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.”

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.