10 Years of UPN: Ostroff Likes the Look of UPN

Jan 31, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Since Dawn Ostroff joined UPN as president of entertainment from Lifetime Television in February 2002 she has worked closely with Viacom co-President Leslie Moonves and others to refocus and rebrand the network first launched a decade ago. Those efforts have begun to pay off with higher ratings, increased revenue and a recognition that UPN now has direction and leadership.

With successful series such as “America’s Next Top Model,” “Kevin Hill” and “Veronica Mars,” UPN has been able to attract its target audience of young women and steadily increase viewership.

Under Ms. Ostroff, UPN also has begun to attract top name-brand talent both in front of and behind the camera. That is paying off with improved script and show development. Ms. Ostroff recently took time from her intense schedule to share some thoughts about UPN now and in the future. She spoke with TelevisionWeek Editor Alex Ben Block by phone from her office in Los Angeles. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

TelevisionWeek: One of the challenges you’ve talked about is finding a unique brand for UPN. Can you give an overview of how that process is going and where you want to take it?

Dawn Ostroff: Yeah, I think when Leslie came and took over the network and brought me in …

TVWeek: That was how long ago?

Ms. Ostroff: That was three years ago. We looked at the network and looked at the audience that was here and we said, ‘OK, how do we take what’s here already and build off of that?’ And we realized that this network had several things going for it. It did have a young audience and it also had a great Monday night that we could build off of. And so, in looking at that, we started to really study the younger demo, the 18- to 34-year-old demographic. And we learned several things. We learned, first of all, that a third of this country’s 18- to 34-year-olds are minorities, and we felt that creating a network that represented the demo the way it really is in our country today was what was very appealing to us. In addition, it felt as if there was a lot of opportunity for us to do programming for younger women and, when we looked at a show like ‘Top Model,’ which came on our air a year and a half ago, it not only was able to take the viewers that we had at the network but also attract a whole set of new viewers to the network. And that’s when we realized that our intuition about the direction we should be going in was right, and that really hit a chord.

TVWeek: You’ve talked in the past about bringing celebrities to the network and letting them do stuff that’s a passion of theirs. In terms of your development, is this a continuing pattern that we can look for in the coming year too?

Ms. Ostroff: Yeah, I mean we’ve developed with a lot of different people-we have project with Jennifer Lopez in development that we’re looking at. Will Smith and Jada [Pinkett Smith] have another project with us this year that we’re looking at, and our experience with Will and Jada has been wonderful. As their careers are only blossoming even more, we’ve got a show on the air that is loosely based on their real life, so it’s been fantastic for us. So we are still looking at those kinds of projects, but, again, it has to be the kind of projects that are right for the network.

TVWeek: Let me ask you about a couple of things that have been franchises and now don’t seem to be as strong-and that’s ‘Star Trek’ and ‘WWE SmackDown!’ What’s the status of each of those?

Ms. Ostroff: Well, wrestling is a show that still helps us be competitive. It still is coming in third or fourth place in our 18- to 34-year-old demo. It’s a tough night on Thursday night, and we still feel that it helps us be competitive on that night.

TVWeek: So even though the numbers are down a little, you still feel it’s a strong situation for you?

Ms. Ostroff: Yeah, because, you know, the numbers have been down, but really they’re still good for this network, and we still feel that [World Wrestling Entertainment owner Vince McMahon and his family], who have continually reinvented and re-created different types of story lines within the series, have done a terrific job. And in terms of ‘Enterprise,’ you know, it’s early. It’s been the kind of show that we’ve looked at every year, and it’s still too early to tell, but we’ve been happy with it so far.

TVWeek: You did a lot fine-tuning on ‘Enterprise.’ You did some character changes, you brought in some new, higher-profile people. Has that made a difference?

Ms. Ostroff: We did. Creatively, we’ve gotten some very good feedback because we have changed some of the direction of the show creatively, and we’ve gotten great feedback. The show moved from Wednesday to Friday this year, so it’s hard to make year-to-year comparisons, but the show definitely has changed direction, and I think for the better.

