Like many reality television producers, veteran Executive Producer and creator Mark Cronin is all about finding the right setting to insert larger-than-life personalities and draw in massive audiences. One of his most successful shows, the franchise Below Deck, and its Emmy-nominated spinoff Below Deck Mediterranean, does precisely that.
Below Deck Mediterranean follows a yachting crew, colloquially called “yachties,” as they work aboard a charter yacht to entertain guests that expect a boating experience nothing short of luxurious. Also aboard the yacht is the Below Deck camera crew, who work nearly 24/7 to observe it all, staying as out of the way as possible.
According to Cronin, no manipulation is needed to spice up the already high-stakes atmosphere of luxury charter yachting, and producers have to ask guests not to be too extra or go out of their way for camera time.
Cronin spoke to Awards Focus about his experience as Executive Producer on the Emmy-nominated series Below Deck Mediterranean (now streaming on Peacock), what it’s like to craft a narrative from hours of footage, and what the Emmy nomination means to him.
Awards Focus: It’s been called a herculean task, gaining the trust of subjects for reality shows or documentaries. When you started on this journey for Below Deck Mediterranean, how did you go about building the relationships and trust needed for the reality show?
Mark Cronin: Building trust was a major problem for us when we started Below Deck. The yacht world is a very insular world, and they are very proud of their secrecy. There are a lot of celebrities and powerful people who charter yachts or own yachts, and the people who work on those boats are proud of their discretion. I was told many times that I was never going to be able to get to do a TV show on these yachts, because people on the yachts don’t want to be filmed, and the people who work on the yachts don’t want to be filmed, because then they will become famous and then no one will hire them.
In the beginning, the yachties were very suspicious of the TV show. They thought that we were trying to make them look bad, or that we were trying to make the job harder than it already is, or that we were telling the charter guests to be awful. The chef would think that we were dulling his knives on purpose – there was a lot of paranoia. In all reality shows, especially with people that have never filmed before, the paranoia is almost justified because you’re being watched. But the idea that we were trying to make them look bad, or make it harder than it already was, of course wasn’t true, so it took a while to win them over. Nothing was happening except what usually happens on charter yachts. And fortunately, all the people who do the show have worked on charter yachts and know that a charter yacht is like this – the guests can be awful, or there can be boat romances that go bad, or people can get fired. All the things that happened on Below Deck really happen in the yachting world. So they came to realize that this was just business as usual for them.
We had a particular problem the very first season, first episode. We had guests come on board and one of the stewardesses found white powder in the bathroom. The yachties took that extremely seriously because if drugs are found on a yacht, the yacht can be impounded, and everybody on the yacht loses their job and they have their licenses revoked. It was a very serious matter for the yachties and they were quite terrified that we had planted that on them. They all nearly quit that first episode, and I had to sit them all down and say, “Listen, we didn’t do that. We explicitly make it clear to all the charter guests that drugs are not permitted. This isn’t our fault, we’re in this with you. We don’t want the yacht impounded either, what good is that to us?”
Every new season there always is a little period where the cast members, especially the ones who have not done the show before, are immediately suspicious of what’s going on here, and how real this is going to be. They very quickly realize that they’ve got a very hard job to do and they eventually just set about doing their work, forgetting about the film crew because there’s just so much to do. They realize that we’re not interfering, we’re just watching them work.
It’s tricky, though. There’s a principle in science called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which means that to observe something is to change it. You can’t look at something without affecting it. That is true of reality television. You can’t put a camera in somebody’s face and expect that they would do exactly what they would do if there was no camera in their face. It always has an effect, and we have to work against that. For example, charter guests: you could say, “they’re trying to get their big moment in the sun, so they want to be the big stars of the episode by either being awful, or crazy.” We always sit down with them before they get on the yacht and tell them, “please, don’t try and work for us. Please just have the vacation you paid for. Please expect the best because you’re paying for the best. Expect good service, and good food. Don’t make it harder on the yachties, their jobs are hard enough. Please just try to enjoy the next three days and have a great vacation.” It works to varying degrees.
AF: Given the highly competitive nature of television across the board, what does this nomination mean for you and your team?
Cronin: It’s amazing. We always felt the show was great. I don’t feel like the show is greater now than it was eight years ago when we were still making it. I think the show has been great all along. I just think the show is what they call a “sticky” show. Once people find it, they kind of stick with it. Over time our audience has grown, and we’ve become part of the fabric of pop culture. I think that has led to people recognizing how great it is and how it sets itself apart from a lot of other reality shows. It’s really nice to be recognized as one of the best shows in such an amazingly crowded field of very good shows.
