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Men'sWeek issue 10/11/2012

DAWN PATROL: The explosion of digital television channels has left Hollywood wondering if it’s witnessing the end of the traditional small screen or the dawn of a new, far more lucrative, entertainment age. Condé Nast Entertainment president Dawn Ostroff, a veteran of conventional TV, is firmly in the latter camp.

Ostroff recognized audiences abandoned appointment television while she was president of the CW network — she was there, and at its predecessor, UPN, for a decade until 2010. This seismic shift isn’t reason for panic, Ostroff said, but should be seen as an opportunity.

This story first appeared in the October 11, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“It means we’ll all be swimming in the same ocean, where we’re feature film whales or digital clip minnows — or something in between,” she said Tuesday at MIPCOM, the international television market and trade show, which concludes today.

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Her appearance comes during a highly-scrutinized moment for and within 4 Times Square. The company is amid end-of-year budget cutbacks and there is some speculation over the resources devoted to new divisions, like CNE. A year on the job, Ostroff has filled out her executive team but has not yet revealed any major partnerships with producers or options of Condé content. She was at the market ostensibly to sell producers and television executives on feature film and series ideas they might find in Condé’s magazines. She was offering a twist on the old slogan, “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.”

Though in her take, it’s more of a mouthful: “It’s Not Just Platform, It’s Storyline: Compelling Entertainment for the Digital Age.”

But Ostroff, sporting a bracing red suit, took the long road to her pitch with a prognosis for the ills affecting the medium. She reminded attendees that they’d seen a similar revolution in television before, at the advent of cable in the Eighties and Nineties. Eventually, cable networks thrived because they understood compelling storytelling. And that, Ostroff said, is where Condé Nast comes in.

“It’s always known how to hit that combination of a story well-conceived and well-executed,” she said.

It was an odd pitch for this particular crowd. The shows she pointed to as successful — “The Sopranos” and “Mad Men,” among others — did not start with a magazine publisher, but in the imagination of long-time television writers. Furthermore, those stories that had begun in the publisher’s magazines — she noted “Brokeback Mountain” and “Eat, Pray, Love” — found their way into the hands of Hollywood producers without any help from Condé. That was again the case in May when Kirkwood-Elliot optioned a feature in Vanity Fair.

The point was raised by the author and Vanity Fair contributor Buzz Bissinger, who in a memorable tableaux took the stage with Ostroff for a post-speech Q&A. “It’s hard to come up with original ideas,” Ostroff countered. “I worked with Les Moonves, and he used to say, ‘There’s only nine ideas in the world,’” she said. At Condé, producers not only have new ideas to pick from every month, but a vast back catalogue of magazine issues going back a hundred years.

“Being able to have that much content and that many ideas and characters at your fingertips is a great advantage to starting a division like this.”

Bissinger, in the surprising role of corporate cheerleader — “I’m particularly proud of Condé Nast,” he said at the outset — wondered why Condé was poised to succeed with this new division, when other publishers, including Condé itself, had tried similar efforts in the past and failed to gain traction.

“Everybody is starting to look at intellectual rights differently. There’s a huge commitment on the part of Condé. Everybody realizes this is going to be a core strategy for the company moving forward,” Ostroff said. “The financial support is there. The editors and publishers are excited.”

While Ostroff did not address questions over the rights contributing writers would hold while CNE is around, she did get a public endorsement by snagging Bissinger, a high-profile contributor and the author of several books, including “Friday Night Lights,” to share the stage with her.

At the end of the talk, Bissinger seemed to be on board: “This is a very small cog in the Condé Nast machine. It’s a pleasure and a joy to have you be the head.”

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