Bonnie Hammer Reveals E! Rebranding Plans; Wants Up to Four New Kardashian Spinoffs

9:10 AM PST 12/07/2011 by Lacey Rose
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Mary Rozzi
Bonnie Hammer

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.

"E! is a guilty pleasure … and not necessarily one people like to admit they watch." 

That was the hard-to-hear feedback newly appointed NBCUniversal cable entertainment chairman Bonnie Hammer received this summer when she commissioned a brand study among consumers on the latest addition to her portfolio, the E! network.

What will come next is a brand makeover, which will see the E! logo as well as the programming tone and philosophy change to reflect what Hammer hopes will be a smarter and more aspirational destination. To hear her tell it, the network best known for Kardashian fare and Ryan Seacrest's staggering paycheck has the potential to be as popular and profitable as USA became under her watch. (E! currently garners 22 cents per subscriber a month, compared to USA's 60 cents, according to SNL Kagan.)

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"E! needs to be and really wants to be the pulse of popular culture," the trim and immaculately dressed Hammer says of a network she claims has grown too Hollywood-centric to be relevant to a broader audience. The next several months with her recently reconfigured team, including a new hire to move the network into scripted programming, will redefine what the network stands for. "We'll eventually get rid of the more Playboy trashy element, and elevate E! to a fun, exciting and aspirational network," she explains with her hallmark intensity, noting that a recent promo for Kourtney & Kim Take New York, which features the stars in a helicopter and black-tie attire, is evidence -- albeit just a slice -- of the coming class.

Of course, changing the perception of E! in an era when the Kardashians' reality genre is often considered the scourge of society (by critics mostly, mind you) sounds like an impossible mission. But Hammer is cable TV's miracle worker, an executive who transformed once-dowdy USA and too-narrow Syfy into top 5 cable networks and presided over the prized possessions Comcast coveted in its $13.8 billion deal for NBCUniversal. These days, USA, which is coming off the most watched quarter in cable history, even out-rates broadcast sibling NBC on occasion. It's no wonder she earned a top position in the post-merger reorganization and a coveted spot at No. 2 on this magazine's list (tied with Sony's Amy Pascal). Hammer's portfolio, which includes G4, Chiller, Sleuth, Universal HD and Universal Cable Productions, is poised to deliver an estimated $2 billion in profit this year, and remains the biggest contributor to NBCUniversal's bottom line.

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"She's one hell of a businesswoman. She has built the most powerful cable operation in the history of television. It's not by accident," says Law & Order creator Dick Wolf, whose Criminal Intent spinoff aired on USA.

Known as a skilled -- but never sleazy -- corporate player, the well-liked Hammer can be both a detail-oriented manager (she'll still weigh in on color choices on USA ads) and a big-picture thinker. USA co-president Chris McCumber marvels at the collaborative work environment she's able to foster. "She has the best gut in the business," he says of a woman he considers both boss and mentor. Says NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke, "It's rare to find an executive who has both strong leadership and creative talents, but that is exactly what you get with Bonnie. She has built a terrific team and the success of her portfolio speaks for itself."

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The fallout from Kim Kardashian's 72-day marriage to NBA player Kris Humphries is still the dominating theme at the newsstand and on the web when Hammer sits down to lunch at Rockefeller Center's The Sea Grill on a crisp Manhattan day in late November. In recent weeks, reporters from The New York Times to People magazine have questioned the validity of the union, which commenced with a multi-million-dollar wedding showcased in a two-hour special on E! in October.

But if Hammer, 61, fears her network's most valuable franchise is in danger of unraveling, she isn't letting on. "This was not a stunt. In no way did people believe that this was going to happen," she says definitively, before adding: "I think true Kardashian fans know that a bigger than life mistake can be made easily in their world. Everything they do is bigger than life … it's just part of their DNA." (The latest season opener of Kourtney & Kim Take New York, featuring a then-married Kardashian and Humphries drew the franchise's largest premiere viewership to date.)

Still, Hammer is adamant that going forward the network not be as dependent on the Kardashians as it has been. Despite being a "beautiful" and "interesting" family, she believes the current strategy of living with only one or two franchises is "too fragile," and has ambitions of adding several more over the next couple of years.

Not that Hammer is interested in abandoning the kash kow family just yet. "I think it will have its own life expectancy," she says of the lucrative brand that the family has built on and off screen, "and we'll just go along with it and help hone what's right for E! and what's not right for E! as we develop a whole other world." Falling among the former are mom Kris Jenner's two youngest daughters -- technically Jenners -- and what Hammer says she hopes are "two, three, even four new Kardashian [spinoffs]."

Suzanne Kolb, promoted to E! entertainment president in July, continues to be struck by how clear and focused Hammer is on what she believes can happen and her willingness to let the team make sure it does. "She's a great mix of inspiration and empowerment for those who work for her," Kolb says of her new boss, with whom she communicates daily. "She's a master at directing people and redirecting people. She's really good at saying, 'a little to the left,' and navigating a very large ship."

In addition to the entry of scripted programming -- which Hammer seems confident will help elevate the brand -- she has plans to reevaluate the network's daily news program and grow its stable of hosting talent. At September's Emmy Awards, Hammer opted to monitor the red carpet coverage operation from an E! News van rather than walk the carpet in a gown herself. "The most important thing for E! to move forward is credibility, with immediacy being a close second," she adds, acknowledging the significance of being able to delve into smart news stories as well as to break news, something the current celebrity-themed news hour rarely does.

Also of appeal is broadening the network's purview so that it isn't so narrowly focused on Hollywood. It will still be about celebrity, but as Hammer sees it, her viewers will be drawn to people who have done extraordinary things, whether in Atlanta, Nashville or Paris, and her plan is to bring E!'s cameras to them. "One of the first things we'll do," she says, "is to expand beyond the confines of how Hollywood defines celebrity, trends and aspiration."

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