The Celebreality Interview – Mark Cronin and Cris Abrego

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You may not know Mark Cronin and Cris Abrego, but if you’re reading this blog, you’re undoubtedly familiar with their work. They helped foster the nascent genre of celebreality in 2003 when they tossed a handful of sub-A-listers in a house and showed us what happened via The Surreal Life. When that show migrated to VH1 in 2004, the Celebreality brand was born and it’s been a cyclone of spin-offs ever since. Strange Love, Flavor of Love, I Love New York, Rock of Love, I Love Money and Charm School are among the shows they helped create and executive produce. If VH1 is a circus, here are your ringmasters.

We caught up with Mark and Cris in May of this year on the first day of the Rock of Love Charm School shoot. Below are the results of our candid chat that covers the difficulty of putting on a positive-slanted show like Charm School, the racial criticism they received in the wake of Flavor of Love, why the evolution of the celebreality genre has made it hard form them to hang with it, and the soap-operatic nature of their work.

Is Charm School a difficult show to put on, since the cardinal rule of reality TV is bad behavior = good television?

Mark Cronin: Yeah, that’s what we found on the first Charm School, since it’s a competition to be a good girl. Anybody can be good for the amount of time it takes to shoot the show. I think the tricky part is that we produce it so we always keep them moving forward, but they still manage to take a couple of steps back along the way. We always worry that they won’t, that it won’t be a good story, that they’ll come in and fold their arms and be sweet to each other, but fortunately these characters are so unstoppable, they have to say what’s on their mind. If they don’t like you, they’re going to tell you no matter what. They never stop being themselves. That’s what keeps it going.

Cris Abrego: Ultimately, the premise of the show, because there’s this format of transformation, makes it interesting to watch. We found on the first Charm School that we two types of girls, and both were fascinating. We had girls who were transforming and were highly emotional as a result, and we had girls who fought the transformation or faked it, and behind-the-scenes were still themselves.

Did the first Charm School come as a result of the criticism your shows, particularly Flavor of Love, have faced?

CA: It came as a direct response to the criticism.

Is it the same this time?

CA: Not necessarily.

MC: We didn’t get as much criticism for Rock of Love.

CA: Well, it didn’t receive the same criticism as Flavor of Love.

MC: It seemed like people just embraced the bad behavior. Maybe they were just used to it by then? When Flavor of Love came out, it was outrageous. People had only seen The Bachelor or Bachelor imitators that were trying to do this fairy-tale romance. That just seemed so fake to people that when we did Flavor of Love, people were shocked because it was so fun to see a straightforward approach. By the time we got to Rock of Love, we’d done Flavor of Love, Flavor of Love 2 and I Love New York. Now, it wasn’t so crazy that these people who were looking for love were acting out.

You don’t think it has anything to do with people being more accepting of seeing white women behaving badly versus black women?

MC: That’s true. Some of the criticism dealt with our portrayal of African American women. Cris and I always say: these are real people. It’s not about race, and certainly the worst-behaved person on Flavor of Love was Pumkin. But the point people make is that there’s not enough positive image of African American women on television. There aren’t enough African American women doctors, lawyers, cops. There are plenty of good white role models on TV, but it’s just not the case for African Americans. And then when a show like ours comes around and it’s a big population of African American women misbehaving, the backlash is: where’s the balance? Where are the doctors and the lawyers? Our answer is: no doctors and lawyers came out to date Flavor Flav. That’s the first problem. Second, that’s not our job. We do understand the problem, though.

One thing I find myself mentioning when I discuss these matters with people is that Flavor of Love originated as a satire. I know it’s satire wrapped in reality, but you can’t really measure society via something inherently satiric.

CA: Well, it’s satire in its framework, but the truth is that we tapped into a way of tailoring a dating show to one specific person, Flav. And Flav’s crazy and he dates those type of women. Flav has certain things he looks for in a person he wants to date.

