Mark Cronin is one of Hollywood’s most successful and prolific reality television producers. He is widely credited with co-creating the celeb-reality sub-genre with the breakout hit of The Surreal Life (The WB) in 2003 in which Cronin’s comedic tones and production models helped shape the reality TV format still in use in much of today’s reality landscape. Cronin joined forces with 51 Pictures, to form the reality powerhouse 51 Minds Entertainment in 2004. Under that banner, Cronin created and co-created some of the most popular content in reality television serving as show-runner on such hits as Flavor of Love, Rock of Love, and “Charm School.
In 2014, Mark left 51 Minds Entertainment, and put up a new production shingle, Little Wooden Boat Productions, and continues to shake up the reality TV landscape with his new hit show Below Deck, now a very successful franchise for Bravo.
In this informative and candid interview, he shares how he got his start in reality TV, from starting out as a comedy writer on The Howard Stern Show, the responsibility a reality TV producer carries in finding and shaping stories, and what he hopes the future of reality TV storytelling looks like.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: How did you get into this world of producing and creating reality TV?
Mark Cronin: Well, everybody's story about how they get into show business is different, but mine's certainly very weird in that I started as a chemical engineer. My excuse is that in college, you can do both. You can have a major that will be your occupation or is aligned with what you want to do with your life, and then an extracurricular activity was just for goofing off. So, my extracurricular activity was being in the comedy troupe and doing comedy writing and performing shows. But I never thought that that was a way to go into the world and make money. I thought that that was just a dead-end for most people. And so I thought chemical engineering, that was a sure bet. You get hired as a chemical engineer, you get a salary. So that was my brilliant idea. [laughs] But then when I graduated, I found out that your career becomes your life. And that you need to kind of actually like what you're doing, which I hadn't really considered. I really hated engineering. And it all worked from the standpoint of graduating and getting hired and making more money than my friends who had graduated with me and went to become a PA somewhere, like at MTV. But it became quickly obvious to me that they were just living a whole different kind of better, fun existence and doing creative work instead of the non-creative work I was doing. So, I promised myself I'd get out and I spent basically all my five years as an engineer trying to get out of engineering and into the creative world. And it took me a long time, but I eventually succeeded in being hired by The Howard Stern Show, a TV show he was doing back in the early 90s. That got me out and I quit engineering and started writing comedy. And I think the quantitative education that I had in the engineering background has been an enormous advantage, especially when it came to producing for television. So much about producing television, from handling budgets and schedules to setting the tone of the show, requires reasoning skills I learned from that. You have to be really smart about how you produce your show; there's a lot of engineering in it. It's all kind of worked out for me.
Sadie: How did you first dip your toes into reality TV?
Mark: Well, at first when I was working for Howard Stern, to me that really is one of the earliest forms of reality television - the stuff that he was doing. It's around the same time as Real World which is most commonly held to be the first reality show on TV. Howard was doing it in a studio, but he was bringing real people in to play game show parodies. He was doing celebrity appearances that weren't the normal ‘sit down and have the celebrity tell you an anecdote from the set.’ It was more like he would surprise the celebrity and throw them into a sketch without them even knowing they were going to be in the sketch. He was all about putting people off balance and capturing real moments on television. He's very concerned with authenticity. And so, I really learned a lot about how to get entertainment out of celebrities. That's not the normal route. Because in those days, there was no such thing as celeb reality television. Celebrities actually didn't want to do reality television. They thought it was a career-ender. And they were very reluctant. One of my first field reality shows was The Surreal Life and it’s simply celebrities living in a house together. And convincing celebrities to do that show was not at all easy. You couldn't look around and say, ‘Oh, these are the other celebrities that have done reality television.’ Nobody had done it. There wasn't The Voice and there wasn't The Kardashians. The idea was basically ‘the minute you take a reality show gig, you will never see another script.’ Everybody who is an actor certainly feels they're just one part away from their big comeback, so nobody wants to put the nail in the coffin on their career. But now, reality television is its own destination and certainly can kick start a career.
