Bonnie Hammer Reveals First Brush With Prejudice: 'They Thought Jews Had Horns'

From left: Gina Torres, Matt Bomer, Bonnie Hammer, Daniel Sunjata and Mark Feuerstein, photographed by Wesley Mann on July 11 at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City.

The NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment chairman explains in THR's Philanthropy Issue that her rude awakening in college was part of the inspiration behind a USA Network campaign to combat intolerance.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Growing up in a Jewish family in New York, NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment chairman Bonnie Hammer never had issues with prejudice -- until she took a college trip to Kansas. “They had never seen a Jew before … and literally someone said they thought Jews had horns,” she recalls.

That rude awakening combined with her half-Malaysian stepdaughter’s own experiences ultimately inspired Hammer to create Characters Unite, USA Network’s campaign dedicated to combating prejudice, discrimination and intolerance while promoting understanding and acceptance.

Established in 2009, Characters Unite features public service announcements, themed episodes, high school programs and other outreach efforts. Tied to USA’s “Characters Welcome” slogan, the initiative won the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network’s Inspiration Award in May, in part for a February episode of Necessary Roughness in which a star quarterback faces harassment while coming out of the closet.

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Funds for the campaign come from the network’s budget and its stars are enthusiastic, voluntary participants, who often have experienced various forms of discrimination and intolerance in their own lives.

“These issues can’t help but affect me personally,” says Suits star Gina Torres, who has done PSAs and starred in themed episodes of her series. “I am a Cuban woman of color. It has been a lifetime challenge of explaining and justifying and busting out of whatever particular box that anyone sees fit to put me in.”

Hammer also has an intense, personal commitment to the campaign.

“It's not a hat that she puts on for an event,” White Collar’s Matt Bomer says. “She lives it, so I think it's just an extension of who she is.”

And Hammer’s in the process of applying her philanthropic personality to other NBCUniversal assets she oversees, working on brand-specific pro-social programs at networks like E! and Bravo, to likely roll out in 2014.

“Obviously, USA Network, with ‘Characters Welcome,’ does and should own Characters Unite … but each of the networks have a different brand in terms of who they cater to,” she explains.

So, Hammer and her colleagues are still trying to figure out, for each network, as she put it, “How do we use the characters, how do we use the platform, how do we use their brand, so that it feels natural and can be meaningful to the audience who comes to them 24/7.”

While Hammer admits she’d love to expand her efforts even more, she’s quick to note she’s content with her already massive, multiplatform opportunity.

But those who are involved with Characters Unite are optimistic that its message will become universal.

“USA does welcome, ever since back in the day with Monk, the various eccentricities and idiosyncrasies of our character," Royal PainsMark Feuerstein explains. "As ethnic people, as people of race, as people of differing religions, everyone is welcome at USA and, someday and hopefully always, in the USA for sure and the world at large.”

Adds Graceland's Daniel Sunjata, “It’s just interesting to note that, even after the civil rights movement, people think, ‘2013 -- we must be beyond all this hatred and discrimination and all that.’ But we still really do have a lot of work left to do.”