Condé Nast Swaggers Into the Entertainment Business

12 Oct

Condé Nast is the luxury sedan of American magazine publishers and they know it. Sometimes that sense of corporate superiority can be a handicap, as when, eight years ago, the company turned down a chance to be a partner in “Project Runway,” unwilling to tarnish the hallowed Vogue brand by associating with a lowly reality show. You know how that turned out.

But a lot has changed since then. Ad spending in print is falling — gradually over the long term, owing to changing patterns of media consumption, and more sharply in the last three months. Meanwhile, the biggest digital media companies — a group that includes GoogleYahoo, AOL and Netflix — are in a mad scramble for high-quality, original video content.

So the same Condé Nast that turned up its nose at one lucrative TV tie-in just created a new division dedicated to nothing but entertainment deals. And you can tell how serious they are about it by the resume of the person they’ve hired to run it: Dawn Ostroff, a former TV executive who ran the CW and UPN networks.

Condé Nast president Bob Sauerberg says he first began talking to Ostroff three months ago, a few weeks after her five-year tenure at the CW concluded. “In my mind, she’s a perfect choice,” he says. “She’s a strategist. She’s got a good production background. She’s a terrific leader. She’s highly respected.”

The particulars of what Ostroff will be doing at the newly created Condé Nast Entertainment largely have yet to be worked out, but in broad outline she’ll be looking to produce content — including TV shows, web series and films — inspired by the company’s journalism, its journalists and its magazine brands, from Vogue and GQ to The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. “What’s most exciting is that Condé Nast has, for the most part, been conservative at looking at what they have sitting inside their company,” says Ostroff. “There are obviously many revenue opportunities as you look at all the different platforms where content is now needed.”

But while Condé Nast may have been conservative, other publishers haven’t always been, and the results of their adventures have been decidedly mixed.

Time Inc. has in the past tried to parlay various brands, including Time and Sports Illustrated, into TV franchises, without success. A decade ago, Tina Brown left The New Yorker to start Talk, where the business plan called for the new magazine’s articles to be pipelined into books and movies to be produced by its backer, Miramax. That didn’t pan out, either.

Sauerberg predicts Condé Nast will succeed where others have stumbled, and not just because the demand for premium branded content, from both advertisers and partners, is so much greater than it was even a year ago. “The environment is different, and having us come to the table is different because not every brand is equal,” he says. “These are very special brands.”

Different era, same sense of superiority.

Disclosure: I worked for Condé Nast twice and have freelanced for several of their magazines.

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