Changing channels Featured

8:00pm EDT September 20, 2006
 For four years, Dawn Ostroff worked to make UPN the network for 18-to-34-year-old television viewers, battling a larger, more entrenched competitor in The WB Television Network.

That battle ended in January, when the parent companies of both networks announced the competing entities would join forces and become The CW Television Network.

Ostroff found herself with nine months to turn the rivals into a single entity while bringing new solutions to both advertisers and viewers clamoring for something different in a crowded marketplace.

“We came into this new company with a certain amount of knowledge about what worked and what did not work at both The WB and UPN,” says Ostroff, president of entertainment for The CW Television Network. “We were really anxious to hear from our other constituencies — our advertisers and the viewers — what they were looking for in a new network.

“What the advertisers were saying, ironically, was the same thing that the viewers were saying. It was very, very clear to us: They are both looking for something new, something that doesn’t conform, something bold, something that is daring, something that takes the new media opportunities and makes them part of the new network from the foundation so we’re not retrofitting.”

Ostroff had to deliver those opportunities and at the same time bring the best of both networks into the new entity. That meant finding the right people, giving them a set of objectives and encouraging them to find new ways to solve old problems to meet the demands of advertisers and viewers.

“There were great advantages at being at UPN, being the underdog and trying to climb up,” Ostroff says. “There were great advantages at being at The WB and having achieved a certain brand and a certain place in the broadcast business. Both companies really achieved their success in their own way, although there were failures on some level, and they both had made a mark.”

The four Ps
The first challenge Ostroff faced was figuring out what to bring from each of the two networks. Although she won’t share exact figures, estimates put the UPN around $253 million in revenue and the UPN at $715 million. Both companies were targeting the same audience, so there were some redundancies that needed to be eliminated.

Ostroff and John Maata, The CW’s chief operating officer who held the same position at The WB, had to determine what was worth keeping and what needed to be changed.

“He and I sat down and strategically made a list of all the different departments that needed to be dealt with in terms of planning the organization,” says Ostroff. “Obviously, each company had run in a similar manner because we were both doing the same thing, but the way in which our companies were set up were quite different.

“We first spent some time organizing each of the departments, not necessarily the way The WB did it or the way UPN did it, but the way we felt would be most effective for this new entity moving forward, not only in terms of what we had learned in the past from these two separate networks operating for 11 years, but also in looking toward the future. (What) are the next 10 years going to be like for the broadcast network business, and what opportunity do we have for growth and change?”

It took several months to figure out the organization and make deals with employees who were asked to stay and put together severance packages for those who weren’t.

Ostroff was looking for employees who have three traits: passion, persistence and patience. Those were the kinds of people she thought she could build a winning organization around.

“First and foremost, you have to have passion about something,” Ostroff says. “I’ve always loved TV. I still wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning excited about getting to work. I love marketing and I love being able to reach young audiences, 18-to-34 -year-old audiences, and learning everything about them, what makes them tick and how they approach life. For me, that is a total passion. It’s never lapsed. When you have that fire in your belly, I really believe you can get anywhere.

“Everybody’s got to have that excitement. You’re only as strong as your weakest link. You’ve got to have everybody excited about what they’re doing, excited to be on the team, and it goes from the assistants to the heads of the company. Everybody’s got to be able to have that kind of enthusiasm for what they’re doing and want to win that badly.”

When that energy is applied consistently, the odds of success increase.

“You have to be persistent about whatever it is that you want to achieve, whether it is in your career or where you see your company,” Ostroff says. “You need to be absolutely persistent and never give up. No matter how many times you get kicked down, you brush yourself off and pick yourself up. You have to see something so clearly and want it so badly that nothing is going to stop you. That’s what it takes when you’re a leader. You absolutely cannot let anything derail you.”

The final P is patience, something that has not always been easy for Ostroff, particularly following the announcement of the merger.

“There is a certain amount of patience that you have to have in everything you do,” she says. “We’ve had to be patient on certain levels. We’re still not under the same roof yet. We’re waiting for our space to be built. There is an eagerness to get this network on the air. There is certain level of patience, but it’s amazing how much we’ve had to get done in just eight months.

“It doesn’t happen overnight. Nothing happens overnight. If it does, it’s a fluke. You have to be prepared to work really hard and really long, and it will come.”