Sadie: As a producer, as you've mentioned, all of the quote-unquote engineering you're doing behind the scenes, and you're doing a lot of heavy lifting in terms of storytelling too, that I don't think a lot of people are aware of in the world of reality TV. Can you tell us about that process of what a reality TV producer actually does in shaping an episode?
Mark: Different people do it in different ways on different shows. There’s definitely a spectrum of reality shows from extremely authentic, to extremely fake. And the ones doing the extremely fake shows do a completely different job than the people trying to do the more authentic shows. I can speak for myself and Below Deck. Our goal with a six-week shoot is three phases; there's pre-production, which is trying to line up everything for maximum success - so your staff, your cast, your location, the yacht itself, all the infrastructure that you need to produce a TV show. All of that has to be put together so that you're set up for success, and then you have six weeks of the production phase. In the case of Below Deck, a lot of shows shoot for much longer than that, but Below Deck shoots over the course of six weeks on location. And all we're really doing in that phase is trying to capture everything that happens. And it's not so simple. It's capturing everything that happens and every thought everybody's having and at least every important conversation. You can't literally capture everything so you're making constant decisions of, ‘There's a beach picnic. Do we send two cameras to the beach picnic? Is there likely to be a story at the beach picnic, or do we need to hold a camera back here on the boat because the captain is going to talk about something?’ It's constant resource management and being a field general. Every single microphone on the boat is being recorded at all times. We call it multi-tracking, but if you go off the boat, you're not doing that; you'd have to send an audio person with the camera to record the audio of what the camera is shooting. We spend a lot of time managing how we're going to capture what's happening. It’s a very intense six weeks. Some of the crew and guests get up at 5 am. Then they start working, and then the chef has to get up and start making breakfast, and then lunch, and then dinner, and then they're serving drinks to the guests all day, and then there's a beach picnic. It doesn't end. It doesn't end until three in the morning when the last guest goes to sleep. And on a night when the cast has off, it can be even worse. They start just as early and then they'll go until 6 am. And so all of that time, you're shooting live, you're rotating camera people - you're really responsible for the whole thing, trying to maintain the show 24 hours a day for six weeks.
Sadie: So many moving pieces.
Mark: Then we go into the post phase and that's where we take the enormous amount of material that we shot and assemble the episodes out of it. And to your original question, what's the relationship between what we shoot and how we structure episodes? When you're in the field, you have an idea of what the big stories are. You know what the love affairs are, you know who's having trouble in their job, you know the stories and you're trying to make sure that you have all the pieces to tell those stories. And you have all the scenes of all the crucial moments. And you're spending a lot of time trying to anticipate what's about to happen so that you're ready for it. If you see a crisis coming or somebody's going to quit, well, you need to be ahead of that. Meaning, you have to be on that person and show why they're feeling frustrated and also be ready for when that person goes to the captain to quit. You're going to have to almost predict what's about to happen - obviously we’ve had mixed success on that front.
But then we get back to the post and often what seemed like a really important, crucial thing ends up being like the seventh most interesting thing. Sometimes we find entire things that we didn't really know were going on. For example, in post we’re able to piece together all of the audio that was recorded 24/7 on the boat. You have to capture everything. And you have to do your best to try to figure out what is going on and what the important things are that are going on. But then in post, it really is where each charter becomes a TV episode. That’s why post is six months, and the shoot is six weeks. [laughs]
Sadie: Wow. Six months just for one episode?
Mark: No, that’s for the whole series. But, one episode will go through a two-month cycle, for sure.
Sadie: That’s a lot to scrub through in terms of content. When coming up with an idea for a reality TV show or if someone's pitching a show to you, how do you know it's a show that's going to have legs and could be a successful reality TV show?
