Outrageous Folks Fuel 51 Minds’ Ideas
Building on VH1 Success, Producers Look to Broadcast Nets
Following Chris Abrego and Mark Cronin around with a camera would make an interesting reality show.
Mr. Abrego and Mr. Cronin are the duo who produce most of the twisted shows that have fueled VH1’s "celeb-reality" ratings resurgence and made cable stars of such unusual characters as Flavor Flav and Bret Michaels.
Their business, 51 Minds Entertainment, has grown from six people three years ago, when they started working exclusively with VH1, to more than 200 people handling productions with total budgets of about $60 million.
51 Minds’ exclusive deal with VH1 has expired and it’s getting ready to work on shows with talent including Eva Longoria Parker, Vivica A. Fox, Nick Cannon and Ludacris.
"Chris and I are both in development on projects that are [broadcast] network-appropriate," Mr. Cronin said. "If I were a betting man, I’d say [we] will have network projects next year."
51 Minds produces a good chunk of the prime-time programming on VH1, which is on a ratings upswing of late. Powered by such shows as "I Love New York," "Rock of Love," "America’s Most Smartest Model" and "Gotti’s Way," VH1’s ratings were up 12% among adults 18 to 34 during October. With two 51 Minds shows in the lineup, VH1 has been the top-rated non-sports cable network the past two Mondays.
The network has ordered a second season of "Rock of Love" and a third season of "My Fair Brady." A third season of "Flavor of Love" is being edited.
"They know our brand because by and large they created our new brand," Jeff Olde, VH1’s senior VP of production and programming.
"What the guys have done so brilliantly is they create great stories, but they find these great cast members," he said. They then take those cast members and build new shows around them, such as Flavor Flav, who emerged from "Surreal Life," and New York, who appeared on "Flavor of Love."
A key question for 51 Minds is whether it can go beyond the bizarro dating shows that have been so successful. Mr. Olde believes it can do other forms of reality programming.
"I feel like I can take them any seed of an idea, or any talent that’s interested in working with us, and say, ‘Can you guys find an approach here?’ And I don’t care if it’s comedy, I don’t care if it’s drama, I don’t care if it’s format, I don’t care if it’s doc, I believe they and their team will figure out something that’s interesting."
Mr. Cronin said the company has begun to branch out with "Most Smartest Model," which grew out of a title suggested by a VH1 exec, and "Gotti’s Way," a reality drama about a record executive.
"Chris and I in 2008 are going to try to keep our baseline business of these reality competition programs chugging right along, and we’re going to try to build on either side of it," he said.
One area is alternative comedies, which might look like a reality show but are more scripted. Those could be attractive to broadcast nets, he said.
Another business project is to find ways to exploit 51 Minds’ growing library of shows on the Internet.
Mr. Abrego and Mr. Cronin first got together to produce "The Surreal Life" for The WB. The network dropped the show and MTV Networks programming guru Brian Graden decided a nostalgic, pop-culture reality show was just what VH1 needed.
51 Minds made a deal with VH1 that gave the network exclusivity, in return for an upfront commitment that a minimum number of shows would get produced.
That deal is over now, but "they keep us so busy that it’s almost exclusive," Mr. Abrego said.
One thing that separates a 51 Minds show from most reality fare is the outrageous characters.
"Outrageous characters are all around us; it’s just that most network reality shows are kind of trying to avoid people who are too outrageous. Shows like ‘The Bachelor,’ they’re looking for a real gauzy, romantic the-prince-and-his-princess kind of story," Mr. Cronin said. "Flavor Flav is the exact opposite of all that, and the women who would be attracted to him are clearly off the rails. That’s how you get a much more fun, interesting and twisted kind of show."