As president of USA Network and Sci Fi Channel, Bonnie Hammer works in a wild world of intergalactic adventurers, quirky detectives, wrestlers, wizards, ghost-hunting plumbers and would-be country music superstars, to name just a few of the characters in her programs.
But her first big job in television couldn't have been more simple or straightforward. She worked with carpenters. Hammer was part of the original production team that brought to life the venerable home renovation series This Old House.
Upon graduating from Boston University, Hammer began her career at public television powerhouse WGBH in that city. "I loved it," she told Jack Myers and me over Lunch at Michael's® in New York City. "I had amazing mentors," she says. Hammer's time at WGBH actually began with work on the series The Infinity Factory and Zoom. Then she moved to a project that was just beginning to take shape: This Old House, one of the most popular and enduring television series of the last 30 years. She laughed when she recalled that original host Bob Vila "knew nothing about construction. He was a journalist! He had never done TV, but he was so animated and natural, he was hired."
After several years at WGBH, Hammer left for ABC affiliate WCVB in Boston, which she described as "one of the best local stations in the country in terms of original programming." At WCVB she worked on a pioneering live morning talk show titled Good Day! "I went from, 'We don't care if anyone watches as long as it's quality' to 'We don't care if it's quality as long as everyone watches,'" she sighed. Development work in Los Angeles and a programming position at Lifetime followed before Hammer joined USA Network and Sci Fi Channel.
While This Old House is one of the most down to earth series on television, the series and specials Hammer oversees today on Sci Fi and USA are anything but ordinary. They include Sci Fi's intellectually engaging outer-space adventure Battlestar Galactica, a Peabody Award winner that is routinely included on major critics' ten best lists; Eureka, a fantasy about a community of geniuses that enjoyed the highest rated series launch in Sci Fi's history; the upcoming remake of the classic Flash Gordon (set to debut on Sci Fi this summer) and The Dresden Files, Sci Fi's new Sunday night drama about a private detective who is also a wizard. Over on USA, Hammer's eclectic show mix includes the humorous detective dramas Psych and Monk (the latter starring Tony Shalhoub, a three-time Emmy winner for his work on this show), and a series that might seem more at home on its sister network, The 4400, about thousands of people abducted over a period of several decades and later returned to Earth without having aged a day. Set to begin its fourth season this summer, The 4400 earned a place in history books by being the highest rated basic cable series premiere of all time when it debuted in July 2004.
Just for good measure, Hammer deals in far-reaching reality projects as well, including Who Wants to Be a Superhero? and Ghost Hunters on Sci Fi and World Wrestling Entertainment programming and the country music competition Nashville Star on USA.
As Danny DeVito, Al Roker, Ron Perelman, Marlo Thomas, Variety editor Peter Bart, NATAS' Peter Price and Cosmopolitan's Donna Kalajian lunched nearby, Hammer excitedly talked about the success of USA Network. "We're clearly the No. 1 cable network in the first quarter across all demos," she said. "We're No. 1 by the largest margins ever." Hammer, who was named president of Sci Fi in April 2001, revealed that in May 2004 when she became president of USA Network as well there were three things she wanted to do: "Brand USA for the first time, bring back World Wrestling Entertainment programming and bring USA back to its status as the No. 1 cable network."
Her desire to brand the network resulted in the well received Characters Welcome campaign. "The perception was there was no way you can brand a general interest entertainment channel, but with Characters Welcome, USA has been successful," Hammer noted as she enjoyed Michael's famed Cobb salad. "We changed the network's logo and connected to viewers. Characters Welcome is a connection between real people watching and the characters on our air."
As for creating and nurturing an identity for Sci Fi Channel, Hammer admitted that science fiction as a genre "has a stigma attached to it." Because of that, "advertisers think it's all male geeks." The crossover success of such franchises as Harry Potter, Superman and some of Sci Fi Channel's own programming, including Battlestar Galactica, proves them wrong, she insisted, noting that the move of Galactica this past season from Friday to Sunday night exposed the show to new, younger viewers and brought in more female viewers overall.
Galactica is underserved by traditional audience measurement, Hammer suggested. That's due in part to the way young people choose to watch the show, including Hammer's 13-year-old son. "One of every four Galactica viewers watch it on a DVR or download it," she revealed. "If we could cume its numbers including the 25 percent who watch that way its numbers would be outrageously high."
As might be expected, Galactica is a source of particular pride for Hammer. "I'm not surprised by how successful it is, but I am surprised by how [executive producers] Ron Moore and David Eick twist and turn to get it there," she said. "I've never read a script for an episode without sitting back and thinking, 'That's incredible!'" She acknowledged that its dense storytelling could be intimidating to new viewers. "It's not unlike The West Wing," Hammer mused. "It is provocative. If you're choosing to think about it, it's fabulous. It raises issues. Is there a God? Terrorism. Fundamentalism. Some people are afraid to tune in because they don't want one more thing to be connected to."
Battlestar Galactica won't return until early in 2008, but Hammer announced last week that a stand-alone two-hour Galactica movie event would debut on the network later this year. (Universal Studios Home Entertainment will release it on DVD shortly thereafter.)
Hammer, a native of Queens, New York who refers to herself as a "718 gal," now resides in suburban Connecticut with her husband Dale Heussner and son Jesse. (Her stepdaughter is currently pursuing a graduate degree in journalism at Northwestern University.) She regards Jesse's consumption of media as "a perfect example of where the industry and the audience is going. He's a huge fan of everything downloaded." Jesse watches only basketball in 'real time,' she said.
Looking forward, Hammer believes "the business will drastically change for all of us. We are moving away from a Cost Per Thousand advertising business to a holistic marketing business. The whole model will change and whoever can get there first will be a hero. Commercial ratings are a short-term solution. Creativity of the commercials is more important than ever."
Indeed, Hammer feels that creativity in all forms of advertising, marketing and promotion is key, as evidenced by USA's development of the upcoming six-hour limited series The Starter Wife, a project about which she is especially excited. Unilever Pond's Face Care Brand is the sponsor of this production and has been involved in all facets of it from the start, including point of purchase materials, promotions, contests and magazine tie-ins. "Sales, marketing and production did an amazing job working hand in hand," Hammer said. The Starter Wife stars Debra Messing, Joe Mantegna and Judy Davis and will premiere in May.
Also coming in the months ahead from USA: a new series titled Burn Notice, starring Jeffrey Donovan as a CIA operative who inexplicably loses his job and has his identity stripped away. He travels around the country solving crimes in local communities as he tries to solve the mystery of why his identity was suddenly taken from him. Hammer describes it as "more MacGyver than The Fugitive."
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