How would you like to be the one to put your reputation on the line by asking for a $40 million budget for a miniseries—for a cable science-fiction miniseries, no less? And how much more nervous would you be if the boss you were asking to pony up the dough was someone with a reputation for being, shall we say, less than forgiving—somebody like Barry Diller?
When pitch came to shove for getting Taken made in 2002, however, Bonnie Hammer didn't flinch, and the miniseries was a breakout hit for the Sci Fi Channel.
Things for Hammer couldn't seem to be better. Now president of USA Network—cable's top-rated network in 2006—and Sci Fi, she's a major asset that NBC Universal inherited when it acquired control of those networks.
One of this year's recipients of NATPE's Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Awards, Hammer says she finds it “amazing to have my name linked in the same sentence” with the late legendary NBC programmer. But she does see some similarities in their approach to television.
“I'm a risk-taker,” she says. “The chance to win big or lose big gets me excited. I like a challenge that makes me stretch and that sets the bar high for my team and makes them stretch for a goal, too.”
Hammer has been stretching and pushing herself in new directions for years, whether it was working in photojournalism, on programs like Frontline and Nova for WGBH, or helping carve a niche in the 1980s for a fledgling cable network called Lifetime.
“We'd do documentaries about women's issues on a shoestring budget and then sit in Meredith Wagner's apartment in the Village drinking a bottle of wine and watching the rough cuts,” Hammer recalls, referring to her former co-worker, who is now executive VP of public affairs for the women's network.
At Sci Fi and USA, the budgets have grown, but so have the expectations. By taking risks and blending her programming skills with branding and marketing savvy, Hammer has proved more than up to the task. “She's a left-brain and right-brain person,” says NATPE President Rick Feldman. “Like Brandon, she's a smart business executive, but she also has plenty of creative input.”
That combination prompted Hammer to take a chance on projects like the 20-hour Taken that helped make Sci Fi into a mainstream channel; the miniseries won Sci Fi its first Golden Globe nomination and its first major Emmy (Best Miniseries). She joined that network in 1989 and took the top job in 2001, and these days Sci Fi is Top 10 in households and key demos, and a revised Battlestar Galactica has become one of television's most acclaimed series, even earning a Peabody Award. USA, which Hammer took over in 2004, had golden years in the past, but it hasn't been cable's leading network for six years—until now.
But success hasn't dramatically changed Hammer. “Like Brandon, she's a mentor to a lot of people,” Feldman says. “And she's one of those people who have figured out how to get a lot out of people without acting wretchedly toward them. She's someone people really like. She has great leadership abilities.”
“I definitely put together Bonnie and Brandon in a big way,” says Edward James Olmos, who co-starred in Tartikoff's hit Miami Vice and now co-stars on Sci Fi's somewhat surprising hit Battlestar Galactica. “Like Brandon, Bonnie is very committed and follows her instincts—in this business, you sometimes have to give way to your gut feelings.”
Additionally, Hammer still keeps her eye on the larger good. At USA, she's looking into bringing back the network's “Erase the Hate” campaign that she created years ago. In September, she launched the Visions for Tomorrow initiative, an effort to spark America's leading thinkers, organizations and policymakers into searching for ways to solve society's most pressing issues. She also serves as a mentor for Women in Film & Television.
While this TV lifer remains committed to the medium, she is not content to coast. At work, that means finding “great growth possibilities for my team,” but she also wants to make at least one feature film and write a book.
Says Hammer, “I'm always looking for the next challenge.”