TVWeek: You have some successful nights attracting these young women you’re after and then suddenly there’s what essentially is male-oriented programming. It must make it hard to build that big image you’re trying to create.

Ms. Ostroff: But we know it’s piece by piece, block by block and, you know, we’ve made so much headway already compared to when we started where, really, the network had a different identity every night of the week.

TVWeek: Looking at the competitive situation, the knee-jerk instinct is to say, ‘Well, let’s compare them with The WB.’ But when you talk about that 18- to 34-year-old female audience, you’re really talking about competing with a ton of cable networks and a lot of other options for them, aren’t you?

Ms. Ostroff: There are a lot of options for everybody out there, but when you look at the broadcast networks, we’re programming original series five nights a week, two hours every single night. And when you look at the cable schedule, most of them are running repeats of shows that already played on the network. So, you know, although the competition is stiff, you look at the cable numbers and you look at what they’re programming, it’s still sort of apples to oranges.

TVWeek: There is more original programming on cable now than I’ve ever seen before.

Ms. Ostroff: There definitely is. But I mean, look at a network like Lifetime or look at TLC. Lifetime is still mostly movies, and TLC, although they’ll do some original programming, is, you know, a different vein of reality programming. And you look at those ratings-I mean Lifetime ratings are pretty significant, but you look at TLC ratings-it’s not a huge portion of the audience.

TVWeek: Ever miss being at Lifetime? There’s a big job open over there.

Ms. Ostroff: (Laughs) Well, my friends at Lifetime, they have a great network and I am the biggest fan of Lifetime, but I’m very happy. I’m very happy working with Leslie Moonves. I love being a part of Viacom, and I’m so excited about UPN and all of the possibilities and all of the growth that we’ve already achieved here.

TVWeek: What are your goals for the future now? Is there a one-year plan? A five-year plan? A 10-year plan?

Ms. Ostroff: I mean, ultimately, we’ve been very straightforward that our goal is becoming an even bigger player with the 18- to 34-year-old audience, I think, you know, we’re going to look at building every night, night by night, making sure that our ratings grow. We want to see growth every year. And it’s interesting, because Leslie has talked about this many times-at CBS, they tackled each night one at a time, and then they turned around. And they had this schedule that was very deep in quality shows and nights that flowed together. They’ve been able to achieve something pretty amazing by making their audience even younger. We want to be able to look back and see the kind of growth that CBS has had.

TVWeek: Since you’re in the middle of choosing which scripts to go to pilot with, you’ve got to be thinking a lot about what next season looks like. Can you give me
any more detail about what is exciting you at this point?

Ms. Ostroff: Well, you know, we picked up a couple of dramas already, both of which I’m very excited about. I think that, for us, it’s again finding unique concepts or unique writing styles, and the show ‘Wildlife’ that we picked up has a very unique writing style attached to it. The characters are very fresh and unique and it’s the kind of thing that you read and it’s a page-turner. And the show we picked up called ‘Triangle’ has a very, very unique twist and an overriding mystery, which just feels very fresh to us. And then, you know, obviously, we’re going to be making some more pickups in the next of couple days.

TVWeek: UPN has a unique opportunity in some ways. While you’re still a broadcaster, you can also be a narrowcaster for some of these audiences, as you’ve done with the African American audience. What’s your philosophy on that and how does it work in with the big picture at the network?

Ms. Ostroff: What we really do is look for what everybody has in common, not what everybody has that’s different. And we really try and develop shows around that. You look at a show like ‘Girlfriends’-it’s cast with four African American girls, but the issues that those women deal with week in and week out are relatable to any woman in this country, and that’s really how we approach it.

TVWeek: There’s obviously been a lot of changes at Viacom in the past year or two, clearly big changes in terms of the relationship with Paramount and other things. How has all that affected you?

