Family Drama, the CW Way

Network Boss Dawn Ostroff Has Cause to Rejoice As 'Gossip Girl,' '90210' Take Off in the Ratings

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LOS ANGELES ( -- That giant whooshing noise that residents of Burbank, Calif., heard last week was the sound of the entire staff of the CW network exhaling.
Dawn Ostroff
Dawn Ostroff Credit: Carol Kaelson

After another painful summer filled with barely-on-the-radar ratings and rumblings about the future, the first week of September produced some pretty good news for the folks at the three-year-old network born from the ashes of the WB and UPN.

First, cultural phenom "Gossip Girl" returned to near-record ratings. Then, the super-hyped "90210" delivered network-best numbers for a scripted series. And while the Sept. 3 return of "America's Next Top" model didn't wow, it did OK, given some strong unscripted competition.

At the center of the action: Dawn Ostroff, the president of entertainment for the CW. While her network has done a good job of developing buzzworthy shows -- from "Gossip Girl" and "90210" to "Aliens in America" and "Reaper" -- translating hype into ratings has proven a tougher task.

Are the numbers for the "90210" good enough to turn the CW around? Why didn't the network pick up the CBS cult fave "Moonlight?" And are any more remakes of classic shows in the works?

Ms. Ostroff took a few minutes during a busy week to answer 10 e-mailed questions from Ad Age sibling publication TV Week.

TV Week: Your parent companies gave the CW a nice vote of confidence the other day. Given all the media noise about the future of the network, that had to be nice.

Ms. Ostroff: CBS Corp. and Warner Bros. have been very supportive of the CW, our brand and our strategy from day one. Both companies completely understand what a Herculean task it is to start a brand-new network, especially in today's media environment. That said, I know that everyone here, who have put their heart and soul into building the CW, really appreciated hearing that Leslie, Barry, Nancy and Bruce share their dedication to making this network a success.

TV Week: Let's talk ZIP codes. What's your reaction to the premiere ratings? And what sort of numbers are you looking for with "90210"? What would you like to accomplish in the time period?

Ms. Ostroff: Obviously, we're really happy that "90210" opened on Tuesday as our highest series premiere ever. We're still a very young network, and right now, our focus is building a schedule, show by show and night by night. Truly, our primary goal each season is to develop shows that fit with the CW's brand identity, connect with our core female viewers and help create audience flow across the week. And "90210" accomplished each those perfectly.

TV Week: Last year, "Gossip Girl" and "Aliens in America" were among the most buzzed-about shows pre-season. Ratings didn't match the buzz. Do you worry that Nielsen isn't adequately measuring your target audience?

Ms. Ostroff: Absolutely. We're thrilled that the second season of "Gossip Girl" just premiered with its highest-rated episode ever, but you truly have to wonder if there are more viewers out there that aren't being counted. As digital platforms continue to expand and online streaming, downloads, DVRs become more and more popular, we know that our young tech-savvy audience get their entertainment in many different ways. And I certainly believe that the measurement system in place doesn't accurately count every viewer who watches our shows. Just look at "Gossip Girl." The show has become a true phenomenon, impacting culture, fashion and media, and its influence on the retail marketplace is unheard-of for a television show. And yet, we don't believe that impact is fully reflected in the ratings. Now more than ever, we all need every viewer to count.

TV Week: You just lost your head of reality to CBS. Given how crucial unscripted is to your audience, what are your plans for the genre? Who will run the department?

Ms. Ostroff: We have a lot of reality in development, and reality will continue to be a major player on the CW schedule. We're currently searching for a new head of reality.

TV Week: There had been talk that the CW would have a decent amount of original programming in the summer, but once again, the network basically went dark for several months. Why?

Ms. Ostroff: With productions interrupted and the development cycle shortened due to the writers strike last season, we really decided to focus our energy on the fall rather than summer. We wanted our new and returning shows in perfect shape for launch. And despite not airing much summer programming, we strategically scheduled several of our premieres during the first week of September so we could be clear of the competitive clutter of the traditional fall launch, and seeing the strong performances of "Gossip Girl," "One Tree Hill," "90210" and "Top Model," that strategy paid off. That said, we don't intend on "going dark" for three months next year, so we're already planning on having a lot more original programming next summer.

TV Week: You tried to go after the "7th Heaven" audience last year with "Life Is Wild." It didn't work. But do you think there's room for more family-focused shows on the CW?

Ms. Ostroff: Family actually plays a big part in almost all of our scripted shows. Our dramas like "Gossip Girl," "90210," "One Tree Hill" and "Privileged" each have characters that span generations, from teenagers, young adults, parents, even grandparents -- they all have significant roles and storylines that play out through the season. "Everybody Hates Chris" is the perfect example where family has always been at the center of every storyline. So while we may not have what's considered "traditional" family dramas, we do focus a lot on family, we just do it in our own unique style.

TV Week: "Supernatural" and "Smallville" are solid players for you, and point out how well sci-fi does with your audience. Did you seriously consider picking up "Moonlight"? Is the genre a priority?

Ms. Ostroff: We look at all genres during development. Right now, in terms of new programming, we're very focused on building the CW's brand as a destination for young women. If a "sci-fi/fantasy" show came along that was really well done and would appeal to our young women demo, then we'd certainly consider it.

TV Week: Would you like to work things out with Tori Spelling?

Ms. Ostroff: The situation with Tori this summer was simply a matter of timing, that's it. We'd love to have Tori and any of the original cast members to appear on the show, but it's important that their role be organic to the storylines of our series.

TV Week: If you could remake any other TV show next season -- money and rights weren't issues -- what would it be?

Ms. Ostroff: To fit our brand, we'd probably look at remaking other iconic shows, like "90120," that had a strong impact on young women in years past, anything from "Melrose Place," "Dawson's Creek," "Ally McBeal" or "Felicity."

TV Week: Brenda? Kelly? Donna? Which one is most like Dawn?

Ms. Ostroff: This sounds like a loaded question. It's really hard to say, so I'm going to go with a little of all three, though it probably depends on who you ask. I think one of the things that was great about the original show was that the fans could identify with one or several of the characters, and hopefully fans of the new "90210" will have the same connection with these new characters.
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