One is an Ivy League-educated former engineer; the other is a former college wrestler. If that sounds like a premise for a wacky reality show, you're not far off.
Mark Cronin (the engineer) and Cris Abrego (the wrestler) are the creative forces behind The Surreal Life, the hit reality show that spawned the celebreality genre. In the four years since they formed 51 Minds Entertainment, a merger of their respective production companies proposed by their agents at UTA, Cronin and Abrego have rocked the reality-TV world with their series' trademark blend of celebrity voyeurism and camp humor.
Both got their start during the 1990s, when reality television was in its formative years. While Cronin worked his way up producing TV comedies and game shows. Abrego spent years developing reality characters for the formidable Bunim-Murray, creator of MTV's seminal Real World and Road Rules.
Harassing howard stern
A New Jersey native, Cronin got his start with a tenacious campaign for a gig on Howard Stern's nationally syndicated Channel 9 Show. Having abandoned his chemical-engineering career, he began faxing jokes and sketch ideas and followed up with what he calls harassing phone calls for six months.
The persistence paid off in the form of a staff writing job that quickly led to him handling celebrity talent and directing in the field. After moving to Los Angeles in 1994 to pursue more work, he became head writer for the first season of MTV dating show Singled Out; by the second season, he was showrunner.
In 1997, Cronin formed Mindless Entertainment while continuing to run shows, including Fox's first primetime game show, Big Deal, and late- night syndicated talk show The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show.
He also pitched his own pilots to cable networks, finding success in the game show and talk show genres with FX's The X Show, Comedy Central's Beat the Geeks, Pax's America's Most Talented Kids, IFC's Ultimate Film Fanatic and GSN's competition shows Cram and Extreme Dodgeball.
Growing up in 'the real world'
Abrego worked his way up with similar diligence, although he took a different route. An avid TV viewer as a kid in El Monte, Calif., he helped produce a series shown in homerooms of his high school and took a part-time job as a sports editor at a local station after graduating from Cal State Fullerton.
Abrego eventually moved back to L.A. and soon joined Bunim-Murray, working an extended run on Road Rules and The Real World. He credits the company and its founders, the late Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jon Murray, with instilling in him a thorough understanding of how to create reality story arcs.
“We felt like documentarians at the time,” Abrego says. “It was before the explosion of reality television when we had to hyperproduce, as we do now.”
Abrego interspersed his time at Bunim-Murray with freelance gigs, including supervising producer for MTV's Fear, coordinating producer for ABC's Making the Band and co-creator/executive producer for USA Network's reality version of the movie Cannonball Run.
After forming a production company called BrassRing in 2002, he created and executive-produced NBC's Next Action Star, MTV's Surf Girls and FX's The Hitchhiker Chronicles. Abrego later formed 51 Pictures.
It was a commercial for Stove-Top stuffing that brought the pair together. The ad, which featured Mr. T, talk-show host Sally Jesse Raphael, Loni Anderson and George Hamilton, revealed the comic potential of putting an assortment of B- and C-list celebrities in a room together. Since Abrego had no experience working with celebrities, his agent suggested he work with Cronin.
As they fleshed out the idea of what would become The Surreal Life, they envisioned a sitcom version of The Real World starring celebrities. The show debuted on The WB in 2003 and featured the likes of M.C. Hammer, Corey Feldman and Emmanuel Lewis living together in a house. The network cancelled it after two seasons, but MTV Networks programming guru Brian Graden saw more life in it and picked it up.
“That's one of the most amazingly brave things I've seen an executive do,” Cronin says. “Buying a cancelled show is a strong move: If it doesn't work, you can look like an idiot.”
The move paid off, particularly for VH1. The Surreal Life has supplied the network with a gaggle of 51 Minds-produced spinoffs, including Strange Love, My Fair Brady and The Surreal Life Fame Games. Flavor of Love, starring rapper Flavor Flav, has been VH1's highes-trated show ever.
Veteran TV host Robin Leach, who hosted Fame Games, praises Cronin and Abrego's professionalism and focus. “That is what struck me about both of them,” Leach says. “It's [their] commitment to good television and not getting caught up in all the nonsense of what people think TV is. One of the reasons I love them so much is, it's the same philosophy that I've had all the way through my career.”
Looking beyond celebrities
With some 70 year-round employees, 51 Minds works at a good clip, churning out 10 series with hour-long episodes in about 22 days. Although they have completed an exclusive output deal to do 10 shows for VH1, Cronin and Abrego are continuing to produce for the network whose brand they have been so integral in bolstering.
Both have even bigger ambitions. Cronin hopes to branch 51 Minds into sketch comedy and hybrid reality and possibly to do scripted comedies. Abrego hopes to get a reality show on a network and make feature films.
For now, though, with seemingly every minor star clamoring for his or her own show, it's more celebreality. Unlike the early days, when agents wouldn't allow the duo to meet with their clients before casting them, Cronin and Abrego conduct several visits, often at stars' homes. Still, they say, the celeb is but one component of the formula.
“Our genre got so saturated so quickly that it truly all comes down to the idea now, no matter how big the celebrity is,” says Abrego. “Flav on a dating show—it's ridiculous, and that's why it works.”