News Column

Comcast's Bonnie Hammer is a force in television

June 23, 2013

YellowBrix

June 23--NEW YORK -- All sorts of corporate advice is out there.

Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg says women should "lean in" to their careers.

Comcast Corp.'s queen of cable entertainment, Bonnie Hammer, on the other hand, counsels managers to "fail forward."

Take calculated risks, focus on the brand, and then go for it.

"The biggest mistake to me is complacency," Hammer said in an interview last week in her 21st-floor corner office at 30 Rock.

As it pertains to Hammer, there has been little failing, forward or backward.

Her USA Network -- built partly on the popularity of the World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. -- has been the most-watched ad-supported cable channel for seven straight years and in 2012 earned more than $1 billion in profit.

"She doesn't stand on ceremony as some executives do," Vincent McMahon, the chief executive officer of World Wrestling Entertainment, said. "She wants to give the audience what it wants."

Her advice to McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment years ago was to develop story lines and characters, which they did.

In February, acknowledging USA's momentum and her golden-eyed selection of hit cable shows, NBCUniversal head Steve Burke consolidated all the company's entertainment cable channels under Hammer, 62, making her one of the most powerful women in entertainment and at Comcast.

Vanity Fair rates her No. 16 on its powerhitters list, and on the day of her interview, superagent Ari Emanuel called to chat up a project. Burke and Comcast CEO Brian Roberts are jointly Vanity Fair's No. 2 powerhitters. In an e-mail on Friday, Burke wrote: "Bonnie is the whole package. She has great taste, judgment and business skills. She is an important part of our management team."

The cable channels, including CNBC, MSNBC, Golf Channel, and the NBC Sports Network, that don't fall under Hammer's oversight generate a little less than 40 percent of NBCUniversal's revenue and 80 percent of profits.

Hammer's message as she looks over her expanded portfolio of E!, Syfy, Oxygen, Bravo, Style, G4, Sprout, TV One, Chiller, Cloo, and Universal HD, in addition to USA, is that the channels stay in their "brand lanes" and cater to core audiences.

Programmers have to be aware of both TV ratings and Madison Avenue advertisers. Hammer believes in a balanced slate of entertainment.

"Does everyone want their version of Walking Dead? Of course," Hammer said, referring to the wildly popular AMC zombie series. "But I wouldn't choose one hit over the seven returning series on USA that continue to perform season after season. And, if you own many shows like we do, the back end can be very lucrative." The back end is selling shows to syndication.

Dick Ebersol, a former head of NBC Sports, called her the woman "with the golden eye" in 2011. Since 2004, Hammer's USA Network has launched 15 original series, 13 of which were renewed for multiple seasons. Among those renewed were White Collar, Suits, Royal Pains, and Burn Notice.

The network's winning formula is based on one-third original series, one-third acquired shows, and one-third World Wrestling Entertainment.

A championship WWE belt, a gift from McMahon for Hammer's 50th birthday, hangs above the low, cushy couch in her office.

Hammer is a big fan, saying WWE's live Raw consistently draws five million viewers per episode 52 weeks a year. WWE also has a show on Syfy, Smackdown, and in July E! will launch Total Divas, a reality show featuring female wrestlers. "She is really in charge of the cash of the cash cow at NBCU," McMahon said.

"What we have done and no other cabler has done is stay on strategy," Hammer said of USA. "We do not want people to go to bed depressed." In September, USA will air reruns of the hit ABC comedy Modern Family as part of its acquired-shows slate.

Separately in September, NBCUniversal will rebrand the gamer-based G4 channel as the Esquire Network. G4 is distributed to 62 million homes and had been one of Comcast's underperforming cable channels.

Research showed a "white space" -- an unserved market -- for a men's lifestyle channel that televises sports, travel, fashion, cooking, and health, Hammer said. "Madison Avenue will love it," Hammer says.

Dick Wolf, one of TV's top producers and creator of the Law & Order franchise, wrote in an e-mail: "If I was an executive, I'd want to be Bonnie. It's very simple. Right now, and for the last couple of years, she's been the most powerful woman in television. She has distinctly branded the most important and profitable portfolio of cable networks on the planet."

Contact Bob Fernandez

at 215-854-5897 or bob. fernandez@phillynews.com.

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