USA Network: 25 Years: Giving USA Character

Jun 27, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Bonnie Hammer, president of USA Network and the Sci Fi Channel, oversees all aspects of the networks, including programming, distribution, marketing, publishing and licensing. To mark the 25th anniversary of the USA Network, she was interviewed by TelevisionWeek Editor Alex Ben Block at her office in Universal City, Calif.

TelevisionWeek: You were very successful at the Sci Fi Channel, and then along came the merger of NBC and Universal. At what point were you approached about also taking oversight of the USA Network?

Bonnie Hammer: It was when NBC came in. I was still president of Sci Fi, having a grand old time, because I loved that team. Doug [Herzog] had decided to leave [as head of USA]. When he chose to leave they were trying to figure out what they wanted to do. I was asked By [NBCU’s] Jeff Gaspin how I felt about overseeing both. He knew I had grown up on USA and had worked there before, so I knew the beast.

There were some concerns from NBC. At first, it was, “Well, she’s knows Sci Fi and she’s a Sci Fi freak.” I explained I was at USA first. I’m a generalist. I just happened to kind of fall into it as a challenge and ended up loving Sci Fi. So, they offered [the job of also running USA Network] and I said, Sure, why not?

TVWeek: What was the mandate when you took over USA?

Ms. Hammer: There wasn’t a mandate, other than my own thoughts about what to do. I created the mandate. [NBCU] knew they had two successful cable channels. I don’t think they realized to what degree both were successful or how solid they were. I think Sci Fi’s summer success-its biggest summer success-was just after they took over. So all of a sudden, it was in their face: Oh, this isn’t just a little sci fi channel. These guys were No. 1 or No. 2 every Friday night all summer long. And then USA with their Sunday nights. So we owned Friday and we owned Sunday on both channels.

Basically Jeff [Gaspin] asked me, “What do you want to do?” I said, No. 1, to create a brand. Give it a cachet. Get the old graphics off. Get rid of that old tired feel. I think we need to make it feel a little younger, a little fresher, a little hipper. Second, to invest in more original programming. Continue the success of our original programming. Make it about something. Create, if you will, a sensibility about the channel.

Everything we put on the air should relate back to something. I’d love to get involved in a little research to figure out what that thing is. He said, “Fine, go.”

TVWeek: The USA Network may well be the last general entertainment channel on cable TV. In some ways, it is more like a broadcast network, with a wide range of programming, sports and events. Everyone else in cable has moved to be more specific about who they are- comedy, drama, sports, news, etc.

Ms. Hammer: True, we are general entertainment, but there still has to be a through-line so when [viewers] see that original, whether it’s comedy or whether it’s drama or whether it’s a sporting event-that the tone of it and the style of it just make sense that they’re on USA. There has to be a common tone and sensibility.

We were very lucky. We didn’t have to do what Spike did or what TNN did-we don’t have to create a brand so that we can succeed. We’re already succeeding. We just have to enhance our success with something that gives the viewer something more to hang on to, that feels fresher, a little hipper, a little younger. That makes them realize, when they see a show, that it’s not just, “I’m watching ‘Monk,'” but “I’m watching ‘Monk’ on USA.”

USA must mean something. It should mean that it is fun and a little more relatable; it doesn’t feel tired; it doesn’t feel like, ‘Oh yeah, USA is kind of a second position to tune into. Yeah, I like the shows on it, but it doesn’t matter. I would just go on the zapper and find any channel.’ It’s going to give them something more.

And we look at loyalty. We look at those channels that have huge amounts of loyalty and those that don’t. And it has nothing to do with ratings success, it has to do with the feeling. What we want to do is up that feeling.

Look at Sci Fi, for example. Sci Fi has unbelievable loyalty. It doesn’t necessarily have the consistent ratings. It’s a huge success-it’s gone from, in the past five years, No. 20 to one of the top five or six on cable.

TVWeek: The ratings have gone up but so have programming budgets. How have they changed since you arrived?

