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This story first appeared in the 2014 Women in Entertainment issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Over two chilly days in early November, Bonnie Hammer assembled her 11 top executives into a second-floor conference room at Manhattan’s Park Hyatt Hotel and urged them to tackle a single question: “What the f— are we going to do?”
Her choice of words drew chuckles, but the chairman of NBCUniversal’s Cable Entertainment Group was in no way kidding around. And, she made clear, time was of the essence. “Everything we know is being challenged,” she said, her blue eyes scanning the room. All the major trends in the business — the surplus of original content, the new forms of distribution and the increased reliance on time-shifting — are wreaking havoc on her top-rated networks, which include USA, Syfy and Bravo, along with nearly everyone else’s. “In the past, we’ve had some amazing models. ‘We like what they’re doing with programming.’ ‘We like how they’re structured for the future.’ But there’s nobody to look at today, so we have to be the change agents.”
Her boss, NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke, had offered a similarly sober assessment during a Comcast Corp. earnings call only a few weeks earlier: “Our big cable channels, particularly when sold as a portfolio, are very attractive and very powerful,” he said, before adding, “I just think it’s unreasonable to assume that the ratings for those businesses are going to grow if you look over a five- or 10-year period.” Some of the data that concerns Burke as well as Hammer: Thus far this year, ratings for 21 of the top 25 cable networks are down among the coveted 18-to-49 demographic, with Hammer’s networks off, on average, 8 percent. And though USA, her crown jewel, is poised to deliver its most profitable year on record thanks to such factors as rising ad rates and greater digital revenue, it’s down a steeper 12 percent in the ratings.
The fact that these foreboding trends run throughout the entire cable universe doesn’t mollify Hammer. The fiercely competitive cable veteran built her reputation on having plus signs in front of all her channels. She is No. 1 on this magazine’s list of the most powerful women in Hollywood because she continues to deliver — her group of 10 networks and two cable studios is expected to post profits of $2.7 billion this year, up 9 percent from 2013 and accounting for more than half of NBCUniversal’s total haul. In a given week, 129 million Americans tune in to one of Hammer’s channels, many of which also have substantial global reach. Results like those have earned her the complete support of Burke, who placed her in charge of all of the NBCU entertainment cable networks and some 2,000 employees early last year. “She’s not afraid of change,” he says. “Many times, very successful people wake up in the morning and say, ‘How do I preserve my success?’ I think Bonnie wakes up in the morning and says, ‘How do I create more success?’ and ‘How do I ensure success in the changing world by transforming elements of our business?’ ”
That attitude was on display as Hammer addressed her top lieutenants — a tight-knit mix of programming, research and finance executives, more than half of them female and nearly all of them long-tenured — at the Park Hyatt and challenged them to rethink nearly every aspect of the way they do business. Also on display: a sense of confidence that hadn’t been there earlier in Hammer’s career, as she climbed her way up the corporate ladder with stops at Lifetime, USA and Syfy. At 64 years old, the mother of two grown children is as focused on tackling the industry’s troubles as she is on grooming future leaders to carry on her legacy.
“The natural tendency among everyone, including myself to a degree, is to blame [the declines] on everything outside: ‘There’s too much content on too many channels.’ ‘The younger people are watching on mobile or in other ways,’ ” she says, ticking off others. “There are 50 million excuses of why things are the way they are, and we can’t control a single one of them. So the only thing you can do is do better at the things you can control. That means if there’s a hit out there, whether it’s a Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, understand what it is that they’re doing. And it means taking a look at everything we’ve done for pretty much the last decade and see what’s changed.”
If past off-site strategy sessions tended to be based on three-to-five-year time horizons, Hammer made clear that this one would need to be about plans for tomorrow, if not later today.
