 2018

Grounded in Reality

To Endemol Shine chief Cris Abrego, true success means giving back.

Craig Tomashoff

As chairman of Endemol Shine Americas and CEO of Endemol Shine North America, Cris Abrego is one of the world's most prominent television executives.

And yet, despite that lofty position, there are several obvious signs he hasn't forgotten where his rise to the top began.

Take, for instance, the tattoo on his left arm with the phrase "Memories of El Monte," a vivid reminder of the tight-knit, working-class California city where he grew up. Or the financial support and pep talks he regularly offers students at his alma mater, Mountain View High School. Not to mention the beaming smile on his face as he walks into the school's television production studio.

"This is where it all started, where I got into the business," Abrego explains, laughing as he notices a black-and-white poster that shows him running a control board in this very room three decades earlier. "Coming from El Monte, Hollywood can feel like you're worlds away, and if it hadn't been for the exposure to television I got here, I honestly don't think I would ever have done anything that I've done since."

Which means a whole lot of TV viewers would have been without a whole lot of reality series, including The Surreal Life, Flavor of Love, Rock of Love with Bret Michaels and dozens of other shows Abrego has produced in the past two decades.

Perhaps more important, had it not been for the inspiration he drew from this little room, many young people in El Monte would have had far fewer options. If you don't believe it, just ask the teachers or former students who have come to hang out with him during this surprise visit.

"Cris gives you that sensation of hope, the faith that you can do big things, even coming from a place like this," says Perla Vega, who is studying sociology at Cal Poly Pomona thanks to a scholarship fund Abrego set up at Mountain View. "That's why I love talking to him. And I know I wouldn't be where I am now if not for him."

Adds Scott Bier, who teaches drama and communications at the high school, "When our kids watch movies and television, they don't see themselves as being a part of that business. Cris comes here and proves to them that 'I do this and if you love it, you can do it someday, too.' He tells everyone, 'Finish college and then come talk to me and I'll see what I can do.' He wants to give back and help these kids any way he can."

It's not just a younger generation of Latino students that Abrego has been inspiring. He's apparently doing the same for his Hollywood peers as well.

"When you're Mexican American in this country, you automatically have to fight for social justice, and Cris truly has this great responsibility of service instilled in him," says Eva Longoria, Abrego's friend and occasional production partner. "People tell you not to forget where you come from, and that's something that is simply not an option for Cris. To see him climb the ladder in this industry and become so successful has been a joy to watch."

It's an ascent that started in an El Monte living room, when Abrego was still in grade school and dreaming (briefly) of being a dentist. The television was a social centerpiece for him and his family. Shows like All in the Family, Good Times and Alice were particular family favorites, Abrego recalls, because they "really resonated with us. They showed working-class people, and we lived in a working-class neighborhood.

"My dad worked a lot during the week, so this was something we considered spending time together — television and sports," continues Abrego, who was on the wrestling team throughout his days at Mountain View and then at Cal State Fullerton. "I always joke that doing the job I do now has alleviated some of the guilt my parents feel about all the TV I watched. At least it all paid off."

His first show, which he produced while attending Mountain View, was a hipper version of the usual student newscast, which he dubbed What's Up? It featured conversations about student parties, cheerleader interviews, movie reviews and anything else that would grab teenagers' attention.

There was no turning back after that production (which he confesses borrowed liberally from the then-popular Arsenio Hall Show). That's not to say he didn't face obstacles that nearly derailed his TV career.

Perhaps the worst problem happened while Abrego was 19 and a freshman at Cal State Fullerton. While riding a motorcycle with his best friend, he was in an accident that killed the friend and left Abrego with all the skin ripped off his back and 47 staples in his head. As tragic as the incident was, however, it changed his life for the better.

"I've been hesitant to talk about it, because I didn't want what happened to be the thing that people hung their hats on, saying, 'You needed something like that in your life to motivate you,'" Abrego says. "I was an inspired and motivated person before the accident.

