Bonnie Hammer Reveals E! Rebranding Plans; Wants Up to Four New Kardashian Spinoffs
With "the best gut in the business," this savvy TV superstar created the crown jewel in Comcast's empire, delivers an estimated $2 billion in profit and is embarking on yet another cable makeover.
Hammer's own aspirations were formed in Queens, where she was raised the youngest of three children. While her late father, who started his own pen manufacturing company in the family's garage, remains Hammer's role model, it was her many summers at sleepaway camp in upstate New York that she says prepared her for the team-oriented environment she's been able to build at the office. Her father taught her not to take no for an answer, a quality she admits she employs not only in the workplace but also at hotels, restaurants and stores. "As long as you do it classily and nicely, you can get anything you want," Hammer says with a light laugh.
After toying with careers in law and psychology, Hammer graduated from Boston University with a degree in photojournalism. From there, she talked her way into a graduate program in media and technology, before landing her first industry gig working as a production assistant on Boston PBS station WGBH's Infinity Factory. As she recalls, the role included picking up after a sheepdog. "We all had to look after a cast member," she says, "and since I was the youngest and greenest PA they gave me the dog."
By 1986, she had gained experience on a handful of series and took an executive gig at Lifetime, where she focused primarily on socially conscious documentaries. Three years later, she was offered a programming position at USA, then jointly owned by Paramount and MCA/Universal, where a superior handed her the reins to what is now the World Wrestling Entertainment franchise. "I remember sitting in one of the early video conferences when Rod Perth said to me, 'Bonnie, I need you to take over the WWF. There needs to be some story there; it's all just big blowups and fighting,' " she recalls of a programming block she had little interest in. "I looked at him and said, 'Rod, are you crazy?' I'm pretty sure I flipped him the bird in the middle of the meeting, and then went home to my husband and threatened to quit."
On her husband's advice, Hammer spent the next few weeks familiarizing herself with the brand before showing up at imposing wrestling chief Vince McMahon's office. As the petite executive remembers it, she dressed down in boots and blue jeans, walked in and said, "Listen, up until two weeks ago, I never watched your show. I don't know what your business is, and I don't care what your business is. The only thing I know is how to make good TV."
She proved as much, working closely with McMahon and his team to find stories and characters that viewers could invest in. During the Monday live shows, she'd be on the phone with the crew telling them what they should show and, in the case of one character taking a machete to another's genitals, when they needed to cut to black. The following mornings she'd be on the phone with McMahon discussing notes and soaring ratings. Nearly two decades later, Hammer calls the experience one of the most enjoyable of her career.
Soon after, larger-than-life mogul Barry Diller took over, and Hammer insists one of the only reasons he kept her in the job was because of her wrestling ties. "I think he thought it was kind of funny that a girl could deal with Vince McMahon," she says. By 2001, Hammer was upped to president of Syfy (then Sci Fi Channel), and while she had spent much of her youth devouring science fiction books, she made it her mission to broaden the network beyond its core sci-fi audience. Hammer did so, bringing the network from a ranking in the high 20s to the top 10 on the back of such fare as her $40 million Steven Spielberg miniseries Taken, which debuted to Emmy acclaim in 2002. It was also that project, which cost another $10 million or so to market, that ultimately gave Hammer a career-altering boost from Diller, whom she counts among her mentors.
With the team around her doubting her instincts -- and sniping at the show's harrowing price tag -- Hammer sent an episode to Diller for review and reassurance. His response, in an e-mail with bright orange, 18 or 20 point type: "Honey, if all your episodes are as gluely compelling, I think you have a hit on your hands. Ignore the world." So, she recalls, "we held our nose and jumped. It was the highest-rated limited series not just for Syfy, but ever on cable." To this day, the e-mail remains in a special folder on Hammer's computer.
