Bonnie Hammer on Her Surprise Cable Reboot: 'We Wanted True Differentiation'

8:00 AM PST 09/11/2013 by Lacey Rose
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Style Network "was just derivative and duplicative."

The NBCU exec tells THR why Esquire Network will take over Style, not G4, what's next for Oxygen and how she broke the news to her staff.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When Style Network staffers arrived at the office Sept. 9, they had no idea that their employer would cease to exist in two weeks.

At 10:30 a.m., NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Group chairman Bonnie Hammer gathered employees in the network's Miracle Mile headquarters to discuss a plan that had been tightly guarded. When the male-focused Esquire Network launches Sept. 23, it will do so not on G4, as was planned, but rather on Style. "Shock doesn't begin to describe it," one Style producer says of the reaction. The move, as Hammer stressed to her staff and in a THR interview, is designed to better define the 12 networks in her purview.

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"What we realized was that the brand lanes were pretty clear where Bravo lived, where E! is living and where Oxygen has been and where we believe Oxygen should go. Then we looked at Style, and we saw that it overlapped with all three," says Hammer, noting that there was 71 percent viewership duplication with E! and 69 percent and 58 percent with Bravo and Oxygen, respectively. What's more, despite a smaller-scale rebranding in summer 2012, Style has been averaging only 79,000 primetime viewers in the key 18-to-49 demo this year, far fewer than younger-skewing Oxygen (217,000), midrange E! (345,000) and upscale Bravo (582,000). Adds Hammer, "It was just derivative and duplicative, and what we wanted for the portfolio was true differentiation."

The strategic play -- along with a reshuffling of executives that includes USA co-president Jeff Wachtel being upped to the newly created position of NBCU Cable Entertainment president, Frances Berwick absorbing Oxygen, and Oxygen president Jason Klarman exiting -- represents Hammer's first major move since taking sole control in February of NBCU's megaprofitable cable suite, which represents about 50 percent of the company's operating cash flow. When Hammer took over, there was speculation that she'd use her branding expertise to make sense of the glut of female-skewing networks. (She and Berwick soon will turn their attention to Oxygen, say insiders, giving the net a more upscale sheen.)

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For Esquire, which Hammer and network GM Adam Stotsky hope will reach an underserved male demo, the shift allows the network to launch on a considerably larger platform. Style not only is better situated than G4 on the cable dial but also is in more than 75 million homes compared with G4's 62 million. What's more, it's an easier pitch to affiliates as Esquire and Style both fall into the "lifestyle" category, while a move from G4, a gaming network, had the potential to cause affiliate backlash, say sources. G4 will remain as is for now, though there are no plans to invest resources in it. ("It's like gutting a house, and then the week before you were supposed to tear it down and build a new one, you decide you like the lot down the street more," notes one NBCU exec of G4, which relies heavily on Cops reruns.)

Style president Salaam Coleman Smith, one of very few aware of the pending shake-up, likely will be placed elsewhere in the company. Those conversations will take place in the coming weeks because Hammer was unable to seek staff changes before the announcement. At worst, the rebrand could result in nearly 100 layoffs. "This is the right decision for the business. We know that, and we've thought about it for a good while now to make sure we were doing the right thing," adds Hammer. "That said, it's never easy."

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