Cris Abrego’s rise to the top of the ranks of the unscripted television world is a tale of passion and perseverance. Born and raised in suburban El Monte, Calif., he is a second-generation Mexican American who fought hard to break into the entertainment industry 25 years ago. Now, as chairman of the Americas for Paris-based Banijay, and president and CEO of Endemol Shine Holdings, Abrego is one of the highest-ranking Latino executives in Hollywood.
“When I was younger, I couldn’t get a job in the industry,” Abrego says. “I had no connections, and even though we lived 24 miles from Hollywood, it was literally a different lifetime away. I very much felt like an outsider and it was extremely difficult for people like me to find their way in.”
His life changed when he joined the team at Bunim/Murray productions, which kick-started a new generation of reality television programming with “The Real World.” That show became a highly influential global hit, spawning legions of imitators, and busting open an entire genre.
“I was working in Palm Springs at an NBC news affiliate, and after a couple of years, I made my way back to Los Angeles, and cut my teeth in unscripted programming at Bunim/Murray,” says Abrego. “Jonathan Murray and Mary-Ellis Bunim are the people who gave me a chance to succeed in the industry, and they’ve always run a very inclusive company.”
In his Banijay post, Abrego oversees nine production studios in North and Latin America that produce nearly 100 unscripted TV series each year. Abrego was recently elected chairman of the TV Academy Foundation, where he’s developed numerous initiatives designed to bring more diversity to the industry, both before and behind the camera.
Last year, Abrego introduced Banijay’s inaugural Diversity and Inclusion Committee, naming Karla Pita Loor, also Latina and from South America, as exec VP, enterprise inclusion & social responsibility for Banijay Americas.
Together, Abrego and Pita Loor have launched a number of partnerships in the inclusion space in unscripted TV, including a recent one with Group Effort Initiative (GEI), which was founded by actors Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively. The goal of GEI’s diversity employment pact is to create below-the-line and entry-level positions for candidates from historically excluded communities on top unscripted series across four of Banijay Americas’ U.S.-based studios.
“We want to go out and create things with real meaning and which hold positive value to everyone involved,” Abrego says. “We’re not simply going after flashy announcements in order to get some good press. And Karla’s main focus is to look at our business within our group and where our partnerships are, and to build real infrastructure.”
Abrego is driven to assist those who need more visibility within the industry. In 2021, he and Pita Loor, along with various other unscripted TV leaders, unveiled a multimillion-dollar internship program with the TV Academy Foundation, targeting minority college students from the greater Los Angeles area.
“We did a two-year pilot for the program, focusing solely on unscripted TV, and pulling kids of color from working-class backgrounds, all of whom were attending different Cal State schools,” says Pita Loor, who played a key role in shepherding the program.
“We brought them into media companies, including Endemol Shine and Bunim/Murray and a few others, and what we really wanted was to have the internships convert to real jobs. That was the focus and we delivered on that goal,” she says.
Abrego is proud of how the internship experience was rolled out and executed by everyone on the planning team, providing professional opportunities for those who might not otherwise have had the chance.
“There were so many companies not taking advantage of a system like this and, most importantly, everyone who got an internship ended up finding employment,” he says. “Internships are great, but if they don’t convert to employment, they don’t have impact. That’s the most important aspect and that’s how we can change things.”
Pita Loor recently helped cement another new partnership in the diversity space. In April, she announced that Banijay Americas would be teaming with WarnerMedia OneFifty to create an incubator program designed to develop unscripted series from artists with authentic visions and perspectives. The two studios will select five creators who will receive a grant from WarnerMedia OneFifty, in addition to development deals with participating Banijay Americas’ production studios to support their projects and prep them to sell to potential buyers.
Participating companies include Bunim/Murray, Truly Original and 51 Minds.