Ms. Ostroff: Well, it hasn’t had a huge effect on us on one hand and on the other hand it’s been quite significant. Leslie’s still in charge of the network. I still report to Leslie and we still have our unit intact, pretty much the way it’s always been. What’s been very significant is that now Paramount is under Leslie’s domain and we have a wonderful relationship with the studio. We are able to sort of have a shorthand between the two and, that being said, we will always produce with outside studios. You know, this year we have ‘Kevin Hill’ with Touchstone, we have ‘Veronica Mars’ with Warner Bros., but it still is great to have a studio that is really working closer to us than we’ve been able to have before.

TVWeek: This is sort of sensitive, but in doing my research to talk to you, I saw a ton of articles that talk about UPN losing money, and how much money it may have lost historically, and whether it’s still losing money, and whether it has a firm future in terms of stemming those losses or is Sumner Redstone going to wake up one morning and snuff it out.

Ms. Ostroff: Well, we view it quite differently. I mean, we have made incredible progress here since Leslie’s taken over the network. This network is healthier financially now than it’s ever been before. This past upfront we had, as was published, $100 million more in sales than we did the prior year. I think that on a percentagewise basis, that’s more gains than any other network took in a one-year period. And we all feel that the network is focused, and it has great direction. The advertisers have been unbelievably supportive, not only in terms of the kind of money they’ve spent with us this past fall, but even the fact that we’re now part of the Family Friendly Project with Magnum Global. Everybody is viewing this network in a much different light, and I think part of that is the fact that we’re focused, we know the brand, we’ve clearly stated who we are, the programming is backing up the brand and is quality and is getting such critical acclaim, and the fact that we’ve been doing quite well with ratings. I mean, we’ve had double-digit growth so far this year in women 18 to 34. We’ve seen triple-digit growth on Wednesday night, which was a huge challenge and a huge goal for us this year. And I think that the flow from Monday to Tuesday to Wednesday is just showing how this network is starting to grow and change. So I really haven’t heard those comments, I’d say, in almost a year now.

TVWeek: Is black ink in sight?

Ms. Ostroff: I’m not allowed to comment on our financial bottom line.

TVWeek: On the ad side, does CBS sell the ads for you?

Ms. Ostroff: We are part of the CBS ad sales team. We have our own unit within the CBS ad sales team, so Jo Ann Ross is the head of UPN sales. Michael Mandelker works for her specifically on UPN, and he has his own team.

TVWeek: ‘Top Model’ is a successful reality show, but I don’t associate UPN with a lot of the sort of hardcore reality stuff.

Ms. Ostroff: Well, we have had several hits. We’ve had ‘America’s Next Top Model.’ We’ve had ‘Amish in the City,’ which, you know, was a very controversial show for us to do. At first everyone was sort of gunning for us, and then they saw the show, and I think it was pretty much universally applauded in terms of the quality and the way in which we handled the subject matter. And that was successful for us. We have Missy Elliot on the air right now, ‘The Road to Stardom,’ and that’s doing well for us. We’re seeing growth week to week, and we’re happy with those numbers. We have a show that we announced that will be on sometime in the summer called ‘R U the Girl?’ which is with T-Boz and Chilli, who are two of the girls from the band TLC.

TVWeek: They did lose one member, as I remember.

Ms. Ostroff: Right. So the show is the two girls who remain looking for a new partner and looking for somebody new to sort of go into the next phase of their career.

TVWeek: The question that people always ask is ‘Is reality here to stay?’

Ms. Ostroff: I think reality is here to stay. I think that you will see different tones in reality. I think reality started off maybe a little more mean-spirited. I think that there are shows right now that are feel-good shows that are doing better, and I think reality will find its own cycle the same way drama and comedy have.


Title: President of entertainment, UPN

How long in current position: Three years

Year of birth: 1960

Place of birth: Brooklyn, N.Y.

Who knew? Ms. Ostroff begins her day at 4 a.m. so she can work at home before getting her children ready for school and going to the office.