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Balance Paramount to UPN Head Ostroff

by Soriya Daniels

June 24, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Dawn Ostroff, president of entertainment for UPN. Photo by Robert Voets/UPN

Dawn Ostroff, president of entertainment for UPN. Photo by Robert Voets/UPN

Dawn Ostroff, who in addition to being a religiously observant wife and mother, has worked her way up to a glamorous, powerful and exciting position: president of entertainment at UPN. Offering insight into the art of balancing home and work life and achieving one's professional dreams, she reminds us that it's never too late.

Determine what is important.

Ostroff is responsible for all creative aspects of the network's entertainment, including programming and development for weekly shows, specials, movies and miniseries. Additionally, with the help of a nanny, she cares for her two young children, while her husband Mark is across the country half of the month. She also volunteers on professional committees, but only a select two that are very close to her heart. While others are soliciting her leadership, she prioritizes what causes are most important, and turns down the other committee positions.

Focus and compartmentalize.

To balance her personal life with her professional responsibilities, the 44-year-old UPN power-exec stays focused.

"When I'm at work, I'm really able to focus on work, and when I'm at home, I'm really able to focus on my family. Of course, there are always times when things cross over, like when my child is sick or I have an obligation at school. Or, when I'm home and the phone is ringing and I still have work to do," Ostroff said. "But for the most part, I really try to be respectful of wherever I am in my life, and covet the time and focus on what I need to get done. Or when I'm with my family, really focus on just enjoying them." Having a toddler, she joked, "who is just demanding and wants you certainly makes it easier to focus on him."

Balance your schedule to work for you.

Ostroff starts her days at 4 a.m. and usually works until 6 a.m., when her son Michael usually wakes up. After spending a couple of hours with him and her baby, she is at her desk at about 9 a.m. Ostroff is typically busy with meetings, returning telephone calls and "keeping up with everyone." She also visits a set to watch rough cuts or catch up with other production-related duties. Ostroff usually gets home around 7:30 p.m., has dinner with her family and relaxes with her husband.

"And the weekends, we spend as a family," though she has also devoted herself over the years to philanthropic organizations such as the American Jewish Committee, which brings international relief to victims of hate and bias.

Ostroff flies to New York about once a month to see her two stepsons. Her husband commutes to New York every other week, and has an office in both locations.

"We definitely have a challenging lifestyle, but it works for us," she said.

Passion, patience and persistence.

Ostroff has a motto for her success.

"I believe in the three Ps: passion, persistence and patience. I always feel that if you have these three things, good things will come to you if you set your sight on something," she said.

Good things have come her way since she began her career at 16.

"At 16, I was already very interested in the media and wound up answering request lines at a local station in Miami. Then I ended up interning at a lot of different TV stations down there. By the time I was 18, I was a reporter for the CBS 'All News' radio station WINZ in Miami." All while attending college.

"I was very determined. I worked weekends at the radio station as a reporter and an anchor and I worked the weekdays as an intern at the local CBS television affiliate on sort of a local '60 Minutes'-type show called 'Montage.' I really started to figure out what part of the business interested me and started to explore all different areas. I worked in the promotions department, the news department, and produced documentaries," she said.

Fine-tune your interests.

After trying different positions, Ostroff made the critical decision that news didn't fit the way she wanted to live her life: "At 18, I had seen more tragedy, death and despair that most people see in a lifetime. I decided that there might be a happier way for me to earn a living."

A college graduate at 19, Ostroff began her career from the bottom up all over again.

"I had an opportunity to move to Los Angeles and go into the entertainment side of the industry, and I just took the chance when it came up and moved to L.A. by myself when I was 21," she said.

In Los Angeles, she worked as a casting assistant, a secretary floating for different departments at 20th Century Fox and then figured out the area that really interested her: development.

Develop your skills

From there, she got development jobs and worked her way up.

She was at 20th Century Fox as an assistant for several years before securing her first opportunity as an executive for a small independent company called Kushner Locke, where she produced different "Movies of the Week" and television programs for HBO.

"As I started to develop my skills," Ostroff said, "the company was developing at the same time."

Take intermediate steps

Following her seven-year stint at Kushner Locke, Ostroff was offered a job at Disney to be a producer with writer Michael Jacobs. Together, they produced sitcoms for several networks and worked on shows like "Dinosaurs" and "Boy Meets World." She stayed with Jacobs for five years.

"We enjoyed a good amount of success. 'Boy Meets World' is still on the air all the time now," she said.

Ostroff's career took off at high speed from there. She was offered a position at 20th Century Fox, where she served as president of development.

"A couple of shows really seemed to strike a chord, so that was really great. In fact," she said. "One of the shows I developed was 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer.'"

Work well with others.

By "developed," Ostroff means that producers and writers bring her an idea and, as an executive of the studio, she develops it with them, helps them sell it and "sits on the sidelines as a guidance counselor/champion of the project."

"In no way do you create it" she said. "You are just there to support the creative entities and make sure all the pieces fall into place so the show can be successful."

She is involved in casting, script notes, selecting the director and the other important pieces of the puzzle. It is then pitched to the network.

Keep up the stride.

Following her executive position at 20th Century Fox, Ostroff was offered a position at Lifetime and, under her stewardship, it rose from the sixth highest-rated network in cable television to the No. 1 in prime time.

"A lot of people didn't believe that a network geared toward women could ever become the No. 1 cable network," she said, but attributed its success to good projects, network talent, and a supportive board.

This was the last rung on a long ladder to success before landing at UPN.

Always evaluate where you are at.

Would she change any step she's taken during the course of her career?

"I think there were different times when I would have changed things, but in hindsight the experiences that I had helped make me a better-rounded executive, and that's the thing that I'm most appreciative of."

"I do believe that everything happens for a reason," she added. "One of the things that I am really grateful for is the many experiences I've had behind the camera, in front of the camera, as a producer, as an executive, that I feel that I can identify with everyone throughout the process and I understand what everybody's going through. I understand what their issues are and I think that makes me a better executive because I am able to really able to put myself in everyone else's shoes and know what they have to do to get the best project."

Remember, you can have it all.

And after the weekend, she is just as motivated to once again rise at 4 a.m. to meet the challenges of her job. According to the tireless Ostroff, she has a great passion for her work.

"It's never a chore," she said. "Never. I can't really say that there's too many days when I wake up and say, 'Ugh, I've got to go to work,' like I felt about school. I'm excited every day and I've been doing it forever."

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