Loving the Surreal: Two Reality TV Pioneers Chris Abrego and Mark Cronin oversee a vast reality television empire. Their production company, 51 Minds, is sometimes responsible for 75 percent of the programming on the VH1 cable network. Nate DiMeo profiles the two producers who represent the state of the art of reality television.
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Loving the Surreal: Two Reality TV Pioneers

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Loving the Surreal: Two Reality TV Pioneers

Loving the Surreal: Two Reality TV Pioneers

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

(Soundbite of TV show "Flavor of Love")

Unidentified Man #1: Previously on "Flavor of Love"…

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, boy.

(Soundbite of car crash)

Unidentified Man #3: Oh, it ripped my heart.

Unidentified Man #4: Which of these girls had the best prescription for love?

Unidentified Woman #1: (Unintelligible)…

Welcome to the world of 51 Minds. The production company behind the reality shows "Flavor of Love," "The Surreal Life," "Charm School" and many others. Its signature blend of has-been celebrities and sophomore humor has given the VH1 cable network a remarkable string of hits.

Nate DiMeo introduces us to the minds behind 51 Minds.

NATE DIMEO: A decade ago, Mark Cronin walked out of the University of Pennsylvania in writing to a lucrative job as a chemical engineer.

Mr. MARK CRONIN (Producer, 51 Minds): It was a horrible, horrible mistake because my heart wasn't in it.

DiMEO: His heart led him to a world of porn stars and stutterers(ph), writing bits for one of Howard Stern's (unintelligible) television. And he eventually met a guy named Chris Abrego who'd spend years working on MTV's "The Real World." And they've thought if they could combine their skills and sensibilities, they could bring something new to TV.

Mr. CRONIN: Chris and my intention was to try and create an alternative sitcom - take former sitcom stars and have them live together, you might be able to create a new kind of comedy.

DiMEO: The result was a show called "The Surreal Life," which was sort of Howard Stern meets the real world. The show featured C-minus celebrities like the terminally typecast Emmanuel Lewis, TV's Webster. In the past, this prime rapper, MC Hammer, debating who should have the top bunk.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Surreal Life")

MC HAMMER (Rapper): You on the top.

Mr. EMMANUEL LEWIS (Actor): You go ahead and take the top bed (unintelligible).

MC HAMMER: No, I want (unintelligible)…

DiMEO: The show established a model that Cronin and Abrego has exploited ever since. Take a popular reality TV format and mine it for comedy - the fights, the alliances, the betrayals all pushed to the point of absurdity.

Unidentified Man #5: (Unintelligible) a time, there was a special (unintelligible) appeared which included a young lady who was naked, you know, and covered with sushi…

Unidentified Man #6: Oh…

DiMEO: And along the way, they helped created a new TV sub genre: reality comedy. Here's Chris Abrego.

Mr. CHRIS ABREGO (Producer, 51 Minds): To produce for reality comedy it's tough. On reality TV, you know sometimes you will just sit down, you don't know anything.

We literally map out every single episode and every single challenge about where we expected to be a moment of truth or a moment of decision or some place where you can be a cliffhanger for the audience. We actually do plan all that out from beginning to end of the season.

Unidentified Man #7: (Unintelligible) Good. What's the next (unintelligible)?

Unidentified Man #8: Hold on a sec.

Unidentified Woman #2: A (unintelligible) battle.

Unidentified Man #8: Okay. (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Woman #2: The bed battle.

Unidentified Man #7: It's the bed battle, so where's the bed battle happen?

Unidentified Man #8: The bed battle is happening at the marina.

Mr. ABREGO: And then we go into the house willing to throw out the whole plan if the story goes left on us.

DiMEO: During the filming of the third season of "The Surreal Life," the story did go left on them. In the midst of the typical surreal life nonsense, say, (unintelligible) bickering with a former member of New Kids on the Block, a peculiar romance emerged.

Flavor Flav is the short guy who wore the enormous clock around his neck in the hip-hop group Public Enemy. And Brigitte Nielsen, if you remember her at all, is the six-foot-plus 1980s B movie queen, and the two found love. And Cronin and Abrego found television stars for a spin off called "Strange Love."

(Soundbite of TV show "Strange Love")

Unidentified Man #9: Flavor Flav loves his self - Brigitte Nielsen.

FLAVOR FLAV (Rapper): We got it going on (unintelligible) big girl.

DiMEO: Cronin and Abrego say that reality shows live and die with casting. And the best candidates like Flav and Brigitte have a screw loose.

Unidentified Man #10: We've become - what (unintelligible) of the company that would put people near that normally wouldn't see on a reality show. They're like that girl would never been on "The Bachelor."

Unidentified Man #11: I think everybody knows people like the characters in our shows, like I think they think they're next-door neighbor is nuts. We just find that person and put him on television.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JEFF OLDE (Senior Vice President, Production and Programming, VH1): There's something about the way that they tell stories.

DiMEO: Jeff Olde is a VP of programming at VH1. There have been times within the last year that as much as 75 percent of all of that network shows have been created and produced by Cronin and Abrego's company, 51 Minds.

Mr. OLDE: Like the Simpsons, if you're done, you're going to get it and love it and if you're really smart, you're going to get it and love it.

DiMEO: After "The Surreal Life" begot "Strange Love," Cronin and Abrego began to see each new project as the potential launching pad for other projects. When Flav and Brigitte's relationship fell apart, the producers created a parody of dating shows with Flavor Flav as the 51 Minds version of "The Bachelor." And many spin off set, this spin off inspired have all become part of their pointedly bizarre, crude, self-referential world.

(Soundbite of TV show "Flavor of Love")

Unidentified Man #12: Smack me.

Unidentified Man #13: Look at me, you're (unintelligible)…

Unidentified Man #12: Smack me.

Unidentified Man #13: …tough, bro. You (unintelligible)…

Unidentified Man #12: You ain't smacking me…

Unidentified Man #13: Of course, not.

Unidentified Man #14: We do our jobs in creating this (unintelligible) the characters are real people but, really, you'd find them and everybody will root for them or root against them, then that will give the (unintelligible) ability to maybe to so something well (unintelligible) like, Tiffany was somebody like that.

Ms. TIFFANY POLLARD (Actress; New York, "Flavor of Love"): My name is Tiffany Pollard, aka the Lovely New York.

DiMEO: Tiffany Pollard is the quintessential 51 Minds character or - if you prefer - real person. In the first episode of "Flavor of Love," she was given a nickname New York because she was from New York. Her apparent sincerity and her seeming lack of any sort of internal sensor made her a fan favorite.

(Soundbite of TV show "Flavor of Love")

Ms. POLLARD: But now I'm saying to myself, New York, stay strong because this is a man you will one day be with. Nobody can (bleep) with faith.

DiMEO: Like the best of the 51 Minds shows, New York is unhinged but has a heart and that helped her land her own show.

(Soundbite of TV show "I Love New York")

Unidentified Man #15: Previously on "I Love New York."

Ms. POLLARD: I'm going to get 20 beautiful men together (unintelligible) which one is love of my life.

DiMEO: Mark Cronin and Chris Abrego's next show is going to feature losing contestants from their old shows like "Flavor of Love," "Rock of Love" and "I Love New York." It's called "I Love Money."

From NPR News, I'm Nate DiMeo.

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