NBCUniversal's Bonnie Hammer Gets Candid on Her Whirlwind Year: "I Ain't Going Out to Pasture"

David Needleman

Long the most powerful woman in cable television, The Hollywood Reporter's Women in Entertainment Executive Icon opens up for the first time about her crash course in streaming, her plans for the studio and her legacy.

When Bonnie Hammer's boss, NBCUniversal chief executive Steve Burke, sat her down a year ago to discuss her future, she never anticipated cable television not being a part of it.

Hammer, after all, had spent 30 years in the cable arena, rising to an unparalleled perch atop six networks. In any given week, more than 100 million viewers would tune in to watch something on one of them, be it USA, Bravo or Syfy. Even as ratings declined, she managed to keep growing that portfolio in profit and revenue for 15 consecutive years.

But now Burke wanted her to get the company's streaming service off the ground. She'd need to assemble a team, build out a brand and line up programming — and in order to do so, she'd need to leave her collection of cable networks, along with its chief suppliers, UCP and Wilshire Studios, behind.

"I always thought I would end this chapter, the corporate chapter, in this role," says Hammer, who was as shocked as anyone about the new assignment. "So, when he said, 'You've got to give this up,' it was like, 'But how can I give up my babies?' " Nevertheless, she threw herself in, learning an entirely new business in the third act of her career.

By fall, the streamer had a name (Peacock), a team and a slew of development — and Burke had a new plan for Hammer. This time, he'd be moving her to the supplier side, where she'd oversee all of NBCU's TV studios — feeding Peacock, but no longer leading it. The move was both a surprise and a relief for the cable vet, who lacked the technological expertise to usher the service through its next phase.

Over lunch at Manhattan's famed Rainbow Room in late November, Hammer — THR's executive icon for her influence and contributions to the industry — opened up for the first time about her transition, future and legacy.

Take us back: Steve Burke tells you you'll be taking on the streaming service, but you'll be moved off of cable. How do you react?

It really was a moment of assessment about everything, because I started at USA Network 30 years ago. But the reality is, it was time. I had an incredible run. When I first started with USA, it was making under 300 million bucks. Now, its operating cash flow was $1.3 billion, and its revenue close to $3 billion. So, when I finally came to terms with it, and what, frankly, Dale [her husband] helped me see, was that I had managed growth for 30 years …

Was "no" an option?

I suppose so, but I think Steve also knew he had to start managing the changes in the business and the decline of linear ratings. And in his desire to make sure he managed the company at large, he probably wanted to put somebody [Mark Lazarus] in place who could start merging and thinking about that landscape in a different way. And in fairness, and in some ways kindness to me, I think he also knew I wouldn't want to manage decline. And so here was an opportunity to take my skillset in terms of figuring out what this [streaming service] is — what the brand is, what the name is, what the marketing strategy is, how to start its programming — and also learn firsthand about the technology. It was this amazing 10-month education, a baptism by fire. I was working almost every single night, every weekend, like I was 30 again, and I ain't 30. (Laughs.) But taking it to the next point of managing bundles or distribution deals or how it then plays out in the world was not, is not, my area of interest or expertise. They needed somebody with great technological strength, and that was Matt Strauss.

When did you realize that?

I kind of always knew that, at some point, they'd need somebody with the technological skill to take it to the next step. But in truth, it was Steve. I was sitting in my normal, every-other-week one-on-one with him, going through my checklist. He lets me go through my whole rundown, and then he says to me, "So, I have a job for you." I went, "Excuse me? I thought I had a job." And he goes, "You're still going to be feeding that job, but the future is content and you're the right person to oversee all the studios." And I have to tell you, if I had to graph what I would've wanted to do as a next chapter, it would be this. I know every piece of that business because I'm one of the few people who started a studio from scratch.

So, what keeps you up at night now?

Everything. (Laughs.) How to compete in this world and make sure that there's cooperation and collaboration among the studios. And then it's wanting whatever we do with them to succeed and be visible — and then try to figure out what that next chapter is for me.

Does the next chapter scare you at all?

