Women in Entertainment 2010 - Power 100 List
When Comcast COO Steve Burke ended months of speculation Nov. 19 and announced the new NBC Universal executive team in a corporate memo, guess whose name he mentioned first? It’s no surprise that Bonnie Hammer received a big promotion in the year’s most closely watched Hollywood shake-up. Her cash-cow divisions — which now include USA Network, Syfy, E! Entertainment, G4, Chiller and Sleuth — are predicted to generate $20 billion in revenue this year and throw off $2 billion in profit. The value of USA alone is estimated at $11.7 billion.
In short, as NBC bleeds money and Universal struggles at the box office, Hammer’s thriving assets are at the heart of the Comcast-NBC Uni deal.
But when asked recently over green tea at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills whether she has followed the endless media coverage of the deal, Hammer deflected the hype surrounding her ascension. “I try not to read it … or buy into it,” she says. “The minute you’re visible, there are going to be bullets, for big reasons or no reason at all.”
Dressed in a form-fitting black dress and funky costume necklace, Hammer is warm and engaging but never loses her focus. It’s a hallmark of her management style.
“I stay under the radar and say, ‘Everybody, we have a job to do,’ ” she says. “When you have a 17-year-old at home, you learn to work despite the noise.”
Hammer wisely shut out the noise five years ago, when she first suggested USA’s “Characters Welcome” slogan — and was met with a resounding “Huh?”
“Development thought it was an OK tagline, but it didn’t resonate in terms of where it could go,” she recalls.
Hammer says her approach to original programming is similarly calculated. Each of her series is grounded in a singular character with a lovable dysfunction (think Monk’s case of OCD) or has an upbeat — or what she calls a “blue sky” — tone, meaning it’s funny without being an outright sitcom.
The Hammer formula has produced cable’s most enviable slate: USA’s Psych, Burn Notice, In Plain Sight, Covert Affairs, Royal Pains and White Collar are six of the top 10 scripted shows on cable. The rebranding also has revolutionized the network’s scripted development process and turned the generic basic cabler — whose own research before the revamp found that regular viewers were embarrassed to reveal they watched the network — into the No. 1 cable network in all demos for five years running and NBC Uni’s most valuable division.
Despite the active year, the Queens native says she has prioritized her life outside the office and marvels at the relative peace she’s able to enjoy on the East Coast.
“By not having to socialize [in Los Angeles], there’s some distance,” says Hammer, who commutes daily to Manhattan from her home in tony Westport, Conn., where she goes by her husband Dale’s last name, Heussner. “What I love about my life at home is, until pretty recently, nobody knew what I did,” she says. “They knew I was a working mom who took the train every day into the city.”
Hammer earned a master’s in media and technology at Boston University and launched her TV career in 1976 as a production assistant on Infinity Factory, a PBS kids show about the metric system. That led to a gig as an associate producer on Zoom for WGBH Boston.
Up the ladder she went, first on This Old House, then executive producing a local morning show. She spent two years in Los Angeles producing Alive and Well, a daytime syndicated/cable hybrid lifestyle series, before returning to New York for a programming job at Lifetime. In 1989, she jumped to USA as a programming executive. She has run Syfy (then the Sci Fi Channel) and USA since 2001 and 2004, respectively.
"The minute you're visible, there are going to be bullets, for big reasons or no reason at all."
Hammer is channeling her programming prowess into an even more ambitious slate on USA. She recently greenlighted Eden, a dramedy about two brothers who are hotel concierges; Wild Card, more of a drama, set in a Las Vegas casino; and Over/Under, a Wall Street procedural she is particularly excited about.
“It’s a step edgier than anything we’ve done,” she says. It’s that attitude that has vaulted Hammer to her new position. “We can’t be complacent,” she says of the competition. “They’re right on our tail.”
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