"The way it changed me was, I made a commitment to myself after, not to waste any time. I had already committed to making television my path at that point and realized I had to focus if I was going to make a serious run at it."

The run began with a job as a part-time TV sports editor at KMIR in Palm Springs. By the time he left the station two years later, Abrego was in charge of directing live newscasts. He followed that up in 1996 with a quick stop at Stone Stanley Productions, working on a Fox game show called Big Deal. Then he got the job that would literally change his life. Although it certainly didn't seem like it at first.

Abrego was hired by Bunim/Murray Productions to be a tape logger for the MTV reality game show Road Rules, a gig he admits was "at the very bottom" of the business. Not long after he'd started, however, the producers decided to film in Mexico. They needed somebody who could speak Spanish and, out of the 80 people at the company, Abrego was the only one. He was promoted to coordinator, hit the road with the crew and never looked back.

"Cris was one of the bright young people at Bunim/Murray during the late 1990s," recalls Bunim/Murray chairman Jon Murray. "Cris was the guy you didn't have to worry about. He was very mature for his age and understood his strengths and where he needed support. He'd come to you if he needed help and learn from whatever information and advice you gave him. He's someone who never asks the same question twice."

After spending time as a producer on other Bunim/Murray shows like Fear, Making the Band and USA's Cannonball Run 2001, Abrego left the company to create his own, 51 Pictures (inspired by his idol, Chicago Bears line- backer Dick Butkus, who wore number 51). He quickly began production on his own shows, starting with the MTV docu-series Surf Girls and NBC's Next Action Star.

In 2003, he partnered with fellow producer Mark Cronin's Mindless Entertainment to create a new company, 51 Minds. They leaped right into The Surreal Life, a series that moved several C-list celebrities into a house together and filmed the result.

In the beginning, what they were certain would be a surefire hit fizzled. Networks insisted on seeing a full cast before giving the go-ahead, which was a major problem back in 2003, before Dancing with the Stars and The Celebrity Apprentice made it hip to be formerly famous.

"Reality TV had a really bad rap," Abrego explains. "We'd call agents and managers, and they'd say, 'Don't you ever fucking call here again!' It was such a long process to finally get The WB to give us the go-ahead.

This was a huge gamble for me, because I was living on my savings. My wife was like, 'How is this a better idea than a job that gives you a paycheck every two weeks?' It took 18 months of being committed to the idea of having my own company before I thought I could make a living at this."

He was right. Over the course of the next several years, he became a pioneer in the world of "celeb-reality" television.

Then, in 2008, Abrego and Cronin sold a majority stake in their company to Dutch-based production behemoth Endemol, whose roster includes series like Big Brother, MasterChef and Fear Factor. Five years after that, Abrego moved up to become co–CEO of the newly minted Endemol Shine North America. In late 2016, he was named CEO of Endemol Shine North America and chairman of Endemol Shine Americas.

"I had to read in the trades about his getting the job, because he is so unassuming about everything," Longoria says. "When I talked to him, I jokingly asked, 'So you're gonna be a suit now and not one of us?' But Cris is always going to stay one of us, one of the guys in the trenches who gets things done. The job didn't change him. He's changed the job."

The shift from show producer to corporate exec hasn't always been smooth for Abrego. He occasionally longs for the days when he could take his own idea and shepherd it onto the air.

"Now I'm more like the club manager, putting the right team together to run productions," he says. "What I like about it is that I do get to work in television at its highest level, a global level. Still, every year I go to the finale of Big Brother and sit there watching the showrunners in the control room, calling out instructions.

"My muscles twitch, because I miss it. For the most part I don't, but there are occasions on set that I do feel like making something of my own again."

Meanwhile, though, he's got plenty to keep him busy running Endemol. In particular, he's working hard to correct something he observed during his tape-logger days at Bunim/Murray, where "when I looked up, I only saw white people."

Part of the reason he left 51 Minds to run Endemol, he says, was to encourage diversity in the TV business, starting with focusing on Spanish-language television and building a general television market for Latinos.

