NBC Universal splits TV studio

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UPDATED 7:53 p.m. PT March 24, 2008

NBC Universal is splitting its television studio into two separate companies to create a new production division led by cable chief Bonnie Hammer.

The move extracts such scripted cable titles as USA Network's "Monk" and Sci Fi Channel's "Battlestar Galactica" from Los Angeles-based Universal Media Studios, shifting responsibility for the cable programs to a newly formed division called NBC Universal Cable Studio. Physical production resources will continue to be shared between the two groups, and unscripted content will continue to be developed by individual networks.

The new studio will be run by Hammer, who will continue her oversight of USA and Sci Fi. In addition, Hammer will add NBC Universal's Emerging Networks group to her list of responsibilities, including Chiller, Sleuth and Universal HD. (Dan Harrison will continue running the day-to-day operations of the group.) The cable studio's shows will include "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," which shifted its premieres this season from NBC to USA.

"Bonnie's achievements with USA and Sci Fi have been spectacular," NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker said. "She's a multitalented executive who knows how to run a network, program it successfully and inspire a team."

The deal is part of Hammer's multiyear new contract agreement and represents a significant oversight increase for an executive who's widely credited with helping grow NBC Universal's successful cable assets. She will continue to report to Universal Television Group president and COO Jeff Gaspin and will remain based in New York.

"It just seemed natural for cable to control its own product from conception to completion," said Hammer, whose new official title is president, cable entertainment and cable studio. "We just want to be able to control what we need to control without having somebody who has nothing to do with cable making those decisions."

Richard Rothstein, senior vp cable programming at Universal Media Studios, will report to Hammer under the new division. Hammer also has joined the boards of A&E Networks, Shop NBC and Sundance Channel.

The NBC Universal leadership shift represents a significant contract signing bonus for Hammer but appears to reduce the roles of a trio of top executives who split up control of the studio last year amid a companywide executive shake-up: NBC Universal co-chairs Marc Graboff and Ben Silverman, who run Universal Media Studios in addition to the broadcast network, and Katherine Pope, who took over as president of the studio last year.

NBC network sources noted that Graboff and Silverman's studio efforts were focused on the broadcast network anyway, and that such an emphasis made it difficult for Hammer's networks to become a top priority. By giving Hammer her own division, it assures that the needs of the cable division and the broadcast network are always first in line at their respective studios.

The broadcast network has struggled in fourth place in recent years, while the cable networks led by USA, Sci Fi and Bravo have become significant revenue generators. USA was the most-watched network last year, while Hammer led Sci Fi from a niche channel to the No. 6 cable network.

The burgeoning cable division has prompted the company to emphasize cooperation between the broadcast and cable sides, with frequent cross-platform programming and marketing initiatives (such as the upcoming airing of USA Network's "Monk" and "Psych" on NBC, while "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" premieres each week on USA).

In a way, splitting the studio runs against NBC Universal's trend toward unifying resources. Yet it perfectly reflects the increasing power of the cable group -- and Hammer's leadership, in particular.

Hammer said creating two separate studio leadership divisions will not create friction or result in decreased cooperation between the broadcast and cable operations.

"We're still going to share, we're still going to work together," she said. "If we bring in something that works for the networks, we're going to throw it over to the network's group. ... It doesn't mean we're not going to work any less closely with Marc and Ben. We're buddies."
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