Throughout her legendary career, Bonnie Hammer has learned just about everything there is to know about the television industry, except for one thing: how to rest on her laurels. "If you're not always thinking about the storms that are about to come, you're going to be in big trouble," she says. "I've never been afraid of change."
That's why the chairman of NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Group and Adweek's TV Executive of the Year has spent the past year shaking up the 10 networks she oversees—including heavyweights USA, Bravo and E!—keeping them fresh, exciting and relevant for audiences in a turbulent TV landscape. "It's taking a look at every piece of the organization, almost from a zero base," says Hammer. "If we were designing a world to compete in today, not last year or 10 years ago, how would you do that?"
Last fall, Hammer combined Bravo, Oxygen, E! and the upstart Esquire Network into the Lifestyle Networks Group, unifying the brands in the same fashion NBCU ad sales chairman Linda Yaccarino sells them to advertisers. "Every single channel was a silo. With one overall voice, it made it neater, cleaner and more nimble in terms of everything from sales to early-stage development," explains Hammer of the reorg, which helped inspire similar ones at rival players like Viacom and A+E Networks.
Hammer pushed several NBCU cable properties to launch scripted series for the first time (Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce and Odd Mom Out on Bravo, The Royals on E!, Spotless on Esquire), helping to diversify and fortify the nets when and if franchises like the Real Housewives and the Kardashians run out of steam. ("We keep waiting for the day—and it doesn't happen," notes Hammer.)
Significantly, the new scripted projects add a vital new stream of revenue for the company. "What scripted provides that reality hasn't yet, and probably won't, is back end. If you can own content that has a nice, long tail, that is a moderate to amazing hit, it's money in the bank—it's just good business," explains Hammer, who also runs the in-house studios Universal Cable Productions (which handles scripted shows) and Wilshire Studios (reality and unscripted).
Hammer's riskiest move involved the crown jewel of her portfolio, USA, moving the network away from its signature "blue skies" procedurals, which were no longer connecting with audiences. "We wanted to nail something in the zeitgeist," she says. "And that's where Mr. Robot came."
This summer's sensational hacker drama was, at the outset, anything but a sure thing, but Hammer went forward with the gamble. "We all said, 'This could fail big. We all have to agree that this is an experiment, but we're willing to do it,'" recalls Hammer. Mr. Robot would end up taking viewers by storm, helping USA finish its 10th year as the most-watched entertainment network in prime time on basic cable.
As for properties in her stable that remain a work in progress—like Oxygen, which is still struggling to connect with its 20-something female viewer base—Hammer is considering all options, including a possible OTT play.
"We would be really naive if all we did was schedule for a linear channel," she says. "We have to be willing to take risks, to fail forward and to experiment with letting several episodes—maybe even an entire season—go on VOD before it goes simultaneous with linear. We have to give ourselves permission to define success differently because it can't be in a linear rating."
At NBCU, the bottom line remains the ultimate definition of success, of course, and Hammer's portfolio is on track to bring in an estimated $5.5 billion in revenue this year, marking her 10th straight year of growth. Says the executive: "I have a great consigliore of my direct reports in the [network] presidents, so anybody saying 'Bonnie did all of that' is nuts. It's genuinely a team effort—but I stir it up."
She did even more of that this past August, making waves by writing a guest column in Fortune about turning 65 and taking the entertainment industry to task for its treatment of older female executives. "I'm not usually naive, but this thing went viral to a point that shocked me," says Hammer, who was motivated to write the piece after hearing people in the industry asking if she was going to retire now. "I never thought there was anything wrong with doing it or that it was 'brave.' It wasn't until after people starting saying 'That was incredibly brave' that I thought, 'Oh my, that could have been a really dumb thing to do!' It could have totally imploded."
At this point in her career, Hammer says she's finally stopped reaching for the next rung on the corporate ladder. Instead, what keeps her motivated these days is watching the cable industry come full circle since she got in the business in 1989.
"There were no rules, and I feel that way again," she explains. "So for me, it's the pioneering spirit of trying to find the next path, and I want to get there before anybody else. It's fun to see where it's going to go."
This story first appeared in the Nov. 30 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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