Ms. Hammer: I think all of us in cable, in terms of original programming, have gotten much more competitive. What’s happened is viewers outside don’t distinguish anymore between broadcast and cable. They watch a show because it’s well done, it has great characters, whatever it is. They won’t accept lack of quality anymore. They’ve become sophisticated, educated, and a show is a show.

I don’t think most of America-especially the kids growing up-differentiate between a cable channel and broadcast. They didn’t grow up the way we did, where you basically had three networks, and that’s it. Then cable came along and you looked at things as “cable quality.” Now it is all television. So we’ve all had to get much more competitive.

From my point of view, in terms of production value, USA and Sci Fi can go toe to toe with HBO or any network broadcast any day. We do it well, we know how to do it competitively. We still have to be careful because we don’t have HBO dollars [to spend on programming]. But our license fees are very competitive. And we know how to maximize it because we’ve always had to things a little bit on the cheap.

The other thing is, we have to be much more careful. We don’t have 20-plus pilots to choose from. You look at the two or three pilots we do, and you will see that two of those go on the air. Guess what? Those two have got to work. We can’t afford not to have them work. I wish I had the ability to do 10, 15 pilots and choose five or six, but on the other hand, it makes us very, very critical about the things we do put in development.

Which is why USA needs a brand or a filter. In every case we have to ask: Why are we developing it? Does it fit the strategy? Does it fit the brand? What can we check off here that works? That doesn’t mean we won’t break our own rules if something great comes through the door, but it gives us a focus. We know what we want to develop. We know what fits the brand. We know that we’re going to have a better shot at keeping the audience that’s coming to “4400” or “The Dead Zone.”

TVWeek: When NBC acquired Universal, one of the things it said it wanted to do was to develop at, say, NBC, but then if it wasn’t right for the broadcast network, to parcel out those shows to the channels where they fit best, whether it is Bravo or USA. Is there that kind of interchange?

Ms. Hammer: Yes, there really is. Both my USA and Sci Fi teams will sit in on some development meetings or pitches over at NBC. We’ll take a look at the projects that they get in that they don’t think are right for the network and then send them to us, whether it’s sci-fi or more general. It’s a very open dialogue. They really are walking the talk that way and being very supportive.

We’ve looked at all the pilots NBC has and may take a look at redeveloping one or two that might be right for USA. We are totally open to this kind of interchange, and it has been fun. We’ve really been sharing. There’s no stepchild feel to it all. It’s not as if, “Oh, we don’t like it well enough. Let’s give it to cable.” It’s really an equal playing field. It’s definitely been something that’s been fostered by [NBC’s] Jeffrey Zucker and Jeff Gaspin, to make this work. They have said, ‘Let’s make it real. This shouldn’t be talk.’

TVWeek: One knock on USA has been that the average age of the viewers is higher than what advertisers prefer.

Ms. Hammer: It’s interesting because America is aging
. The baby boomers are getting there. In fact, we’re going to be in the workforce longer.

Nevertheless, we’re succeeding (at lowering the average age of USA Network viewership). The show “4400” alone has helped. The average age for that, from last summer, which was in the 40s, has come down two years. What is it? 46? It came down 2%BD; years just from the summer airing. So what we’re doing and how we’re promoting, it’s not that we want to give up the older baby boomers. What we want to do is add additional eyeballs.

We want those that are coming into our world now to think of us as a place for them as well. Clearly, WWE [professional wrestling, which returns in the fall] is going to do that with 18 to 34’s. No issue at all. And 18 to 49. So we’re targeting some of the needs of Madison Avenue in different ways, but I think some of our development and some of our casting will skew a little bit younger.

We’re not looking to change. We’re not looking to say, ‘OK, we’re an 18 to 49, 25 to 54 channel, but next year we’re going to be 18 to 34.

TVWeek: One member of your audience is your 11-year-old son.

Ms. Hammer: Yes, and he’s really critical. The thing that cracks me up now: with “4400,” the first thing he [asked] me Monday when he got back from school [was], “Did you get your ratings yet?” I get it every day at work-from you too now?