It has been a formidable task. He still recalls a meeting not long after he started running Endemol that illustrated how much work needed to be done. One of Abrego's first decisions was to sign a deal with rapper Pitbull and develop a New Year's Eve special to rival Dick Clark's longstanding end-of-year event — a move that seemed to perplex some of the staff.

"I was in a meeting explaining that Pitbull already had commitments from Jennifer Lopez and Enrique Iglesias," Abrego remembers, "and a guy in the back raises his hand and asks, 'So will we be working on this?' I said, 'Absolutely! Why do you ask?' He said, 'Well, because it's in Spanish.' I said, 'No it's not!'

I was talking to a room that didn't understand those names were general-market names. They thought because of the talent mentioned, it had to be in Spanish. Which is a perception I've really pushed back on. And from where I sit today, everything looks better in terms of understanding and diversity. There's a ways to go, but I do feel things are better."

As part of his outreach to the Latino community, Endemol recently joined forces with popular Mexico City–based production company Boomdog to form Endemol Shine Boomdog.

Abrego believes this "natural partnership" will result in new scripted and unscripted content for the U.S. Hispanic market as well as for Mexican audiences, building on Boomdog successes like Mexico's Next Top Model and Impractical Jokers Mexico.

"I have more of an awareness to look out for opportunities like this one with Boomdog," Abrego says. "It's my passion. This market may be looked at by some as secondary, but I don't see it that way. I treat it like every other market in terms of what we put forward with promotion and production."

He's not only putting his money where his heritage is when it comes to his company. Abrego is also committed to promoting diversity through scholarships that will get minority students into careers they might otherwise not be able to have.

At the suggestion of his old boss Jon Murray, Abrego has donated $250,000 of his own money and hours of his time to a Television Academy Foundation program that provides paid internships in the TV business for Los Angeles–area students from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

"I started talking to Cris about creating an endowment [for] college kids from local schools, whose families might not be able to afford supporting them during an unpaid internship," Murray says. "And he was the person who immediately said, 'You're right! I will contribute!'"

Just like he did when it came to helping out the kids at Mountain View High School. Abrego set up a scholarship program for top student athletes in 2013, and at present 15 students have been sent to schools like Georgetown University, UCLA and UC Berkeley on his dime.

One recipient even got to study abroad in London ("It was her first time on an airplane!" Abrego marvels). The students are free to choose any field of study, so not all of them will be going into the television business.

"We didn't have these kind of opportunities when I was here," Abrego says. He walks across the Mountain View campus smiling and waving to any past or present student or faculty member who happens by.

"Military recruiters hung out during lunch at our school, because that was our way out. So now my part in all this is to give back and make sure the students see the opportunities that are out there. It's my passion to bring diversity not just into TV production but also to all sorts of executive roles."

It's too soon to say what kind of an impact these students he's helping will have on the world. However, the impact Abrego is having on the students is pretty clear. As he continues his impromptu tour of his alma mater, one former student he helped hangs back and watches him with an admiring gaze.

Pablo Tellez was one of the first scholarship recipients. After graduating from the College of Mount Saint Vincent in New York, he went to work in the finance department at Endemol. He knew nothing about Abrego until meeting him during one of the TV executive's visits to the Mountain View campus.

Tellez's first impression was positive — "He was a regular guy, like me and my family, with all this success behind him, yet he didn't show it off at all." It was the second impression, however, that will stick with Tellez forever. When Abrego went to New York two years ago to promote his book, Make It Reality: Create Your Opportunity, Own Your Success, he invited Tellez to an event on the 19th floor of the Chrysler Building.

"I didn't know any of these people in the room," Tellez recalls. "I was like a lost puppy. Cris saw me, said hello and then went up to speak at the podium. And suddenly, he's talking about me in front of these very important people.

"That was a life-changing moment for me. It made me realize I could have the world at my feet if I wanted that. That day, Cris totally changed my life. I realized through him that your origins don't define who you are."

Unless you're Cris Abrego, who continues to wear his humble El Monte origins on his sleeve. Or just under it.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 3, 2018

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