USA Network: 25 Years: Hammer Built Her Career the Old-Fashioned Way

Jun 27, 2005  •  Post A Comment

“I can manage anything-oversee producing or executives or whatever,” said Bonnie Hammer, president of USA Network and the Sci Fi Channel. “I can take anybody criticizing any show, whether it’s ‘The 4400’ or ‘Battlestar Galactica.’ But if somebody takes a look at one of my photographs cross-eyed, it tears me apart if they don’t like it.”

Ms. Hammer is referring to her lifelong love of photography; her photos have appeared in publications including Time magazine, the Boston Herald and the Los Angeles Times. As a student at Boston University she studied photography, multimedia and communications, with no plans to enter television.

“I wasn’t saying, ‘I’m going to be Steven Spielberg; I’m going to be Brandon Tartikoff,” she said. “I didn’t know quite what I wanted to do.”

The upper-middle-class daughter of a pen and pencil manufacturer, Ms. Hammer was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and raised in Queens. She said her Russian immigrant father encouraged her to succeed.

“There was no sexism, no ‘Your brother can do this, but you can only do that.’ Everything was on an equal playing field,” Ms. Hammer said.

Coming out of graduate school, Ms. Hammer landed positions on PBS’s “This Old House” and “Zoom,” then a morning talk show at Boston’s ABC affiliate WCVB-TV. “I went from the public broadcasting arena … where the kind of attitude was ‘We don’t care who watches as long as it’s quality,’ to the ABC affiliate, which was ‘We don’t care about the quality necessarily, as long as people watch,” Ms. Hammer said. “So it was a great education on two really opposing points of view.”

Ms. Hammer then joined Dave Bell Associates in Los Angeles to produce “Alive and Well,” and then in 1987 moved to Lifetime, where she executive produced the Lifetime documentary “Signature Series.” She recalled staying up late re-editing shows while sharing a bottle of wine with Meredith Wagner (then Lifetime’s director of public affairs).

“We had a ball,” she said. “[We] were getting 1.9s, 2.0s (ratings) on documentaries for Lifetime back in the 1980s. With no money for [promotion]. We didn’t even know what the word ‘marketing’ meant back then.”

Ms. Hammer moved to USA Network in 1989 as VP of original programming. At USA she was faced her biggest challenge yet: going from Lifetime’s empowering female-centric movies to handling the World Wrestling Federation.

At the time, wrestling pulled about a 2.6-very good for cable but far from phenomenal. Then USA President Rod Perth wanted to put wrestling under Ms. Hammer’s control, but she initially didn’t want it.

“I had never watched wrestling, and it was just so against anything I would ever consider doing,” Ms. Hammer said. “I went home and said, ‘Maybe I should leave USA. Is this what my career has come to?'”

Ms. Hammer decided to give wrestling a shot and met with WWF Chairman Vince McMahon. Ms. Hammer said she told Mr. McMahon she had watched wrestling for the first time two weeks before and knew nothing about it, but: “The one thing I do know is how to make good TV.”

Looking back, she said working with the WWF was “some of the most fun I’ve had in television” as the series went from earning 2s and 3s to more than an 8.0 average.

“I learned a lot about managing, about having to deal with people who had a vision of what they wanted and yet trying to get them to understand your own vision of what you needed for television,” she said.

Ms. Hammer moved in 1999 to Sci Fi, which she helped reach a broader audience by enlisting A-list producing talent such as Steven Spielberg for the miniseries “Taken”-which made Sci Fi the top basic cable network during the miniseries’ two-week run. Last year Ms. Hammer’s presidency was expanded to include the USA Network in.

She said she has not reached a point where she feels the need to move to a higher perch.

“I’m not striving for anybody else’s job; I love what I’m doing,” Ms. Hammer said. “There’s a comfort level with having gotten to a point that I feel I can be really honest about who I am.”