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Dawn Ostroff is the president of Condé Nast Entertainment, which focuses on the development, production and distribution of original television, feature film and digital video offerings based on Condé Nast’s media titles. Ostroff, who joined the company in 2011, was president of the CW network and, prior to that, served as president of UPN Network.
WWD: You recently launched the Scene, a hub to compile CNE-produced videos and content from partners like Buzzfeed and ABC News. Can you talk about that decision?
This story first appeared in the August 22, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Dawn Ostroff: We see a landscape that is developing right before our eyes. It was clear to us as we became producers and distributors of premium content — 11 channels were launched — we had over 70 series from our first year. Although we were distributed on 20 platforms and were getting a lot of views, there was nowhere our content sat side by side. We realized that we had a need for a hub, a platform if you will. We looked at the landscape. We saw there was a white space. Once we decided we were going to build the Scene and launch it, we started to talk to other companies who were experiencing the same lack of distribution that we had, meaning they wanted an environment that was representative of the kind of content they were making; they wanted to be found and to sit side by side with like-minded content.
WWD: Are the channels for each Condé Nast publication all linked through YouTube?
D.O.: All of the content from our brands are distributed on over 25 platforms, including YouTube, AOL, Yahoo and Roku. You can get the content anywhere, including our site. The beauty of the Scene is that we can really curate content for the viewer.
WWD: Talk about the decision to make the Scene free versus charging a subscription fee?
D.O.: It’s ad supported. For us right now, it makes sense to have an advertising-based business. The advertising marketplace is moving rapidly into digital videos. We know that by 2018 it is estimated that it will be a $12.2 billion business. We’ve been seeing the agencies combine their digital video spend with television spend and put it under one spend and just calling it “video.” The pool of money is becoming much bigger. The comparisons between television and digital video are being made much more often because you can account for who’s watching, you can’t fast-forward through the commercials. There’s a much more intimate relationship with someone watching digital video. All of that information led us to believe that there’s great opportunity.
WWD: With that crossover viewer who watches both TV and digital videos, do you feel that you need to make television-quality videos for these magazine brands?
D.O.: No. The content is short-form. It’s about how engaging is the content — how engaged is the consumer. That’s all we really look at. You just want it to be really good storytelling.
WWD: Hearst Magazines president David Carey said that the quality of video for these magazines should be more viral or raw. This contrasts much of CNE’s produced content. Who’s right?
D.O.: I think there’s room for both. I think there’s room for everything. We’ve been focusing on really premium content, but we do content that has many different looks and feels. I don’t think it’s about the quality of it — it’s about how you speak to the consumer, to the viewer. It’s a very different medium than television. People expect to have a very “lean-in” experience [for digital].
WWD: So you’re saying it’s more about the experience?
D.O.: It’s more about the way you relate to the viewer. It doesn’t mean that all the video has to be that way. Quality is what we strive for first and foremost — it’s in the Condé Nast DNA. But, I don’t think it has to do as much with [production] quality.
WWD: You’ve cited some of CNE’s hits, such as GQ’s “Casualties of the Gridiron,” but what have been some of CNE’s misses? What hasn’t worked?
D.O.: We’ve tried to do some translations of what’s in the magazine to the video. It’s worked a few times and it hasn’t worked sometimes, so I think we have to be careful about that. I feel a particular sense of responsibility when you’re taking something from the magazine directly and putting it in video. You can’t be too flat. You need to have personality. You can’t just scream out to the viewer. You need to have a fresh take on something or have a new look or have an interesting style, or be so raw that it resonates and is authentic. I think authentic is a good word. It’s overused, I know, but I think it comes across in the video medium. If you can make a video authentic, it comes across.
WWD: What do you think about Vice’s videos?
D.O.: I think the Vice guys are brilliant. I am a huge fan. They’ve done a remarkable job. They speak to a certain audience. They are able to grow their brand while being able to stay true to their brand. I think what they have been able to do is so unique. They had to start as their own media company because they are so irreverent. They didn’t have anything to lose, or have anybody to answer to. They totally went with what their vision and their gut was and there was nobody holding them back. It’s as authentic as can be in terms of what their vision as — I don’t know if every piece of video is. They had the right voice, the right medium — they extended their brand in the right way.
WWD: Are you a fan of Buzzfeed’s videos?
D.O.: Buzzfeed, they have their niche, which is excellent. They are able to tap into pop culture in a way — they are just spot-on. They are doing so well. I think they are evolving. They are looking at what they do and seeing if they can make it better. I’ve never had a specific conversation about it. It’s authentic. I think a lot of people are doing content well today. A lot of companies are coming into the space. It is growing faster than anything other than mobile. You can see why. You look at young people and you can see how many are consuming content on their phones.
WWD: The other side of what CNE does is develop stories from Condé Nast’s publications for film production. Please describe that process.
D.O.: It includes everything from looking through the archives, looking at current editions, talking to people about different ideas that have been pitched here or things that can be on the Web site. We have relationships with the writers.
WWD: Is there a distinction between the ownership of stories written by staff writers versus freelancers?
D.O.: We have the ability to either option things or we own them, depending upon who is writing them. There are different categories. If it’s a freelance writer, we can option it. The most important thing is that we have a team of people who have worked in TV and film that understand what is an interesting project for that medium. What’s interesting for film is different than what’s interesting in TV. What’s interesting in scripted TV is different than what’s interesting in reality TV. Each of their departments have their development process where they package things and put together the writers and put together the producers and the different elements and develop the projects. By the time you get to a network or to a studio, you’re able to say this is the project, here’s who the producer is, sometimes even here’s who the star is, here’s who the writer is. It’s a well-developed project by the time it gets to the studios.
WWD: As you develop more shows and projects for film, is there a time when that content becomes more important than the magazines themselves? Could Condé Nast turn into a production company?
D.O.: I don’t think you can find this kind of storytelling — such depth. They [the editors] are curators. They create trends. They find people who live interesting lives. They are able to bring it to us in a way that is really unique. You look at the David Remnicks, the Graydon Carters, the Anna Wintours — their breadth of experience and the amount of information that they provide us with, and us being the consumer, I don’t know if we could ever replace that in any way.
WWD: What do you watch these days?
D.O.: I’m a bit of a news junkie. I also watch a lot of dramas and comedies. I’m a big fan of “Modern Family.” I watch “Silicon Valley.” “House of Cards,” “Orange Is the New Black,” I love. It has been very strong this season. I love “Scandal”; I watch “Blacklist.” “The Good Wife” is an excellent show. Of course “Homeland,” “Game of Thrones.” Sort of the regular things. One of the new things I’m checking out is “Rush.” I think we’re going to see some very interesting long-form content come out of the digital space. What’s exciting is that there are so many platforms. There’s a lot of room for everybody.