How NBCU's Bonnie Hammer Plans to Dominate Cable

With USA, Syfy and Bravo humming, next task is to fix Oxygen

Bonnie Hammer | Photo: Mary Rozzi

In Bonnie Hammer’s well-appointed office there is a large chunk of crystal-flecked granite, hewn into the rough shape of a heart, in a shallow square dish filled with sand on a coffee table in front of a tasteful white couch. Over the couch, there’s a WWE World Champion belt, a gift from Vince McMahon himself. There’s a TV across the room, showing whatever’s playing on USA (“Wrong Is Right,” a 2000 episode of Law & Order: SVU, at the moment), but it’s too far away and at the wrong angle to watch comfortably from the couch.

It’s meant to be watched from the desk.

Many, many bucks, literal and figurative, stop at Hammer’s desk. In February 2013, she was promoted to chairman of NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment, putting her up in the executive stratosphere with TV ad sales head Linda Yaccarino and NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt (all three report to the conglomerate’s CEO and president Steve Burke). Hammer oversees USA, Syfy, E!, Bravo, Oxygen, Esquire, Sprout, G4 and several smaller networks. Hammer’s bump shifted fellow ranking exec Lauren Zalaznick out of the limelight and was perceived (wrongly, Hammer says) by many as the latest move in a high-stakes chess match between two TV kingmakers.

Hammer is troubled by the rumors of friction between herself and Zalaznick. “It would make you crazy because it’s one thing when there’s something that gets outside that’s real and you want people to stay away from it—it’s another thing when it’s completely fabricated. Where, how and by whom, I don’t know,” she says. “I never even lobbied for the whole gig. Steve made a decision as he consolidated everything—he wanted clear lines. Someday I’ll find out how that got started, but it was a bizarre fabrication.” (Zalaznick, who left the company last year, declined to be interviewed for this piece but has spoken highly of Hammer more than once since her departure.)

Hammer has a certain reputation in the media world—tough, frequently better at a given job than whichever subordinate is assigned to do it, considerably opinionated on matters ranging in scope from cable fees to cuff links—and careful about the brand identity of her most visible success story, USA. But that assessment is complicated by the executive’s deep desire to have her colleagues and subordinates get along with each other, forming a united front.

NBCU’s cable entertainment division is one of nine that dominate the cable landscape. Its cumulative ratings in the all-important 18-49 demo are on the rise season to date. The financial margins on the portfolio are impressive, to say the least: a reported $2.5 billion in operating profit off of $5.5 billion in revenue in 2013.

And indisputably, the jewel in the NBC cable crown is USA—this, despite its dropping to second place behind TBS in the 18-49 demo in 2013. (USA says it’s back on top this year. TBS says no way. A third party puts TBS in first place, tying its performance to the NCAA and the Turner net’s syndicated run of The Big Bang Theory.) USA has traveled a long road to reach that success. USA’s original programming slate bears Hammer’s fingerprints, including crisp dramedies like White Collar, Covert Affairs and the well-regarded Suits. But the network is also in transition. Two of its best-loved series, Burn Notice and Psych, ended last year. Its most recent big swing, Graceland, has not yet grown into its own. The best bet for a continued hot streak—Complications, a medical drama from Burn Notice creator Matt Nix, with a little more of an edge to it than Nix’s previous show—was picked up to series last month.

The network is incredibly lucrative—more so after a major push in the ad marketplace last year. Yaccarino was aggressive about taking USA’s high-profile (but super-expensive) acquisition of Modern Family to market. And though buyers tell Adweek that the show had trouble hitting its guaranteed audience, the money is still spent with NBCU.

To her credit, Hammer, when asked uncomfortable questions, will answer them very frankly, rather than regurgitate talking points. “Modern Family will make money for USA,” she says, “especially when you take a look at [the numbers] against Law & Order and NCIS. It’s just a matter of margins and whether the margins are as high. … People compare it [to other off-net shows on cable], but it’s very complicated—‘Is it making more or less than other products you could have put in its place?’ That’s not what it’s about. We bought it, it’s airing, it’s bringing in this much, it’s making money.”

The back-and-forth over ratings and CPMs obscures an important detail about USA: It is the single most profitable network at the company, with margins—not revenue, but pure profit—exceeding $1 billion since 2012.

That kind of money is why Hammer has this job in the first place. “The [cable] portfolio does extremely well,” says Ron Meyer, vice chairman of NBCU. “It’s a very profitable organization and has been consistently under Bonnie’s leadership.” Meyer, formerly COO of the company, believes one of Hammer’s greatest accomplishments has been to give those individual networks personalities all their own. “She’s given Syfy a real identity and an audience, and she’s done the same for USA,” he says. “It could have been a potpourri of miscellaneous shows that had nothing in common.”

Hammer rarely talks to the press, and when she does, it tends to be brief. Though friendly in person, she gives the impression she is most comfortable elbows-deep in the details of whatever happens to be on her networks at the moment—pestering, say, USA’s marketing department about the too-blue shade of purple in a starlet’s dress (“I made them nuts!” she says, cheerfully). But another reason Hammer is hard to put on paper is that she is a perfectionist in conversation, too, constantly revising and elaborating to make sure she is precise in every explanation.

“I entered [the industry] through production, as a production assistant,” she says of the beginning of her career, minding a sheepdog on WGBH’s Infinity Factory in the mid-’70s. “It was the beginning of—I can’t even call it a path. I didn’t really have a road map ever. It wasn’t as if I went into TV like a lot of people in the next generation who said, ‘I want to be [Brandon] Tartikoff!’ I went from experience to experience saying, ‘That sounds like fun. Let me try it!’ I bobbed and weaved through my career. And in hindsight, though I’d like to say it was a plan—it was not—the bobbing and the weaving gave me a broad base from which to become an executive who could say, ‘OK, I’ve done this and I’ve done this and I’ve done this.’ And nobody could BS me because I’d done most of it.”

When it comes to the look of her networks, Hammer has strong opinions about color, texture, tone, composition—thanks in part to her passion for photography (her work has been published widely, from Time to The Boston Globe). And while those hard aesthetic standards can seem frustratingly trivial to her subordinates, if they stick around long enough, they will learn the value of a definite visual identity. “Burn Notice came to USA as a much darker show that was set in Newark,” says Nix, recalling that Hammer said if the show was going to work for the network, it needed to strike a more upbeat tone—and his characters needed to dress better. So, Nix—wondering if the tonal instructions were just deeper notes on the pitch, sugarcoated—started to ask questions and found that the problems with surface detail were just that, problems with surface detail. “[I asked,] ‘Does he have to like being in Miami?’ ‘No, he doesn’t have to like being in Miami.’ ‘Can he wear his nice clothes for these specific reasons?’ ‘Sure.’”

The show was a huge success for USA and became its flagship property for years, with fancy menswear that wowed USA’s demo and a star turn by cult actor Bruce Campbell, darling of the Comic Con crowd. “One of the things that’s important to USA—and I say this with a lot of respect—is that the people are great looking and the clothes are nice,” Nix says. “And that’s important to the audience, too. If you’d asked me if that was important seven years ago when I started Burn Notice, I’d have said, ‘That’s not the essence of drama!’ But it matters to people, and you’ve got to respect that.”

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