One could learn a lesson from Bonnie Hammer—if you want to keep moving, keep pushing yourself. The USA/Sci Fi president has made it to the top of the cable industry through empathic leadership, creative vision and, most importantly, a personal drive to seek new challenges, especially if they're just a little out of reach.
“Somebody saying, 'You can't do that' is what motivates me,” says the Queens-bred exec, a New Yorker through and through. “I do much better when my feet are on the coals. And I'd never do it loudly or say to anybody, 'You just watch me,' but it's kind of my personal challenge, just for the fun of doing it.”
The youngest of three children, Hammer learned sociability from her extroverted mother and determination and perseverance from her soft-spoken father, a Russian immigrant who built a pen-manufacturing business in the family's garage. Those attributes have helped lead her to one of the most successful careers in television today.
It was in the dark room of the Boston design store where she was biding her time after college that Hammer decided she wanted a master's. But Boston University's media and technology program was closed; she would have to wait a year to apply. Not an option for Hammer. She called the school's dean and landed a meeting 15 minutes later, still dressed in jeans and a work shirt that reeked of photo-developing chemicals.
Needless to say, she got in and went on to pursue an early photojournalism career, shooting for outlets including the Boston Herald, the Los Angeles Times and Time magazine.
While doing freelance photography for the PBS children's series Infinity Factory, Hammer grew at once fascinated by TV-making and cognizant that she was, perhaps, too sensitive to build a career on selling her own art. She took a production assistant gig on the show and went on to produce several others for Boston's PBS station, WGBH-TV, including the seminal handyman show This Old House and the kids series Zoom.
Hammer fast-tracked her way to an executive-producing gig at the live morning television show Good Day for Boston's ABC affiliate, WCVB. Leading a tiny team of about 10 in crafting 90 minutes of live programming five days a week was “baptism by fire,” she says; Hammer learned how to make good television and how to manage others.
She took those lessons across the country to Los Angeles to work on the syndicated talk show Alive & Well, and there she sweet-talked her way into another goal she thought out of reach. When her two roommates left the condo they shared—incidentally, that of fashion legend Bob Mackie—Hammer managed to get the place all to herself for an entire year (provided the broker could show it), while continuing to pay just a third of the rent. So convinced was she of the powers of asking for what you want that she and a friend even wrote a book called Just Ask: How to Get Everything You Want in Life.
That same tenacity brought her back to New York in 1987 to become a programming executive for Lifetime. There, she produced the socially conscious Signature Series documentaries for which the network became known. One in particular—1988's Gangs: Not My Kid—earned the Lillian Gish Award, a Cine Golden Eagle and a National Association for Youth Mentor Award.
Two years later, Hammer joined Universal Television (which ultimately became Vivendi Universal's USA Network) as a program executive. By 1998, she was working at USA for notoriously demanding media mogul Barry Diller. After heading programming for the company's Sci Fi Channel, she took the helm as its president and set about transforming the once-geeky niche network into a top 10, broad-skewing brand, home to TV's top content producers.
In December 2002, she brought Sci Fi its best-ever ratings, and an Emmy for the 20-hour Steven Spielberg miniseries Taken, which cost the network $40 million, by far its biggest endeavor.
When Universal merged with NBC in 2004, Hammer became president of both USA and Sci Fi, becoming one of few individuals to head up two networks.
While Sci Fi continues to flourish, Hammer has taken USA to the top of the cable ratings charts quarter after quarter, with critically acclaimed original series like Monk, Psych and The Dead Zone and WWE wrestling programming, which she brought back to the network in a coup in 2005.
Then, in one of her proudest accomplishments to date, later that year she tied it all together with the widely embraced rebrand campaign “Characters Welcome.”
“She's not afraid to try new things, and frankly she's not afraid to deal with those things if they're wrong,” says Universal Studios chief Ron Meyer, who has worked with Hammer for more than a decade. “She's a superb, well-rounded executive—one of the best I've ever worked with.”
Echoes Linda McMahon, CEO of WWE, Inc.: “She's strategic and thoughtful and focused. She tells it like it is and she shoots straight, but she's also very collaborative about things and doesn't come in professing to have all the answers. But first and foremost, she's just 'good people.'”
Hammer, who is married with two children, attributes her own success not only to her constant drive (which also leads her to stay in top physical shape through spinning and running), but to her ability to intuit what her co-workers and employees are feeling, and then lead accordingly. And that's something they say they appreciate.
“Bonnie is more than a boss to those who work with her,” says Edward James Olmos, who stars in Sci Fi's blockbuster hit Battlestar Galactica and has worked with Hammer for more than 20 years. “She is a friend who takes time to listen, who has the security in herself to allow growth around her. That is what makes her one of the most [special] heads of any network I have ever worked with. She is the reason I have hope in this industry.”