“We’ve crashed records for a decade-plus, but now it’s about thinking and looking and working differently,” said the New York native, dressed down in designer jeans and flats. With a pair of stylish eyeglasses perched on her head and a venti cup of Starbucks coffee in hand, she requested each of her executives put away their “damn BlackBerrys” and prepare to let their defenses down. She has always been one to stress the value of collaboration. “Bonnie walked in years ago and said, ‘I want to break down these silos. I want to get into each other’s business,’ ” says USA president Chris McCumber, 47, who’s been working with Hammer for more than a decade. “She knew that that’s how you get people to feel ownership, and she also knew that in a siloed atmosphere, it’s really easy for people to say, ‘No, that’s not my job.’ “
The two days together at the off-site would be predicated on five “truths,” which Hammer had prepared and read aloud: “Content is queen,” she began, stressing not only the significance of owning (or co-owning) as much of their programming as possible but also the growing importance of having hits rather than simply volume. Other truths included the necessity of working together across brands, the value of having top talent in place at every level, the need for rethinking the way content has been marketed, and the priority that should be placed on continued experimentation. “We’re at risk of avoiding risk,” she told her team, who scribbled notes in black Moleskine notepads.
With the aid of an outside facilitator, who also serves as Hammer’s leadership coach, the group was then guided through a series of frank discussions about what was (and wasn’t) working. Nothing was off-limits. At one point, the group began dissecting the increasingly valuable position of chief content officer, which was created for Jeff Wachtel a year or so earlier. Should his role be more about portfolio advocacy or network support? they wondered, with him present and weighing in. How should it break down between scripted and unscripted? And shouldn’t he consider expanding the team underneath him?
Before long, big sheets of white paper with buzzwords including “content,” “collaboration” and “connection” in block letters lined the walls, and Hammer was quoting lines — among them, “Be wrong as fast as you can” — from business books like Ed Catmull‘s Creativity, Inc., which she’s been known to dole out to her team. She’d invited guest speakers, too: BBC Worldwide CEO Tim Davie, the head of another major media company who could speak to grappling with similar themes of disruption, and social media guru Gary Vaynerchuk, there to shake up the team’s view on traditional marketing.
Vaynerchuk was so persuasive that the group decided almost immediately to create an “innovation fund” for experimental marketing. A group of 20-somethings at the company will be given a budget to dream up other ways to reach younger viewers through social media, guerrilla campaigns and other events. “We have the best marketers in the business, but they have to take a look at everything they’ve been doing for the last decade and question it,” said Hammer, “because if you think about what attracted us in the past and created noise and recognition, there’s a glut of it, and it’s not how the millennials get their messages.”
Among the harsher realities explored during that time together was the fact that the baby boomer audience, which for years had lapped up her networks’ offerings, had aged out of the 18-to-49 demographic that advertisers pay to reach. More concerning: The younger viewers for whom Hammer’s team will now need to make a bigger play have a distinctly different sensibility. “It’s a very different taste in programming — darker, edgier and more postapocalyptic — and that’s not what any of our brands have been built around,” she says, rattling off such hits as AMC’s Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead that have defined that category. But simply replicating those kinds of shows in a game of catch-up is not an option, with Hammer noting: “We don’t want to be the caboose on the train that’s already gone there.”
Instead, the bet that she and her team have decided to make is that viewers will eventually tire of the bleak, antihero fare that now dominates cable’s hit lists and will want something that, while edgy and serialized, has perhaps a dash of hope. She’s taken to calling it “silver lining” programming, and it will center on characters who demonstrate at least some faith in humanity. Already in the works are Queen of the South, a telenovela adaptation about a female leader set in a world of drug trafficking and murder, and Mr. Robot, about a computer hacker caught at an intersection between a cybersecurity firm who employs him and the underworld organizations that are recruiting him to bring down corporate America, both at USA.
Hammer is intimately involved in each project, as she is in every other series in the portfolio, with upcoming scripted entries from E! (The Royals) and Syfy (12 Monkeys) stoking her enthusiasm of late. She still regularly meets with agents and studio executives on her monthly trips from New York to Los Angeles, with WME television head Rick Rosen noting: “She makes herself accessible to the creative community while still allowing her managers to manage.” Though it has been years since Hammer ran a network, she makes a habit of watching episodes as they come in (often on her train ride to and from her home in Westport, Conn.) and weighs in on details as seemingly minor as color hues in a show’s marketing material. “We can spend days debating whether or not a print ad should be this hue of red or that hue of red,” says McCumber, who adds, “She’s taken on more and more, but she’s never [lost] that attention to detail, and it comes from a love of the business and a love of getting her hands dirty.”
