NBC Universal Cable Entertainment President Bonnie Hammer learned a lot about dealing with pressure in a 33-year career in television. But nothing could have prepared her for the challenge she's grappling with this year at her NBC Universal unit — which includes cable's biggest channel, USA Network, and SciFi Channel.
All eyes are on Hammer, 58, to see if her programming and marketing skills are sharp enough to overcome a miserable economy and increasingly tough competition, and to continue one of cable's most remarkable winning streaks.
The high point came last year, with USA's ratings victory over the CBS-owned CW network. It was the first time a cable channel ended a calendar year with a larger audience than one of the five top broadcast networks.
"We're not naïve," Hammer says. "It's scary to see what's happening in the advertising world. But we're more successful than we've ever been. This quarter will probably be the best in (our) history in terms of ratings and revenue."
She hopes to build momentum with ambitious new efforts to freshen the programming and images of her channels. USA's new "Character Project" tries to add class to the TV home of World Wrestling Entertainment and original series with quirky characters including Psych, Monk and Burn Notice. Ads and a book will feature portraits of ordinary and famous people taken by 11 top photographers. And USA will produce a documentary with Tom Brokaw exploring the lives of average Americans.
Hammer also hopes to broaden the galaxy of viewers for SciFi. She's opening it to fantasy programming, instead of strictly science fiction, and giving it a new name — Syfy — beginning in July.
"You can't trademark the word 'sci-fi,' " she says. "We've had a perceptual grab on a genre, but we couldn't own the brand." That's important now, because, "We're doing more gaming, and growing the brand beyond television."
Last week, SciFi Ventures partnered with Acclaim Games to develop online games, and made its first effort to reach 6- to 12-year-olds by agreeing to create a destination at the online home of ZooKazoo.
NBC Universal needs Hammer to succeed. Its revenues and profits are down. Prime-time ratings at the broadcast network are down. The movie studio is missing in action, with just 4.3% of all box-office revenue thus far in 2009.
No wonder CEO Jeff Zucker told a conference last week that NBC Universal is "mostly a cable company now," with its channels accounting for about 60% of the $3.5 billion operating profit his TV, Internet, movie and theme park company generated last year on revenue of $17 billion.
Last year, Zucker also put Hammer in charge of emerging networks — including Sleuth, Chiller and Universal HD — and a newly created studio, Universal Cable Productions. Other executives run other NBC Universal channels, including CNBC, Bravo and Oxygen. But Hammer's universe, with USA and SciFi, contributed more than $1 billion to NBC Universal's 2008 profits.
NBC Universal is cagey about releasing detailed financial information. Hammer, though, says, "I can tell you that our (operating profit) margins are well over 50%. I'm very proud of that." USA is off to a solid start this year. The channel attracted viewers in an average of 2.5 million homes during prime time in February, up 11% from the same month last year. SciFi was flat at about 839,000 homes.
Hammer says revenue at USA, her biggest property, is 13% ahead of the first quarter in 2008 which was its "best year ever in ratings, revenues, operating profit and margin — bar none."
Those who know Hammer credit her marketing acumen and willingness to stand up for her beliefs. Both qualities paid off in 2005 when USA won the broadcast rights to WWE from Viacom's TNN — now called Spike.
"The reason we were in the game was because (WWE Chairman Vince McMahon) and his whole crew loved Bonnie and believed that she understood brands," says Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav, who oversaw NBC Universal's cable operations until 2007. "But the (price) was big, and there was a question about whether we should step up to the plate. She fought every battle to get that thing to the finish line — including to raise her hand and say, 'I will make it work.' "
Word is important
Hammer was heavily influenced by her father, a penmaker who moved here as a child from Russia.
"His word and a handshake were all that mattered," she says. "If I say something, I mean it. If I promise something, best as I can, I'm going to follow through. If I say I have your back, I genuinely mean it. And on our team, we work that way."
Her team bonded over many years as USA and SciFi passed through different owners, including Universal, Seagram, Vivendi and Barry Diller before ending up in 2004 with NBC Universal. Although she has strong views about projects, she tries to ensure that the team doesn't succumb to groupthink. "I can't tell you how many meetings I open up with, 'My voice is last,' " she says. "I don't want anybody to hear my opinion before I hear everybody else's opinion. I give everyone the license to disagree."
The team's business and show business convictions will be put to a tougher test now Hammer has the flexibility to produce the shows she wants, not just buy them. In January, USA agreed to buy the first series from Universal Cable Productions, Royal Pains, about a doctor who works for the rich.
As competition for ad sales intensifies, she's looking for more than just compelling entertainment.
"We're amazingly brand and advertiser friendly," Hammer said. "We will marry a specific character with a specific brand. For example, we married Tony Shalhoub (who plays a compulsively neat and germophobic detective in Monk) with Windex."
Hammer, who began her career at PBS, says she had to adjust to the idea of blurring the line between ads and entertainment. But it reflects the approach to work that continues to guide her.
"The world's changing, life's changing, economics are changing," she says. "The ground beneath you is shifting, and either you get sucked in by holding on to old ways or you take a giant step forward by taking some risks and seeing what happens."