In 2004, she returned to USA as president, commissioning a brand audit that revealed what she had feared about the network. "What we heard back was that USA was like an old, worn-out shoe, and I wanted it to be a Louboutin," she says, her personal style in keeping with the latter. In her attempt to revitalize the network, she honed in on character and an upbeat "blue skies" philosophy, green-lighting shows including Burn Notice, Royal Pains and recent effort Suits. The logo changed with it: no more American flag; no more capital letters. "We made it more relatable and accessible," she explains, not to mention more popular and profitable. USA has now been the No. 1 cable network for five consecutive years and is also the most lucrative in NBCUniversal's stable.
Among the professional qualities USA's McCumber is most impressed by is Hammer's savvy management style, which doesn't allow for silos. "If we're talking about developing a show, each one of us from marketing to programming to ad sales will read the scripts and talk about casting," he says of the unique approach where every member of the team is invested. "This way, when we win, we win together; and when we lose, there's no pointing figures because we all made the decisions together."
Hammer's vision has garnered fans in the creative community. The Bourne Identity director Doug Liman, who has two shows on USA in Covert Affairs and Suits, likens Hammer to a modern-day Jack Warner. "In the olden days, when a filmmaker went to work for a studio, they worked for a place that had a strong identity and a very powerful leader. The end result is these enduring movies that filmmakers like myself today are trying to figure out how to make," he says. "At USA, Bonnie has created a version of that."
These days, the married mother of two -- son Jesse, 18, and daughter Ki Mae, 31 -- is getting used to her new status as a chairman and an empty nester. (Jesse is currently at Dartmouth, where Ki Mae and husband Dale are alumni.) Both have been major adjustments: the former because she's had to learn to be arms length after a lengthy career of being precisely the opposite; the latter because she's spent the last two decades living in tony Westport, Conn., where she's primarily known as "Jesse's mom."
Looking to the future, Hammer's goals are no longer about acquiring more networks to run, but rather about exploring new mediums. "There's a bit of quiet wisdom that comes when you're not a newbie at this. You become a lot more comfortable with yourself and you're no longer climbing," says Hammer. As skaters whiz by at the nearby Rockefeller Center rink, she opens up about all of the other things that she's been quietly itching to do, including yoga, a fitting fitness routine for someone who historically has found activities to reflect her life state. (During her stint under Diller, she took up kick-boxing, where her six-foot bag had his name as a strike target.)
There's also a tongue-in-cheek book that she's been toying with writing for women coming up in the entertainment industry, along with a movie. "I've not had any interest in running a movie studio, but I want to make one feature film," she declares as a plate of berries arrives for dessert. She hasn't come across the right property yet, but says she's thinking something "upbeat and aspirational," a movie along the lines of Field of Dreams or Forrest Gump that leaves people feeling hope. She continues, "Something that's fun, a little twisted and out there, and even a bit provocative but has humor and resonates."
She takes a beat, before adding, "It's just something that I've always wanted to do." To know Hammer, who has made a career out of turning desire into reality, is to know she will.
HAMMER'S RISE TO POWER
1976: After toying with a career in photography, Hammer landed producer gigs for a collection of series on Boston's PBS station, WGBH, including the kids' series Zoom.
1985: The native New Yorker ventured to Los Angeles briefly to work as a producer on the syndicated talk show Alive & Well, alongside director David Auerbach.
1986: She accepted an executive post at Lifetime, where she oversaw documentaries on such topics as date rape and child abuse.
1989: Hammer jumped over to USA, where she worked her way up the corporate ladder. By 1994, she had inherited -- and quickly reinvigorated -- the WWE franchise.
1997: Barry Diller became a boss and mentor to Hammer. To this day, she keeps an encouraging e-mail from him suggesting she trust her gut and "ignore the world" saved on her computer.
2001: Hammer was upped to president of Syfy. "Everybody left us alone at the beginning because … there was nowhere to go but up," she recalls of a net she catapulted to the top 5.
2004: She added USA president to her duties, rebranding it as a destination for "blue skies" character dramas such as Burn Notice and Royal Pains.
2010: She says of her post-Comcast merger role: "My gut is I like my hands on everything. But as a newly anointed chairperson, my job can't be to micromanage the way I used to."
TODAY: Up next, she hopes to elevate E! as she did USA and Syfy. "The most important thing for me is really defining aspirational … making the network more clever and smarter," she says of the Kardashian net.