AF: What do you find fans want to talk about the most when you meet them at events or in public?
Cronin: Most often, the question I get is “is so and so like that?” and “is it real?” They often ask, “how much of the show is real, and how much is scripted?” It’s a very typical question that I’m sure a lot of reality television producers get. I like to think that we get it a lot because it’s almost astounding, the stuff that happens on Below Deck. It almost defies credibility, like “really the boat crashed into the dock and destroyed it? Really?” Yeah. That’s what happens when these big boats hit docks.
The subjects they most like to talk about are the captains, Lee, Sandy, and Glenn, and then usually the chief stews get a lot of questions. People want to know about Hannah, they want to know about Kate, and Katie. It’s the big, powerful personalities that often get asked about the most.
AF: When you’re in the editing room and connecting these threads into narrative, what are the key elements you’re looking for and what did you find the most captivating or interesting about this season?
Cronin: The big thing about Below Deck is there’s a three-pronged story going on, which is strung together from six weeks of shooting nearly 24/7. There’s always a story involving the deckhands and how well that department is running, and there’s always a story regarding the stews and how that department is running. So that’s the work side of it.
We balance that and intercut it with the personal life of the yachties. That’s another great thing about the show, there’s only one place for things to happen. So friendships and animosity and romance—it all happens right there, and it all happens while they’re working. We intercut these interpersonal stories with their work stories, showing how they overlap and affect each other. When things get dull, we have a saying: “if you’re bored for a second on Below Deck, just wait. The boat will provide some drama.” It always happens. Something crazy will absolutely happen, and that’s a key element.
One of the most captivating things about this season is that the charter guests are unbelievable. They’re such big personalities, made all the more large by the experience. There’s something heightened about life on a yacht, like it’s almost too much luxury. You have a private chef, someone is making a swan fold on your toilet paper every morning, and no matter what you ask for, they have to say “yes.” It gets into your head. They try to drink in as much of it as possible, which leads to a very intense experience. That’s very fortunate for making a TV show.
AF: How important is experience when it comes to hires on the show? What are some challenges you’ve faced during the series’ tenure?
Cronin: Experience is the first filter. We won’t even look at a chief stew who hasn’t been a chief stew on a superyacht charter yacht. We won’t see anybody who is not qualified. As you go a little farther down the ranks, like junior deckhand, you might get somebody who hasn’t worked on a charter yacht, who has only worked on a fishing boat—but in general, most of the cast has to be experienced yachties, because we have minimum manning requirements on the vessels. The boat has to be safe, and everybody aboard has to be safe, and so we need crew members who are well-trained and certified.
One thing about Below Deck is that the population of people that we have to choose from is very small, compared to something like Housewives. If you’re making a show about housewives, there might be quite a few to choose from, but if you’re making a show about chief stews, there are very few qualified chief stews in the world. It’s not a big population.
One thing that helps us is that yachties tend to be good-looking. I don’t know why it is, but it’s an industry that tends to only hire good-looking people, they’re kind of biased that way. Most are also between 25-30 years old, which is a great age to be living on the sea, and single—we’re lucky in that the population is great for television, just as it is. Then our job is to find the ones that have the most charisma, who speak their minds freely, and who aren’t self-censoring themselves, or worried about how they’re going to look on TV. We need people who are themselves, and who can’t help being themselves.
Early on, one of the challenges we faced was that we got bamboozled a few times. People lied about their qualifications or their resumes. They made up vessels that they’ve never worked on. We’ve gotten better now; we check references quite stringently.
AF: Jumping back in time, if you could tell yourself one thing going into season one, what would it be?
Cronin: When we went into season one, we didn’t know what the show was going to be about in the end. We didn’t know if it was part cooking show, because we had this Michelin-Star chef, and we didn’t know if it was about the charter guests. We used to interview the charter guests before they got on the boat and when they got off the boat, and we used to spend so much time shooting food in slow motion.If I had been able to tell myself earlier, I’d say, “Don’t worry. The show is about the crew, period.” The show is about the crew. The charter guests are the challenge, and the crew has to navigate that challenge. It’s about our crew, our beloved stews, deckhands, and chef. Being certain about that would have saved me a lot of effort.