How Veteran TV Exec Dawn Ostroff Is Taking Condé Nast Beyond Print

A dozen films at studios, more than 30 in development

Photo: Sasha Maslov

The century-old magazine giant Condé Nast made an eyebrow-raising announcement in October 2011. Faced with declining print revenue, the company said it was getting into the entertainment business. Even more surprising was the news that longtime network TV executive Dawn Ostroff would lead the newly formed Condé Nast Entertainment unit.

The publisher and others like it had waded into the murky waters of entertainment content before. Print brands like Condé’s Teen Vogue and Hearst’s Marie Claire had become fixtures on TV series like Lifetime’s Project Runway and MTV’s The Hills, while movies from Saturday Night Fever to Brokeback Mountain had famously been inspired by magazine articles. The marriage of publishing and Hollywood was sealed in 2000 with the gloriously splashy—and ultimately doomed—union of Tina Brown and Harvey Weinstein, who, with Hearst, launched the glossy magazine Talk and dreamt of spinning moving pictures from wonderful print content.

CNE was also formed with the ambitious mission of becoming a creative force behind feature films, TV programs and digital video content. Only Condé’s venture, unlike others, has managed to get a whole constellation of projects up and running. And that accomplishment is due, by all accounts, to Ostroff.

“My reaction [when she first joined CNE] was that it was a bold move for both parties,” says Brad Adgate, svp, director of research at Horizon Media. “It gives Condé Nast a boost because Dawn has the connections, which I am sure Condé Nast really needed to make this initiative go forward. And she’s got an eye for talent and what’s going to work in that target audience.” Aside from that, “she’s a likeable person. She has a very strong track record. She is well-respected.”

To date, Condé Nast has a dozen projects set up at the movie studios and more than 30 in development. Among the confirmed projects are a film based on Josh Davis’ Wired story, John McAfee’s Last Stand, with Warner Bros.; The Old Man and the Gun, based on a New Yorker article by David Grann, which currently has Robert Redford attached as a producer and star; and The Longest Night, from Sean Flynn’s 2008 GQ piece, which was sold to Paramount and will be directed by Back to the Future and The Sixth Sense producer Frank Marshall.

On the TV side, three series—Ovation’s The Fashion Fund, Investigation Discovery’s Vanity Fair Confidential and Syfy’s Geeks Who Drink—are already on air or will be shortly, while another 20 or so series are in development, including an HBO pilot based on a Vanity Fair story about a boarding school drug ring and CBS Studios’ The Real Deal, based on a Glamour article about female CIA agents, with Eva Longoria attached to produce and possibly star.

Last month, CNE pulled off its biggest TV coup to date, striking a first-look deal with 20th Century Fox Television. According to Ostroff, the deal—which was the end result of a bidding war among four companies—is indicative of the value of good source material. “It’s a huge advantage,” she says. “Especially in the TV world, you have such a limited amount of time to come up with an idea, write the script, shoot the pilot, and then you have to hope that that one pilot will be able to carry a five- or seven-year series. It’s why we did Gossip Girl and Vampire Diaries from books [at the CW].”

It is that deep experience in television and Ostroff’s keen eye for talent that has allowed CNE to produce so much in such a relatively short time. Her career started with a stint as a reporter and producer at Miami’s CBS affiliate and eventually led to 20th Century Fox Television, where she worked as an assistant under future CBS chief Les Moonves. “Dawn, even back then, was unbelievably impressive,” Moonves recalls. “She has a great sense of media and content and what people want to see. She has great taste. She’s a really hard worker and she likes to win, which is important.”

From 1996 to 2002, Ostroff served as evp, entertainment at Lifetime Television, before being tapped by Moonves to head CBS subsidiary UPN. In 2006, when UPN merged with the WB to create the CW network, she was named president, a “clear choice,” Moonves says.

Ostroff positioned the CW as a network for young women, rolling out series like Gossip Girl, 90210 and The Vampire Diaries. While the CW created plenty of buzz (who could imagine the late aughts without the influence of Gossip Girl?), it struggled in the ratings—not because people weren’t watching, but because, in the days before DVR and online video measurement, the largely millennial audience wasn’t watching the shows live, or even on TV.

There’s a story Ostroff likes to tell that illustrates the moment she truly grasped this shift. Around 2010, the CW held focus groups to guide the decision around which nights Gossip Girl and The Vampire Diaries should be programmed. “The first focus group had 12 women. We went around the room, and woman after woman after woman literally said, ‘It doesn’t matter when you put it on because I don’t watch it live—I TiVo it, I DVR it, I watch it online.’ Only one woman in the three focus groups had an opinion about where we programmed the show because she had just had a baby and was home all day with the TV on,” recalls Ostroff. “I walked out of that room and I turned to my head of research, Eric Cardinal, and I said to him, ‘This is the moment you will remember for the rest of your career.’”

Ostroff also made it her mission to support certain programs, even when the ratings didn’t live up to the hype. “Early on, when [Gossip Girl] first premiered, we didn’t come out of the gate ratings-wise like everybody had hoped,” says the show’s creator, Josh Schwartz. “Dawn never lost confidence in the show or dismissed it out of hand just because it didn’t have the traditional Nielsen ratings. She really understood that people were starting to watch television differently.”

Fast-forward to 2011. For 18 months, Ostroff’s husband, Mark Ostroff, then an executive at Lazard Wealth Management, had been commuting every week between his job in New York and the Ostroffs’ home in Los Angeles. Eventually, the family decided to relocate permanently to the East Coast, which meant Ostroff would have to step down from the CW. She had been in talks with several cable networks, but was wary of joining one that didn’t show real promise in the digital video space, which had become a major focus of hers after watching the CW’s viewers migrate to online viewing. At the same time, Condé Nast president Bob Sauerberg was planning a group to oversee digital video, movies and TV deals based on the company’s wealth of editorial content. “Distributors like Netflix and Amazon were growing, but there wasn’t a lot of high-quality content,” he says. “I looked at the marketplace and said, ‘Boy, this is a real opportunity.’” 

Ostroff, who was first introduced to Sauerberg through Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour, seemed like an ideal choice to run this new business. “We immediately hit it off,” remembers Sauerberg. Ostroff, for her part, was attracted to the opportunity to build CNE from the ground up and exploit Condé content across untapped platforms. “I knew that we could play a leadership role within the industry,” she says. “I wanted to be on it as early as I could.”

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