“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.)
“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.
“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.”
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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Hammer’s own aspirations were formed in Queens, where she was raised the youngest of three children. While her late father, who started his own pen manufacturing company in the family’s garage, remains Hammer’s role model, it was her many summers at sleepaway camp in upstate New York that she says prepared her for the team-oriented environment she’s been able to build at the office. Her father taught her not to take no for an answer, a quality she admits she employs not only in the workplace but also at hotels, restaurants and stores. “As long as you do it classily and nicely, you can get anything you want,” Hammer says with a light laugh.
After toying with careers in law and psychology, Hammer graduated from Boston University with a degree in photojournalism. From there, she talked her way into a graduate program in media and technology, before landing her first industry gig working as a production assistant on Boston PBS station WGBH’s Infinity Factory. As she recalls, the role included picking up after a sheepdog. “We all had to look after a cast member,” she says, “and since I was the youngest and greenest PA they gave me the dog.”
By 1986, she had gained experience on a handful of series and took an executive gig at Lifetime, where she focused primarily on socially conscious documentaries. Three years later, she was offered a programming position at USA, then jointly owned by Paramount and MCA/Universal, where a superior handed her the reins to what is now the World Wrestling Entertainment franchise. “I remember sitting in one of the early video conferences when Rod Perth said to me, ‘Bonnie, I need you to take over the WWF. There needs to be some story there; it’s all just big blowups and fighting,’ ” she recalls of a programming block she had little interest in. “I looked at him and said, ‘Rod, are you crazy?’ I’m pretty sure I flipped him the bird in the middle of the meeting, and then went home to my husband and threatened to quit.”
On her husband’s advice, Hammer spent the next few weeks familiarizing herself with the brand before showing up at imposing wrestling chief Vince McMahon‘s office. As the petite executive remembers it, she dressed down in boots and blue jeans, walked in and said, “Listen, up until two weeks ago, I never watched your show. I don’t know what your business is, and I don’t care what your business is. The only thing I know is how to make good TV.”
She proved as much, working closely with McMahon and his team to find stories and characters that viewers could invest in. During the Monday live shows, she’d be on the phone with the crew telling them what they should show and, in the case of one character taking a machete to another’s genitals, when they needed to cut to black. The following mornings she’d be on the phone with McMahon discussing notes and soaring ratings. Nearly two decades later, Hammer calls the experience one of the most enjoyable of her career.
Soon after, larger-than-life mogul Barry Diller took over, and Hammer insists one of the only reasons he kept her in the job was because of her wrestling ties. “I think he thought it was kind of funny that a girl could deal with Vince McMahon,” she says. By 2001, Hammer was upped to president of Syfy (then Sci Fi Channel), and while she had spent much of her youth devouring science fiction books, she made it her mission to broaden the network beyond its core sci-fi audience. Hammer did so, bringing the network from a ranking in the high 20s to the top 10 on the back of such fare as her $40 million Steven Spielberg miniseries Taken, which debuted to Emmy acclaim in 2002. It was also that project, which cost another $10 million or so to market, that ultimately gave Hammer a career-altering boost from Diller, whom she counts among her mentors.
With the team around her doubting her instincts — and sniping at the show’s harrowing price tag — Hammer sent an episode to Diller for review and reassurance. His response, in an e-mail with bright orange, 18 or 20 point type: “Honey, if all your episodes are as gluely compelling, I think you have a hit on your hands. Ignore the world.” So, she recalls, “we held our nose and jumped. It was the highest-rated limited series not just for Syfy, but ever on cable.” To this day, the e-mail remains in a special folder on Hammer’s computer.
In 2004, she returned to USA as president, commissioning a brand audit that revealed what she had feared about the network. “What we heard back was that USA was like an old, worn-out shoe, and I wanted it to be a Louboutin,” she says, her personal style in keeping with the latter. In her attempt to revitalize the network, she honed in on character and an upbeat “blue skies” philosophy, green-lighting shows including Burn Notice, Royal Pains and recent effort Suits. The logo changed with it: no more American flag; no more capital letters. “We made it more relatable and accessible,” she explains, not to mention more popular and profitable. USA has now been the No. 1 cable network for five consecutive years and is also the most lucrative in NBCUniversal’s stable.
