Producing duo spices up VH1, claims creating boring content as only possible sin for channel

By Lynn Elber

LOS ANGELES – Spend any amount of time watching VH1’s florid reality hit parade that includes “Flavor of Love,” “I Love New York” and “Rock of Love,” and the thought naturally occurs: Who comes up with this stuff?

Meet Cris Abrego and Mark Cronin, the business partners and masterminds who have produced some of the channel’s most popular and most talked-about – or howled-about – shows, and who this year alone will flood VH1 with eight series.

October is a true Abrego-Cronin extravaganza. “I Love New York 2” debuts Monday, giving Tiffany “New York” Pollard a second shot at romance, or something like it. And there are two newcomers, “America’s Most Smartest Model,” about lookers who must also prove their intellect, or something like it, and “Gotti’s Way,” the comeback effort of hip-hop producer Irv Gotti.

VH1 programming executive Michael Hirschorn knows just who Cronin and Abrego are: a couple of hardworking creative whizzes who are “absolutely crucial to our success” and who understand what the channel’s target audience wants.

“Their shows definitely have a younger feel, a hipper feel than what you see on the networks,” Hirschorn said. “They also have a unique ability to capture the imagination of young adults” by executing “TV that’s aware it’s TV.”

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“We’re for viewers who are hip to the artifice of a lot of television,” he explained, adding later: “The only sin is to be boring.”

The result is either a new-wave approach to comedy and soap opera, as Cronin, Abrego and Hirschorn describe it, or, as various critics would have it, another nail in the coffin of Western civilization and a ghetto-stereotype slap in the face of black Americans.

That’s not where they’re coming from, the producers say.

“Cris and I don’t have a political agenda. We don’t have an exploitation agenda,” said Cronin. “We take on a subject matter and make the best show we can about that. So the show’s about Flavor Flav and the women attracted to him and the lunacy that ensues from that.

“In the case of Bret Michaels, it’s women attracted to heavy metal hair bands and the lunacy that ensues from that,” he said.

While “Flavor of Love” drew criticism for its depiction of the rapper’s unrestrained romantic life and the sometimes rough-edged women he was choosing among, it’s been a top-rated show among black viewers, Abrego noted.

“This is reality TV and those are real people doing real things,” he said.

Last October, 7.5 million people tuned in to the second-season finale of “Flavor of Love” to give VH1 its biggest audience ever and adding to the channel’s ratings recovery after its overdose of the “Behind the Music” bio series.

Not too shabby for a couple of college grads who plunged into show business without connections but with a childhood passion for TV. Cronin, a 43-year-old Philadelphia native, had to sneak his viewing between parent-ordered museum visits. Abrego, 35, who grew up in suburban Los Angeles, admits to an early fondness for anything from “Gilligan’s Island” to “Falcon’s Crest.”

Cronin fled the staid world of chemical engineering after five years and got his big break by parlaying free sketches for Howard Stern’s TV show into a job there. Abrego’s first gig was sports editor for a Palm Springs TV station, editing game highlights.

Cronin traveled from Stern to MTV, working as head writer and then producer of Jenny McCarthy’s “Singled Out.” He started his own company, Mindless Entertainment, with an emphasis on game shows (“Beat the Geeks”) and talk shows (“The X Show”).

Abrego, meanwhile, studied at the graduate school of reality pioneer Bunim-Murray Productions (“Real World”) and formed a company, 51 Pictures. When he and Cronin went into business together, creating 51 Minds Entertainment, they merged their experience, Abrego in reality and Cronin in comedy.

Their initial idea was to create a “real-life sitcom” with former TV stars, a way to revive the faltering comedy genre. What they came up with was “The Surreal Life,” which debuted in 2003 on the now-defunct WB network and threw together the faded famous as roommates, including Corey Feldman and M.C. Hammer.

Where unemployed celebrities once angled for cameos on “The Love Boat” or “Fantasy Island,” said Cronin, now they had reality as their outlet.

Flavor Flav starred in a subsequent season of “The Surreal Life,” on which he “exploded as a character,” as did his affair with Brigitte Nielsen, Cronin said. The Flav-Nielsen relationship begat “Strange Love” which begat “Flavor of Love” which begat “I Love New York.”

Abrego and Cronin are willing to stack their shows up against any other, including the elements that detractors condemn as coarse or tacky.

“I think our reality shows are more real than a lot of the reality shows,” Cronin said. “In the case of ‘The Bachelor,’ they present a very gauzy halo of romance, the prince and the princess, which doesn’t seem very modern or connected to the real world.”

VH1 listened to the complaints that swelled last year, Hirschorn said, responding with such shows as “Flavor of Love Girls: Charm School,” in which Mo’Nique helped refine the losers, and an upcoming show about Salt-N-Pepa (not from Cronin and Abrego) about the rappers’ values clash.

“We’ve taken that criticism and responded to it. We’re also really trying to present all types of people on our air,” Hirschorn said.

Some observers appear unconvinced, with recent online postings dissecting every VH1 move and motive, especially regarding the channel’s images of black women.

Abrego and Cronin say they are starting to use their success to turn out more thoughtful projects, citing the Gotti series, debuting Oct. 15, which they describe as an “epic” look at the Murder Inc. record label head’s effort to rebound after being acquitted on money laundering charges.

That said, they’re not in the business of social commentary. “Flavor of Love” returns for season three next year.

“We don’t produce our shows in a large context. We produce shows to be entertaining, moment to moment and episode to episode. We produce them for great characters and great storytelling,” Cronin said.