MC: It’s like, what if the Bachelor was actually a big character? The Bachelors tend not to be big characters. They tend to be nice, eligible men. Hunks, maybe, but that’s not character. A good character is someone who says funny stuff and who has a weird, whacked-out lifestyle. So, really, we wondered, “What if the bachelor were a crazy lunatic?”

But the legitimacy of this franchise as straightforward dating shows is evolving, too, right? With Flavor of Love, the question is always, “Are you really here for Flav?” On Rock of Love, that question isn’t mentioned nearly as much – it’s much easier to believe that so many of those girls are really there for Bret.

CA: There’s no question. Especially on Rock of Love 2, we quickly found out that the girls became truly invested and were much more emotional. For Rock of Love 2, there was whole casting pool of women who’d fallen in love with Bret just from watching him on Rock of Love. They were for real.

MC: I think we had five who were actually in love with Bret, who were actually taking it hard. In Flav’s case, it was always one or two or maybe three who had it bad for him. But Bret had a big population of women head-over-heels, and like Cris said, they walked in that way. You know, he’s a good-looking, charming, sweet, funny guy.

As you’re watching this reality unspool from the control room, do either of you become spectators versus the maestros that you’re paid to be?

CA: Yes.

MC: Yeah. You have to care.

CA: Working on The Real World and Road Rules and long-form documentary stuff, watching it here, it’s like watching theater. You get involved and you get into it. It happens fast and it’s intense.

MC: We try to watch it like the home audience. We say, “Is what we’re getting here interesting? Is the story satisfying on enough levels? Is there another angle in the story we have to go catch? Is there something missing here?” We have to be vigilant to make sure the home audience is going to be engaged. And we try to fix it if it’s not that way.

Do you guys ever think about the larger cultural implications of what you do? I’ve heard it argued that these shows represent what Americana is in 2008.

MC: Wow. That’s sad. (Laughs)

CA: I get where you’re going with that, though. People ask me all the time, “Man, where do you find those women?” They’re not hard to find.

MC: If you don’t know someone crazy like these women, then you are one of these women.

Rock of Love particularly reminds me of the space that Russ Meyer once occupied in that it isn’t pornography but it’s salacious and so boldly titillating, it’s almost camp.

MC: It’s probably more mainstream than Russ Meyer, though. But I guess that does make sense. I always think we’re on the fringe.

CA: I think we hit a nerve because it’s closer to what’s real in terms of what’s going on in the clubs. These seem like much more real people. We took off the star filters and all the cleaned-up stuff The Bachelor was doing. You know, not all of the people on our shows are great-looking, including the bachelor. It has this texture that’s feels more authentic.

MC: Celebreality kind of exploded after The Surreal Life, which we take some credit for. But then it got so big that we can’t even play in that game. The celebrities are on, like, Dancing With the Stars, and they get six figures to appear on that show. It’s become such a big industry now that whatever the early fun of it was is kind of gone now. The next step Cris and I have taken is that we’re now in the celebrity-making business. Some of these girls are on their fourth show. They’re celebrities now. Heather and Destiney and Megan and Kristy Joe, they’re stars. They get recognized everywhere, people want their autographs, they get paid to make appearances in clubs. They’re celebs. And I think we reuse them more efficiently than the network reality shows, although Survivor has started bringing back its stars. When we find a great character, if we can find a continuing story with that character, we go with it. If we find someone the audience loves, we find a way to bring them back to continue the storyline. It’s like a soap opera.

What’s your take on the concept of guilty pleasure?

MC: Someone recently said to me, “Your shows aren’t a guilty pleasure; it’s just a pleasure.” All pleasure is good.

How many spin-offs is too many?

CA: Never.

MC: No such thing. I keep saying we keep doing the same show, we’re just changing the title. Sometimes we change the rules. Sometimes we change the prize. Sometimes it’s Flav, sometimes it’s $100,000. But either way: same show.

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