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WWD Media Summit: Passion Drives CW Network

The CW’s Dawn Ostroff on how the network built its niche.

Dawn Ostroff

The CW network believes the underserved are an ideal market.

Dawn Ostroff, the network’s president of entertainment, said by homing in on a market that the others don’t cater to and providing its audience with programming that speaks to their interests, The CW has grown into a viable competitor among the five broadcast networks with the likes of “Gossip Girl,” “America’s Next Top Model” and the return of “90210.”

“We have no interest in being another broadcast network. We’d rather do our own thing and grab a piece of the market we can call our own,” said Ostroff in her presentation. “Think about it — why would you want to be United or Delta, when you can be JetBlue or Virgin Airlines?”

The CW was created out of a joint venture between Warner Bros. Entertainment and CBS Corp. and debuted in September 2006. Ostroff has served as president of entertainment since January 2006, and prior to that worked at the now-defunct UPN as president of entertainment and later as president. Ostroff also headed up programming and production scheduling and acquisitions for Lifetime Television.

The key to CW’s success has been to find an opportunity in the marketplace, learning as much about what drives its audience as possible, and “staying on brand in everything we do,” from the types of shows the network creates to how it markets its programs to viewers.

Ostroff said The CW focused on 18- to 34-year-old women, a somewhat ignored television audience. “Of the nearly 100 major broadcast and cable television networks, only 15 targeted viewers under 35. Of those, only five focused primarily on women,” she said. That audience, Ostroff argued, is a marketer’s dream. Aside from being younger and more educated than female generations prior, “these are consumers who are leaving home and experiencing many of life’s firsts. Their first job, first apartment, first car, they’re getting married and they’re starting a family. They’re at an age where their career, lifestyle and the purchasing choices that they make now quickly can become the habits of a lifetime.”

These women are also trendsetters, making them valuable fans for the networks and its advertisers. “They’re the ones at the movie theaters on opening weekend, they’re buying magazines the minute they hit the stands and are the first to go out and try new gadgets and products,” Ostroff said.

For this coveted group of viewers, The CW has created not just TV programs, but “entire worlds” based on the interests of its viewers, with active Web sites and social networks. And when a group of trendsetting, upwardly mobile young people become obsessed with a television program, “that bond is somewhat magical.” Ostroff said. “They look for ways to feel like they’re a part of the world. They want to be just like their favorite characters, they want to listen to the music they’re listening to, wear the clothes that they wear, use the products that they use.”

Knowing that level of passion can drive consumption choices, The CW has paid almost as much attention to its programs’ fashion aesthetic as it has on plot development and casting. “When we create television shows for The CW, clothes aren’t just garments. The fashions become their own character,” said Ostroff. “It becomes a form of expression that can create definition and dimension and emotional connection.”

“Gossip Girl,” The CW drama centered around the lives of privileged high schoolers on New York’s Upper East Side, is one of the more high-impact examples of how fashion has become as much a part of the Monday night drama’s story line as the romantic interludes of the show’s young characters Blair Waldorf, Chuck Bass and Serena van der Woodsen. From the show’s sartorial point of view, curated by stylist Eric Daman, designers have created looks based on the show, and retailers often sell out of pieces that have been featured on the program, said Ostroff.

Advertisers have tapped into the passionate dedication of The CW viewer, using various integrations into the network and its programs to reach viewers. Recently, 20th Century Fox’s period drama “Australia” promoted the movie through spots featuring a select group of CW viewers and the movie’s stylist, Catherine Martin, talking about how the emotional transition of the lead character, played by Nicole Kidman, translated through her wardrobe.

Music labels have also tapped The CW’s young female audience. Britney Spears recently used “Gossip Girl” to launch her new single, “Womanizer,” which became a theme song for the show’s lothario, Chuck Bass. Not only did CW get the singer’s new release in front of her core fan base, it got “a call from Christina Aguilera’s camp, which wanted their own ‘Gossip Girl’ music video for her new song ‘Keeps Gettin’ Better,’” Ostroff revealed.

And aside from advertisers talking with the audience, CW viewers communicate with each other, through Web sites and social networks dedicated to programs including “One Tree Hill,” “Supernatural” and “Smallville.” These Web sites haven’t only given consumers an outlet to discuss and interact with other viewers — the phrase “OMFG” is a euphemism some fans of “Gossip Girl” often squeal (or text) in reaction to the more shocking scenes in the show — they have also helped the network obtain feedback from a passionate audience. That multiplatform approach to development is what Ostroff believes gives CW an advantage over larger, more established networks. “The benefit of being a two-year-old network is that we were born in the digital age. It’s been a natural part of The CW identity from day one.”

Ostroff said television, just as print, is facing similar challenges from the fragmentation of media, however. “From the Internet to mobile devices, consumers have DADS: digital attention deficit syndrome. They have instant access to anything that interests them at any time they want. If you can’t meet their needs, they’re moving on and quickly to someone else that will.”