Among the professional qualities USA’s McCumber is most impressed by is Hammer’s savvy management style, which doesn’t allow for silos. “If we’re talking about developing a show, each one of us from marketing to programming to ad sales will read the scripts and talk about casting,” he says of the unique approach where every member of the team is invested. “This way, when we win, we win together; and when we lose, there’s no pointing figures because we all made the decisions together.”
Hammer’s vision has garnered fans in the creative community. The Bourne Identity director Doug Liman, who has two shows on USA in Covert Affairs and Suits, likens Hammer to a modern-day Jack Warner. “In the olden days, when a filmmaker went to work for a studio, they worked for a place that had a strong identity and a very powerful leader. The end result is these enduring movies that filmmakers like myself today are trying to figure out how to make,” he says. “At USA, Bonnie has created a version of that.”
These days, the married mother of two — son Jesse, 18, and daughter Ki Mae, 31 — is getting used to her new status as a chairman and an empty nester. (Jesse is currently at Dartmouth, where Ki Mae and husband Dale are alumni.) Both have been major adjustments: the former because she’s had to learn to be arms length after a lengthy career of being precisely the opposite; the latter because she’s spent the last two decades living in tony Westport, Conn., where she’s primarily known as “Jesse’s mom.”
Looking to the future, Hammer’s goals are no longer about acquiring more networks to run, but rather about exploring new mediums. “There’s a bit of quiet wisdom that comes when you’re not a newbie at this. You become a lot more comfortable with yourself and you’re no longer climbing,” says Hammer. As skaters whiz by at the nearby Rockefeller Center rink, she opens up about all of the other things that she’s been quietly itching to do, including yoga, a fitting fitness routine for someone who historically has found activities to reflect her life state. (During her stint under Diller, she took up kick-boxing, where her six-foot bag had his name as a strike target.)
There’s also a tongue-in-cheek book that she’s been toying with writing for women coming up in the entertainment industry, along with a movie. “I’ve not had any interest in running a movie studio, but I want to make one feature film,” she declares as a plate of berries arrives for dessert. She hasn’t come across the right property yet, but says she’s thinking something “upbeat and aspirational,” a movie along the lines of Field of Dreams or Forrest Gump that leaves people feeling hope. She continues, “Something that’s fun, a little twisted and out there, and even a bit provocative but has humor and resonates.”
She takes a beat, before adding, “It’s just something that I’ve always wanted to do.” To know Hammer, who has made a career out of turning desire into reality, is to know she will.
HAMMER’S RISE TO POWER
1976: After toying with a career in photography, Hammer landed producer gigs for a collection of series on Boston’s PBS station, WGBH, including the kids’ series Zoom.
1985: The native New Yorker ventured to Los Angeles briefly to work as a producer on the syndicated talk show Alive & Well, alongside director David Auerbach.
1986: She accepted an executive post at Lifetime, where she oversaw documentaries on such topics as date rape and child abuse.
1989: Hammer jumped over to USA, where she worked her way up the corporate ladder. By 1994, she had inherited — and quickly reinvigorated — the WWE franchise.
1997: Barry Diller became a boss and mentor to Hammer. To this day, she keeps an encouraging e-mail from him suggesting she trust her gut and “ignore the world” saved on her computer.
2001: Hammer was upped to president of Syfy. “Everybody left us alone at the beginning because … there was nowhere to go but up,” she recalls of a net she catapulted to the top 5.
2004: She added USA president to her duties, rebranding it as a destination for “blue skies” character dramas such as Burn Notice and Royal Pains.
2010: She says of her post-Comcast merger role: “My gut is I like my hands on everything. But as a newly anointed chairperson, my job can’t be to micromanage the way I used to.”
TODAY: Up next, she hopes to elevate E! as she did USA and Syfy. “The most important thing for me is really defining aspirational … making the network more clever and smarter,” she says of the Kardashian net.