The off-site, from beginning to end, was classic Hammer: casual, candid and all about moving forward. “One of the things that I like most about Bonnie is that she really thinks about the future,” says NBCU Lifestyle Network Group president Frances Berwick, “and those two days were focused on how we should set ourselves up for this changing environment and get ahead of it, rather than having to be reactive.” Hammer was pleased with what transpired, joking that she walked away with a better sense for what the f— they’re going to do, before adding with a raised eyebrow: “But if anybody says they know exactly what to do, they are so full of it, it’s not even funny.”
Hammer seems to have a better handle on her own future. In recent years, she has been working to shed her reputation as a micromanager and enable her top reports to be ready for the day when she’s not there. “You can’t expect people to lead if you’ve never allowed them to learn how,” she says.
Berwick is the latest to get that kind of leeway. When Suzanne Kolb was ousted as president of E! in late September, Hammer doubled Berwick’s portfolio — E!, along with fledgling Esquire, joined Bravo and a recently rebranded Oxygen — in a bid to create a streamlined lifestyle group. Significant programming challenges loom. Kathy Griffin will replace the late Joan Rivers on Fashion Police in January, but still there’s the waning Kardashian franchise and the reality that a phenomenon on that scale is unlikely ever to be replicated. Among the network’s most recent attempts, a Diane von Furstenberg competition docuseries called House of DVF lured some 500,000 viewers in its early outings, leading one Hollywood blog to fire off an unsubstantiated post about Hammer being “livid.” She argues that the post made her more livid than the show’s ratings, which, to her delight, skew upscale and female — a direction in which she has been trying to take the network for years. (Those in her inner circle can’t recall the last time “livid” was a suitable description for Hammer; “demanding,” “passionate,” “direct” and “fair” are far more common.)
That the most recent beneficiary of Hammer’s corporate shuffling is another woman is not an accident either. “I’m not going to hire just to hire, but I find, oftentimes, that women tend to work harder and they prioritize better because they’re often juggling more with family and work. And if, as a strong woman, I’m not willing to give women a chance, I should be shot,” she says. While she’s careful to note that she has been blessed by working for a batch of men, from Barry Diller (an early boss, longtime mentor and von Furstenberg’s husband) to Burke, who she suggests are more gender-blind than most, she does believe there’s still a glass ceiling for women: “I’d be dishonest if I didn’t say it’s oftentimes harder to be in that boardroom. … But I’ve learned a lot, and one of my [strategies] is that I don’t try to be a guy, and I don’t feel I have to be a bitch to get my voice heard.”
As immersed as she remains in running her media empire, Hammer has given extensive thought to her next act, which is likely to include greater attention to her photography. It’s a long-term passion that dates to her days at Boston University, where she was a photojournalism major. (Over the years, her work has been published in Time, the Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe.) Her husband, Dale, bought her a Nikon digital camera for her birthday, and she plans to start shooting during a trip to Hawaii. There’s also a book in the works that will center on a topic that she has given ample thought: the act of aging gracefully as a woman. There will be board positions to keep her occupied, too, including the seat she recently accepted at Diller’s IAC.
None of which is to imply Hammer’s days at NBCU are numbered — Burke says he’s hopeful she remains with the company for “a long, long time.” Her contract runs through 2018, and she’s committed to the idea of morphing gradually into the next stage of her career: “I want the acts to blend. I don’t want one to have a sharp end and another to have a sharp beginning,” she says. “I want to be able to continue to give in a way and teach and grow the folks who are with me and have them all in good spots when I do say goodbye, but I’m hoping the goodbye isn’t just, ‘One day it’s over.’ “
Still, she conveys a sense of personal calm that hasn’t always been evident, and that has allowed her to approach the myriad obstacles that face her in the job without any kind of political agenda. “I’m not vying for anything. I don’t want anybody’s job. I’ve had enough success in my life that I don’t have to prove anything anymore,” she says. “The reason I want to do something has no ulterior motive now. I don’t have to kiss anybody else’s butt. I don’t have to please anybody.”
Hammer pauses for a moment to reflect, then continues: “There’s a kind of a freedom because I’m not second-guessing myself, and that’s one of the beautiful things that comes with being a little older, a little wiser and literally not climbing anymore.”
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