It entices me. Change is always scary, but I've gone through enough over the years so I don't have the same fear of it. Look, in my mind, I'm still 30. I don't feel older, and somehow my vision is soft enough that when I look in the mirror it isn't that bad. But I don't know what the world outside is ready for.

What does that mean?

Older men are viewed as distinguished and almost ageless. The older they are, the more information, knowledge and wisdom they have. Here's a little horse racing analogy. When male horses can no longer race, they go to stud farms. When you think about mares, they're put out to pasture. And as I look around our world, unfortunately, I think that analogy still exists. You see aging guys sitting in spaces, distinguished, whether on boards or whatever. I'm not highly convinced yet that women are given that same respect.

What will that mean for your next chapter?

I'm hoping to be the exception.

And go to a stud farm?

I ain't going to pasture. (Laughs.) Listen, I am so not going to be the one sitting and eating the grass in a field with the sun on my back. I'm going to want to do several things. One is to eventually use my experience to jump into something probably outside the corporate world. And I want to mentor. It's on us to bring up women in a smart, healthy and not angry mode. There needed to be a time of noise and pounding on the table to be heard, but now we need to teach people how to use their voice in a way that's productive, and learn to listen. What some of the movements have also done, and I think they were incredibly valuable and necessary, is almost make women believe that there isn't an advantage to being a woman. And I'm a big believer that being female is a good thing.

You don't sound like someone who's particularly interested in leaving the corporate world.

I don't know if I'll leave it. But I also don't want to look back on my life and say I woulda, shoulda, coulda — that Dale and I didn't either travel enough or do other stuff that then, when we do physically age, as opposed to biologically age, we all of a sudden aren't able to do. And it scares me a little that I don't own my age. I'll be 70 in July.

You wince just saying it.

I'm having a very hard time owning the number. Not anything else about it but the number, because when I think about what my parents looked like, talked like, felt like at that age, I see a very different biological example. So, I've decided I want to run a marathon. I read about this 102-year-old woman who finished either the Boston or New York one. If she can do it, so can I.

Is this about proving to yourself that you can do it or proving it to everybody else?

Myself, totally. You know what comes with aging? You don't give a shit. It's almost like when you were young. When you start out in the working world, you’re naive and fearless. You either have no ego or you have such a ridiculous ego that you have no sense of what's going on. So you don't think about any of the outside circumstances or what can happen if it goes wrong; the consequences just don't exist. And then you grow up in the world, especially the corporate world, where all of a sudden everybody has an agenda, and you begin second-guessing everybody's agenda. And you’re so fearful of making a mistake or looking stupid in front of your boss or a group of people that you don't have a purity to what you're doing. You're doing something because you're either being told "This is the right way to do it" or to meet everybody else's expectations. And if you're lucky, you're following the right game plan and you can succeed. But you're also vying for jobs. You're vying for promotions. Everything is about that next step. Being judged or feeling judged. And then, you get to a point in life where you just don't care.

And that’s where you’re at?

Yep. I don't have an agenda, I don't want anybody's job, and no one's going to give me anybody else's job. Dale gave me this analogy, which I love, about aging quarterbacks: They’re the best in the game because they say that the speed of play basically slows down as you age, and so they’re able to see the entire field without letting any of the noise get in their way. They’re able to detect if someone's about to knock them down and they can get rid of a ball a half-second earlier than many of the quarterbacks that are much younger. Again, it's all about being wise enough to shut out the noise. And that's how I've been feeling the last number of years. I can shut out all of the garbage around me and just act.

It’s no longer your issue, but I’m curious where you see the cable business going. What will a USA Network look like in three to five years?

I don't know what's going to happen with linear TV at all. My assumption is there will be a very sharp, focused filter in terms of scripted. Partly because Mark Lazarus is now running it, with Chris [McCumber] under him, you already are seeing more merging between the sports division and USA, and rightfully so. But my assumption is the white space will not be scripted. The white space will [exist] in live shiny floor and probably more sports — things that streaming can't necessarily do.

Your focus instead is on the studio business. Looking ahead, do you intend to keep the studios separate, particularly as they try to service the same entities?

