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.