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How Bonnie Hammer Won NBCUniversal's Cable Networks (Analysis)

Bonnie Hammer Cover Tout - H 2011
Mary Rozzi
Bonnie Hammer

CEO Steve Burke's move, which puts Lauren Zalaznick into a more digital-minded role, ends one of the highest-profile power struggles in the TV business.

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

One of the cable industry’s most high-profile power struggles has ended with Bonnie Hammer proving victorious at NBCUniversal.

As part of a corporate restructuring, CEO Steve Burke announced Feb. 4 that Hammer would take control of all of NBCU’s cable networks, while Lauren Zalaznick -- who formerly oversaw Bravo, Oxygen and Style, among other networks -- would move into a more digital-minded role focused on innovation and monetization.

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The move, which consolidates the cable division as Burke has done with sales (under Linda Yaccarino), sports (Mark Lazarus) and news (Pat Fili-Krushel), comes more than two years after Comcast assumed control of NBCUniversal and split the company’s lucrative cable portfolio between Zalaznick and Hammer. At that time, Burke knew that while doing so was hardly an efficient move, he risked losing one of the two executives if the assets weren’t divided. And while Zalaznick's Bravo found success with such franchises as The Real Housewives and Top Chef, Hammer’s purview, which included No. 1 cable network USA, generated bigger revenue and ratings for the company.

“At this point, [Steve] had to make a choice between the two, and he chose Bonnie,” notes one insider, who added that the new roles play to Zalaznick and Hammer’s strengths, as a big-picture thinker and a top-notch cable operator, respectively. Zalaznick will be tasked with trying to better understand how the larger company can monetize an evolving digital landscape. She’ll be focused on emerging technologies as well as windowing and TV Everywhere, the industry's multiplatform initiative. As Burke noted in an internal memo, Zalaznick has had great success with other cross-company efforts – or as he dubs them, “symphony”-- including Women at NBCU. Added Burke: “She loves ideas and new ways of doing things. She also is innovative, energetic and focused on growth.”

For her part, Hammer had been overseeing more than 2,000 employees and a portfolio with 2012 revenue of $4 billion and profits of $2 billion, both up 5 percent compared with 2011. Now, her newly renamed Cable Entertainment Group will represent about 50 percent of the company’s operating cash flow. Hammer, whose rise through the ranks of NBCU has been well documented, often is lauded for both a leadership style that has bred extreme loyalty among her staff as well as a branding savvy that has come to define her networks (see USA’s blue-sky philosophy).

In fact, upon taking the reins of E! postmerger, she set about installing marketing exec Suzanne Kolb as president, rebranding the network as a higher-brow destination for pop culture fare and pushing it into scripted development. In the process, she has spent significant time in Los Angeles, where E! is based. More recently, Hammer has been at work on shifting the G4 gaming network to a men’s lifestyle-oriented Esquire network under chief Adam Stotsky, another former marketing exec.

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“After being fortunate enough to work alongside some amazingly talented people for the past several years, I can't tell you how exciting it is to expand the circle to include more of the best and the brightest in the business,” Hammer wrote in a note to her expanded team hours after the news broke. “With Bravo, Oxygen, Style, Sprout and TV One joining our current portfolio in the newly formed Cable Entertainment Group, we're all now part of a powerhouse with the kind of creativity and reach other media companies can only dream about.”

To be sure, Burke is said to be a big fan of Zalaznick’s and had no desire to see her leave. In a bid to show his continued support, Zalaznick -- often described as either a powerful tastemaker or a quirky intellect -- was given an office on the 51st floor near Burke and other top execs. “If they want to get rid of someone, they have no problem doing it,” says one NBCU insider, referring to a slew of former execs, from Jeff Zucker to Jeff Gaspin, who were shown the door by Comcast executives. “Steve created this job for her, and if anyone can make it work, it’s Lauren.”

Email: Lacey.Rose@thr.com

Twitter: @LaceyVRose