Yes. There will be an umbrella brand — which we're still figuring out a name for — but to produce as much as we need to produce, it would be impossible to do under one specific studio. Look, we're going to be collaborative and we're going to be sharing talent. But when a Tina Fey or an Amy Poehler or a Sam Esmail is comfortable with who they're working with, we don't want to force them into another relationship and to work with other people. And people have different sensibilities. What a Dawn [Olmstead, who oversees UCP] will oversee and get produced versus what a Pearlena [Igbokwe, who oversees Universal TV] will get done will be equally good but different. We want both.

You’re competing against the Amazons and Netflixes of the world on overall deals. How do you assess who and at what price they make sense? At the price points being bandied about, do they still make financial sense? 

You have to be smart about it. I think one of the reasons Steve wanted me to take over the studios is that I know when no is no. I know how to assess whether something makes sense or not. There will be times where we believe it's important enough to the entity, whether it's Peacock, NBC or a USA, where we basically close our eyes, hold our nose and jump. The smart thing that we're doing is that Belinda Menendez's world of [global] distribution will now fold into the studios, so we're going to be looking at and structuring deals with the backend in mind as well. Before, [global distribution] reported to somebody else and we were lucky if they could sell [a show] after the fact.

And Peacock is only domestic right now, which allows you to do that.

Correct. Obviously, at some point, they want it to be global. But right now, it gives us a lot of freedom to play it out. And Peacock won't always be able to buy a second window, nor will USA or Syfy always think that their shows should be on [Peacock]. But because it's in a singular family, the conversations are easy.

In your time at the streaming service, you did very rich deals to get The Office and Park and Recreation libraries. How do you decide what’s worth it in this frenzied marketplace?

It is a frenzied marketplace. When we market an original show [in cable], you're trying to get as many eyeballs under the tent as possible. In streaming, you're either doing something to acquire subscribers or you're doing it for usage, meaning keeping people in the tent. You need some noisy titles with a boatload of episodes to keep people happy, i.e., The Office. It’s one of the few shows that the millennials now are watching because the quirkiness of it is universal. So it's taking the bets on shows that are broad enough and sticky enough to keep people there and may have reboot-ability. Clearly, the fantasy, whether it ever happens or not, is to actually reboot The Office and then have this ridiculous number of episodes behind it to support it. But again, it's being wise about what you're choosing to buy. And what Steve has made very clear from the beginning is we want to be in it to win it, but we want to be in it to win it our way — not at the cost of every other business inside of NBCU.

There's a tremendous amount of rebooting going on right now. How do you practice caution there?

It’s not just finding legacy shows that simply because they haven't been rebooted, you reboot. You have to look at the culture, look at the generation we're targeting and really make sure that it's relevant to what we're doing today. We can bring in a list of questions before we just pick it up.

What are those questions?

It's understanding who's the market. Who are you trying to sell this to? Is it in any way, shape or form relevant to that generation right now? And if so, why? Casting. Are you just going to bring back people from the past? Because the 20-, 30-somethings have no clue who they are. Again, it's based on understanding what you're trying to do as opposed to just doing it.

Finally, Peacock. One of your tasks was to name the streamer. What did that process entail?

I'm not exaggerating, we probably went through tens of thousands of names through multiple naming and branding entities — these services that help you do it. And so many words that were identifiable were somehow complicated by other ownership or different meanings in different languages. You have to check to see do they mean anything in French, in German, in Swahili, whatever. And some of them were laugh-out-loud funny what they meant in other languages. Then we came down from thousands to about 30, and then to 16. There was a combination of words that we had done some research on but not necessarily the deep dive globally on whether we could own them or not. And then made-up words, like a Hulu where you just put letters together so that it’s an empty vessel that, with the right branding and marketing, you can fill it to mean anything you want it to mean. But in my mind, it was right in front of us. And it was a matter of getting the domain and the rights, which were more complicated than one would expect.

You didn’t own Peacock already?

No. There was an entity somewhere in the United States who had used it for some other reason. After much negotiation, we were able to get it claimed. But we had different versions just in case it couldn't be claimed like dot tv. I will say we did get some wonderful responses from people we didn't expect saying, "Finally, it's not a Plus or a Max!"

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the 2019 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.