Mark: Well, you don't always know. Not all shows get sold on the pitch or sold after a pilot or continue after the first season. It's not 100%. I'm proud of my success rate, which has been pretty good at creating franchises that have survived for multiple seasons and had spin-offs. Below Deck is an example of one of those and I knew Below Deck had that potential. I understood that at its essence, like many successful reality TV shows like The Surreal Life, Flavor of Love, or Rock of Love, it's a story about people trying to cohabitate. If you can add the layer that they’ve got something else on the agenda, like a love interest in the case of The Bachelor or Flavor of Love, or they're really working together to achieve something. Sometimes that could be a contest, like Survivor. But in the case of Below Deck, they really are cohabitating. They're squished together more than they are in a house show and they are all striving together for the same goal, which is to please the guests and get their tip. And that just seemed to me like a perfect world - this trapped, tin can of people, having an intense experience together in an exotic location that's outside the walls of their boat, but inside in their little bunks it's just miserable and they're annoyed with each other. I knew it was a great setting for a reality TV show and we should pursue it.
Sadie: And now you have a number of spin-offs from that show. Do you travel with all of those other shows as well? Or do you stick to one main show?
Mark: Well, I used to be the hands-on showrunner for Below Deck, the one we do with Captain Lee and then the first two seasons of Below Deck Mediterranean with first, Mark Howard, who sadly died recently, and then Captain Sandy, and then Below Deck Sailing Yacht, I ran that first season of that personally. But since then, the next generation has taken over. Courtland Cox and Nadine Rajabi now run their respective groups of franchises for the show, so I don't have to go out to the field and stay up till three in the morning anymore with the drunk cast. I can let the kids do that now. [laughs]
Sadie: [laughs] I'm curious when you have a show idea like Below Deck, what is that process like in pitching it to the potential subjects? How do you get them excited and essentially on board with this idea of being filmed and recorded 24/7?
Mark: Initially it was really hard. It was similar to the celebrity reality thing, which was that the yachting community is very private and was very proud of their discretion. There's a lot of celebrities that charter yachts and it was a kind of an unwritten rule in yachting that you do not seek publicity and you do not talk about the guests in public. We were met with a lot of suspicion.
The show was actually kind of good for yachting. It could increase the visibility of charter yachting and increase the demand for yacht charters. I will say though, that they're not the most pop-culture savvy bunch, the yachties. They tend not to have TVs and they don't really even consume a lot of pop culture. So, they're really not that wired in. And so that actually still makes them kind of pure - they don't really know the language of reality television really. And so again, they're kind of a more authentic bunch in general.
Sadie: Hypothetical question for you, where do you see the future of reality TV in the next five years?
Mark: I always hope that there's pressure for authenticity. I think that the audience gets savvier as to what's being pulled over their eyes. They're much savvier about how things are edited or who might have been coached or anything like that, and they can smell it out. And I'm such a fan of the authentic moments and the authentic stories that I'm hoping that the future of reality television is in that direction. It's hard because as the world is aware of reality television, it's hard to find authentic behavior and people. It's like an engineer. Again, it's the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. You can’t observe something without changing it. You turn a camera on somebody and who knows who they are under the mask they put on for it? I hope that we'll continue to figure it out and the future of reality television is more and more authentic, because I think that's what the audience is demanding.
Sadie: I feel like documentaries tend to lean towards more authenticity. Do you ever see yourself going into documentary filmmaking?
Mark: Honestly, I think the difference between documentary film and what I do is razor-thin. You know, documentaries use music to establish an emotion and they selectively pull interview bites that support the thesis that they're bringing forward and they leave out information that doesn't really get in line with the story they're telling. You're covering a subject and you're trying to tell a story in an hour and a half. Let's say it's a big subject and it’s probably the subject of somebody's life or the subject of a big incident or the subject of a crime. In 90 minutes of video and audio you can't be complete. You have to choose what you're saying and how you're saying it. And if you want the audience to be entertained for 90 minutes and stay until the end of your documentary, you better take them on a journey. They better feel something for the subject or be surprised by something and so it's a very standard storytelling technique. Documentaries are in a three-act structure, usually. The best ones have a great little twist, like Searching for Sugar Man. It's the same thing in my opinion. And these days, the 90-minute film is no longer the medium of choice. It's the episodic documentary that everybody's interested in now. It started with The Jinx, which I think was probably the first great episodic, crime-based documentary. Now there are many of them. And then there are even the silly ones, like Tiger King, it’s an amazingly absurd quote-unquote, crime documentary. So, it seems like everybody's moving toward each other.