Creating a culture
When The CW’s parent companies, CBS Broadcasting Inc. and Time Warner [the C is for CBS and the W is for Warner], announced the merger, Ostroff had less than a year to figure out how to turn rivals into teammates.

“The opportunity that we have at The CW is really to create a new culture and embrace it, which is 90 percent of (success),” she says.

Creating a new entity and the culture that goes with it means laying out goals so that everyone is moving in the same direction.

“You have to have a clear vision of where you want a company to go and where you want to see the company in three years, five years, seven years,” Ostroff says.

Her vision is simple: Ostroff wants the CW to be the No. 1 network with the 18-to-34-year-old demographic.

“We think about what our goals are and what we need to do to achieve the goals,” Ostroff says. “You’ve got have to have the best team. You have to have a clear vision and you’ve got to have a good organization. If you have at least that foundation, then you clearly can set everything in motion.”

To make sure the goals are clear, Ostroff holds town hall meetings each quarter with everyone in the company.

“There, you really get to communicate everything that is happening to the company and they can feel they are a part of everything,” she says. They can “get excited about all of the successes that we have and be very clear about what the immediate goals are, what the priorities are for the upcoming months.

“At the same time, it’s about making sure all the department heads, who (I) meet with on a weekly basis, communicate to their staffs what is important, what the goals are and what the successes are. It’s all about having great leadership in the company. As long as you have great leaders working with you, there’s a pretty good chance it will trickle down.”

Ostroff also uses those meetings to breed a sense of community.

“We also encourage everybody to feel like a family,” she says. “When you’re doing a start-up, being able to create a certain environment that is encouraging and makes everybody feel like they’ve got a win, they’re headed in the right direction and clear about their goals, is the only way you can really get things accomplished.

“We see this as a huge opportunity to create a new culture. What we really want is for the employees to feel innovation, participation, connection and community. It is good for us to be able to use those words as part of our culture — not as the culture, but part of it. It keys in to what our brand is and keys in to what we want our employees to feel.”

Seize new opportunities
The same four words that are an important part of the company’s culture — innovation, participation, connection and community — are a direct reflection of the values Ostroff wants the new network to demonstrate to the outside world.

“We use those words when we talk about what we want the viewer to think about when they hear about The CW,” says Ostroff. “When we use those four words in terms of our corporate culture, it really does bring to light what we want this company to stand for. We want all of our employees to be innovative. We don’t want them to feel like they’re stuck inside of a box.”

Thinking outside the box is what will set the new network apart from its competition, and research provided the clues for where it needed to go.

“We went out and spoke to probably 10 different advertising agencies and clients,” Ostroff says. “We sat down with them and said, ‘What are you looking for? What do you expect to see? What would you want to see? What would your hope be for a new network in this day and age?’

“Then we did the same thing with viewers. We did all this research about the 18-to-34-year-old lifestyle, about how they get their entertainment, how they watch their television, what they’re looking for, what their attitudes are, so that those attitudes can be reflected in our shows and in our branding for the network. We tried to figure out ways to be different.”

One way The CW is distinguishing itself is through the use of “content wraps.”

“Instead of having a lot of commercials, which we call clutter, and it’s hard to get your message (across to viewers), we’ll have a show around our show,” Ostroff says. “Each of the breaks will be two minutes long — three segments — a beginning, a middle and an end, so that there is a reason to stay tuned throughout the show, in order to get to the end of the content wrap.”

For example, a content wrap might involve a blind date between two viewers. The first segment the audience will meet the girl and watch her makeover. The second gives the boy’s story and the third is their date.

The mini-stories give advertisers a new, subtler way to present their message and give viewers a chance to interact by voting online whether the couple should meet again.

“It’s going to be a great experiment,” Ostroff says. “If it works, it could revolutionize the way we advertise on TV.”

If not, she’ll turn to her team to come up with another innovation to reach the company’s goals. It’s all part of her unique outlook on running an organization.

“There are a lot of people who go into companies, and the objective is to get the company to stop hemorrhaging, because there are a lot of losses,” says Ostroff. “Sometimes people are brought into companies simply to cut costs. Maybe they have a passion for cutting costs and making all the pieces of the puzzle work.

“There is another way to gain that success, and that is having somebody who has a lot of vision for what that company is doing and figure out how to make them successful, creating a product, manufacturing a product or making something that is in high demand.”

HOW TO REACH: CW Television Network, www.cwtv.com