How NBCU's Bonnie Hammer Plans to Dominate Cable

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

Hammer seems to have few detractors. “Bonnie’s success in the way she’s built those networks into such an enormous asset for Comcast now, and before for GE, speaks for itself,” says Rick Rosen, co-founder of WME, where he runs the TV division. “We don’t take shows initially right to her. She’s very structured in that she wants us to talk to the individual networks and potentially, if there’s a question, to Jeff [Wachtel, newly minted chief content officer at NBCU Cable Entertainment] as brand manager. If I have an idea for a show, I don’t call Bonnie and say, ‘I have an idea for this cop show.’ When things are down the road, I’ll call her and say, ‘Where does this need to improve?’ And she’ll say, ‘This is a really good pilot, but it’s not on brand for this network or that network.’ … She doesn’t give much away, but she’ll guide you as far as being a steward of the brand.”

Hammer can no doubt run a major cable network successfully, but part of her job over the last year has been to take a wide range of disparate assets—some without clear brand identities—and turn them around. She’s also made major decisions that looked bizarre at the time but make perfect sense later—notably, the call to change the launch of the Esquire network from a rebrand of languishing gamer-bro channel G4 to a takeover of fashion-centric Style. Last year, insiders and outsiders alike questioned the wisdom of jettisoning hours upon hours of content in order to turn a women’s network into a men’s network.

What they didn’t know, Adweek has learned, is that the affiliate agreements Style had built over the years contained language that almost perfectly described Esquire—“a lifestyle brand”—making it an easier (and more lucrative) sell to affiliates for evp of content distribution Matt Bond. G4’s fee from cable operators was 9 cents per month; Style’s was 15 cents. G4 is in 61.2 million homes; Esquire is in 76.8 million. Do the math and Esquire launched with a revenue base of around $138 million before a single ad was sold. Moreover, it reduced the number of competitive women’s networks from four to three.

That deal also ensured that the three remaining fashion and lifestyle networks don’t cannibalize each other. “It’s a lot less complicated than people think,” Hammer says. “I could say, ‘Oh, I’m a genius!’—if you want to put that in, feel free!—but each of the channels has a very clean and clear brand lane.” Bravo, Hammer says, “is fortysomething, very affluent, female-plus—Franny hates it when anyone calls it a women’s network. There are lots of guilty-pleasure guys who watch it and a lot of co-viewing as well. [“Franny” is Bravo and Oxygen Media president Frances Berwick, who probably nobody else on Earth calls Franny.] E! is smack in the middle. It’s thirtysomething, it’s kind of affluent, but they’re thirtysomethings that are on their way up. There are unmarrieds, marrieds, not-yet-marrieds, employed or employable, a little younger and a little hipper, and that’s their sweet spot.”

And Oxygen? Well, Oxygen is getting a makeover. Hammer is diplomatic, but specific. “From an ad-sales perspective, it was hard to sell,” she concedes. “There was certain product it was just hard to put spots on. We would have something as young as Bad Girls Club—the viewing population, though it was targeted to 18-to-20-something, when you really did the research, there were a lot of 12-year-olds watching it, which wasn’t pretty. But then on the other side of it, a show like Snapped was and is a very old demographic, in the 50s. So how do you market it when your demo is as young as 12 and as old as 55 or 60? It’s impossible.”

That’s why Hammer is hard at work carving out a brand identity from market research. “Oxygen is twentysomethings, and they’re aspiring. They’re out of college or just beginning their lives, they’re less secure, they have less discretionary money because they’re just starting to work, they’re just starting their life, they’re a bit more authentic and real because they’re coming out of the millennial world,” she says. Clearly, the young women’s network is starting to get the Hammer treatment.

In fact, Hammer has a very clear notion of the target consumer at all three networks—and she’s making sure the heads of her networks are indoctrinated. They “know how they’d each cast shows differently, even if they were all from the same idea,” Hammer says. (They do now, at any rate.)

Hammer held an offsite late last year where she gave each network head “20, 30 minutes to talk about their brand—what it was, what it wasn’t, and where they believed the crossover was between their channel and another,” she reports. “Everybody loved it. It was very warm and fuzzy. There were a couple of arguments—over who owned pop culture, for example—but very informative, and not in any way adversarial.” That’s a major point of pride for Hammer: “You can’t be negatively competitive with one of the other channels. Frankly, we’re judged as a portfolio, and if you lose because you’re fighting for the same project and you both fail, we all get dinged.”

Syfy president Dave Howe, who has been through a lot with Hammer, says her tastes can dominate the cable portfolio’s aesthetic—but she can be persuaded. “She has strengths that I don’t have in terms of design and fashion—and she can be tough—but that’s how teams work,” Howe says. “She will also recognize that there are some things which may not be her expertise or cup of tea, but what she will want to hear from you is a level of passion and commitment and an ability to argue rationally and emotionally why a particular direction is the one you want to go in.” Howe says that ultimately, if you make your case to her, Hammer considers herself to have taken your risks along with you. “She’ll never, ever say, ‘I told you so,’” he says.

Syfy has recently changed course, featuring less reality programming and, in the future, more scripted series. Its contagion thriller Helix leads a slate of originals that will include Dominion, a war-in-heaven drama; Ascension, a six-hour whodunit miniseries set aboard a generation ship on a hundred-year journey; and Expanse, based on the novels of James S.A. Corey. (“It gets us back in space,” Howe says, happily.)

“I’m a big believer that sci-fi lives in literature, that the true sci-fi population is out there reading a gazillion authors,” Hammer says. “And it’s not as male as people think. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. [In its previous iteration,] Syfy wanted more at-bats in the reality world, and now it’s getting back into fiction and what I believe is its true brand and livelihood—creating great, provocative worlds and taking … politics or religion or war, and putting it in another space where you can ask really interesting questions.”

With a cohesive blueprint across not just each network but the entire network group across the next few years, Hammer decided to combine the upfront event schedule into a single big bash for buyers at the end of broadcast week. There are cocktails and breakfasts for press throughout the spring, but the expenses are “all paper and video,” in Hammer’s words (and bar tabs). “The whole [of these cable networks] is far greater than the sum of its parts,” Hammer says. “And the only way to show it is to make sure we show the whole thing put together.” They’re also sold together, these days. Yaccarino last year pioneered a sales model that crosses all networks, including the flagship broadcast network.

Hammer swears the presentation won’t go longer than 90 minutes. “The very last night of the upfront week all people want to do is get out of there, have a glass of wine and pop on their planes and go home,” she laughs. But it’s the togetherness she wants to emphasize—the unity she’s worked so hard to foster. Indeed, Hammer moved Wachtel into a free-floating position to make sure that the company can snap up good content even if a network that might acquire it doesn’t immediately have room. If Wachtel sees a promising comedy about cheerleaders, for example, he, along with Hammer and the network heads, can decide whether it better suits E! or Oxygen.

That macromanagement is a huge part of the version of herself Hammer has had to become in order to wrangle so many conflicting interests at the top of the cable food chain. The cable portfolio is projected to close this year up in revenue—in the high single digits, which translates into at least tens of millions of dollars.

“I think it’s a hard thing for many to learn, but years ago it was easier to kind of put your arms up and say, ‘Don’t bastardize my creative,’” she says, careful not to sound nostalgic. “This is a creative business and a creative process, and we’re all intellectual and creative snobs, and the truth is that it’s business. And the challenge is maintaining that great creativity while we make money.”

Hammer clearly loves the details of that creative process. That’s why all that money keeps rolling in.

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