Then he’ll say, “So, is that good or bad?” But it’s really good, I explain. He goes, “Oh, OK.” And on other stuff he’d be so critical. He goes, “Well, that doesn’t sound good.” I said, ‘Jess, it’s a reality show.’ So I’m like, ‘One more critic. I don’t think I can handle this.’

TVWeek: Does he make you think about things differently?

Ms. Hammer: He does. It’s also, how do you explain [ratings] in terms of what’s good and bad? What is it compared to that he understands? What are the relative terms? But it’s interesting, because he caught a little bit of the bug of it, which is kind of fun.

There was a period where we didn’t have the WWE and he was at that age where he was starting to watch it. And I would get, every single day, “I can’t believe it’s not on USA anymore, Mom.” And then he’d give me the rundown, “Do you believe this guy? Do you believe that guy?” And for a while he didn’t believe I had ever been involved in it. So I took him to one of the shows that happened to be in the Bridgeport [Conn.] Arena, along with three of his friends.

Afterward, some of the wrestlers came out and said hi. The boys were like, [whispers] “You really know them?” So that was kind of fun. … Vince was just a gem, so sweet. He came out and introduced them to Big Show and a couple of the other key wrestlers at the time. And they were all with big eyes popping out of their heads, saying, “Your mom’s cool.”

TVWeek: Does WWE launch on USA this fall?

Ms. Hammer: Yes. It’s going to be the first Monday of October.

TVWeek: Will you do a big promotion around it?

Ms. Hammer: Oh, sure. We’re going to market it and launch it in a big way. We’re happy to have it back. We feel that we’re welcoming it home, because it was on USA for so many years. It’s not just going to be there for the ratings-we’re going to nurture it.

TVWeek: How will it tie in with your new branding campaign, “Characters Welcome”?

Ms. Hammer: It fits perfectly. One, WWE is about characters, about live action figures-gymnasts, crazy stories, crazy people, crazy tales. It’s all about characters. And what better way to embrace it but to embrace all of these wonderful characters, whether they are The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, any of the guys and gals who are presently involved. We want to embrace what their character is and basically put it out there to the world.

Years ago it would have been the beer-swilling hero, Stone Cold Steve Austin. We’ll tie in to each of their characters and embrace them for us as so-and-so, whatever their title may be, “Characters Welcome; USA Network.” It couldn’t fit more perfectly, and also online I’m sure we’ll be doing different kinds of sweepstakes, such as “Tell us your character.” And if we can have some great character that comes online, maybe they’ll get a walk-on or be able to be in the ring with WWE.

We’re going to cross-promote like crazy and just have fun with it. We’re trying to really get the people outside, whether they be the demo that watches WWE or those who watch “4400,” to relate on and off the air. I think, when TV works, the best is when the people at home can relate to what’s on the air. The brand somehow has to say, “Welcome. This is for you. We understand you, we relate to you.”

And there’s some connective tissue between those who are viewing and those faces that are on the air. Somehow we hope to finesse a relationship between the two. And I think that’s what we’ll be able to do with “Characters Welcome,” because we’re not only talking about the characters that are on the channel, whether it’s Tony Shalhoub or Anthony Michael Hall or the great characters of “4400,” or even “Law & Order: SVU”-they’re all people, and I’m a big believer that when people follow programs … yes, you can have a high concept, but if they don’t like the characters, or even like to hate the characters, you can’t win.

It’s really about the chemistry of the characters on the screen and how you relate to that chemistry as a viewer. Is it relatable? Do you believe them? Do you like them? Do you like to hate them? Do you cry with them? Do you laugh at them? It’s all about that connective tissue. And I think we have the opportunity because much of our programming is really targeted. It’s centered around that character.

Bonnie Hammer

Title: President, USA Network and Sci Fi Channel

How long in current position: One year as president of USA; four years as president of Sci Fi Channel

Year of birth: Declined to respond

Place of birth: Brooklyn, N.Y.

Who knew? She wrote an unpublished book titled “Just Ask: How to Get Anything in Your Life Simply by Asking.”