Remember when Lou Grant told Mary Richards, “You’ve got spunk”? Something tells us Bonnie Hammer’s supervisor may not have been so gracious a decade ago when Hammer—then overseeing documentaries at USA Network—flipped him the bird when he informed her she would be responsible for wrestling programming as well. “I was so startled,” Hammer recalled in a 2006 Los Angeles Times article. “I thought, ‘This is what my career is coming to?’” Instead of sulking, Hammer drove out to World Wrestling Federation headquarters in Connecticut, where she told its larger-than-life chairman Vince McMahon: “Up until two weeks ago, I never watched your show in my life. I don’t know anything about your business. But I do know how to make good television.” McMahon, a consummate showman himself, was impressed. “There are few people like her in this business. She is tremendously objective, very matter-of-fact, and honest.” Now a twenty-year cable vet who holds the dual posts of president of the Sci Fi Channel and USA Network and also oversees the development of all NBC Universal entertainment and programming for cable channels, Hammer has been anointed “one of the most successful programmers in cable television” by the New York Times, having burnished her reputation with such ambitious projects as The 4400, Psych, Burn Notice, and The Starter Wife on USA and Eureka, The Dresden Files, the Peabody-winning Battlestar Galactica, and miniseries like Steven Spielberg’s Taken on Sci Fi. Under her reign, Sci Fi and USA have emerged as two of the most successful channels on cable, as well as two of NBC Universal’s most profitable businesses, accounting for nearly one-third of the parent company’s profits.
Raised in Queens, New York, Hammer is the youngest of three children. Her mother was a full-time mom; her dad, a Russian immigrant, started his own pen company. “My parents did great and provided well, and gave all their kids personal, moral, ethical values, not a belief that we were entitled to something,” Hammer said. She recalled seeing Broadway shows once a month as a child, plus taking piano lessons, voice, and drama classes. “My parents weren’t at all in entertainment, but when I look back, something along the line prepared me and opened me up to entertainment.”
Intending to become a photojournalist, Hammer enrolled in Boston University, earning a bachelor’s degree in communications in 1971 and a master’s in media technology four years later. But Hammer—who said she doesn’t believe in planning her life and is “not one of those people who gets exact directions from MapQuest” when driving—switched career paths after landing an internship at a production company making the kids show Infinity Factory for WGBH, the public broadcasting station in Boston. “I fell in love with it the first day I was on a set, working with a real director shooting television—and that was it,” she said. She wound up at WGBH itself, where she stayed for seven years, working on landmark series like Zoom and This Old House.
In the early eighties Hammer moved on to ABC’s Boston affiliate, WCVB, where she produced the early-morning talk show 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.’” Then in her early thirties, Hammer would summon up some of her famous determination and charm to coax reluctant guests to appear on the show. If ABC’s Good Morning America tried to appropriate a guest she had already booked, Hammer would get feisty, according to Debbie Kosofsky, a longtime friend who worked with Hammer in Boston. “Oooh, don’t get in her way!” Kosofsky told the Los Angeles Times. “Bonnie refuses to fail.” In 1985, she and Kosofsky moved to Los Angeles to work on a syndicated talk show, Alive & Well, and—heady with success—copenned a book called Just Ask: How to Get Everything You Want in Life (which, alas, was never published). “Bonnie has always looked for the challenge, and the next best thing,” Kosofsky said. “Her outlook has always been ‘Let’s give it a try.’”
In 1987, the “next best thing” turned out to be cable, and Hammer returned to New York for a programming job at Lifetime. “My attitude [about cable] was, ‘Well, it’s new, it’s different, it’s fresh,” she said. “Guess what, if I don’t like it, I’ll leave.” But she didn’t leave, staying for two years at Lifetime, producing documentaries for its Signature Series, winning the Lillian Gish Award, several Cine Golden Eagles, and the National Association for Youth’s Mentor Award. Hammer recalled her early days in cable fondly: “We’d do documentaries about women’s issues on a shoestring budget and then sit in [Lifetime colleague] Meredith Wagner’s apartment in the Village drinking a bottle of wine and watching the rough cuts.”
“Because cable represented a brand new way of doing things back when it was born,” Hammer said, “it attracted a lot of risk-takers—we weren’t afraid to throw out the old rules and make up new ones as we went along. We helped create an environment where talent was encouraged and nurtured wherever it appeared, extending opportunities beyond the ‘old-boy network.’ You can see the results today, with an amazing group of women in leadership positions throughout cable.”
In 1989 Hammer joined Universal Television (which later morphed into USA Network, part of Vivendi Universal Entertainment, which owned the Sci Fi Channel) as a programming executive. Her production experience came in handy as she oversaw the launch of “Sci Fi Prime,” the channel’s first full night of original programming. “I think one of my strengths as a manager is I know production and programming inside and out because I did it. When I’m talking with writers and creatives, it’s easier for me to get into a real conversation because I’m not looking at it just as a manager. I can look at it as a producer and what it’s like to be producing the material. So the relationships are easier, better, stronger.” Barry Diller, then chairman of USA Network, was impressed; he offered her a choice of two jobs: head of development at USA or head of programming at Sci Fi. Hammer chose the latter: “My attitude was I would much prefer to make a mark on the whole rather than just come up with singular shows. I went for the ‘under the radar’ but the bigger risk and bigger reward.”
For most of the nineties, the Sci Fi Channel had been stigmatized as USA’s poor cousin—programming for adolescent male geeks. Classic SF—like repeats of Star Trek and the original Battlestar Galactica—was the standard fare. Diller and Hammer were intent on changing that. Hammer was ordered to “unlock the value of the channel”—translation, attract viewers who don’t identify themselves as sci fi fans, plus the advertisers who covet them. “In our very broad definition, sci fi is anything outside of what we know to be true,” Hammer said. “We’re really re-positioning ourselves around the concept of imagination, of ‘what ifs.’ Science fiction is not just aliens or space operas—it’s very, very broad.” The “I Am Sci Fi” marketing campaign also emerged from this directive to make the channel more accessible. Celebrities like Venus and Serena Williams, Jet Li, Traci Lords, Queen Latifah, "Lara Croft," Moby, Richard Branson, and Anne Rice delivered the tagline on screen. “We didn’t want to use the usual suspects like William Shatner or Roger Corman,” Hammer said. “What we did know was that through on-air talent or otherwise, we wanted to know how we could open up the channel to make people see how it relates to them.” In early 2001, Hammer took another bold step by launching a second night of all-original programming, bringing the weekly total to ten hours of prime time, unmatched by any other cable outlet at the time.
Shortly after ascending to Sci Fi president, Hammer received an e-mail from Diller asking if she’d be interested in working on a miniseries with Steven Spielberg. “Are you kidding?” she typed back. Steven Spielberg Presents: Taken, a twenty-hour miniseries about alien abductions, aired in December 2002. The project cost $40 million to make—dwarfing anything Sci Fi had ever produced before—and was scheduled over two weeks, despite the anxiety of the sales department. “We knew it had to be bigger than life, it had to be an ‘event’ and we had to take the risk,” Hammer said. “And it put us on the map.” The miniseries garnered the best ratings ever for Sci Fi, earned the channel its first major Emmy (for best miniseries), and opened the door for other top talent to come on board, including Bryan Singer, Dean Devlin, Nicolas Cage, and Joel Silver.
Sci Fi has continued to add innovative programs, including the acclaimed reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, which premiered as a miniseries in 2003 and—though set in an alien world in the future—bears obvious similarities to post–9/11 Earth. (Executive producer Ron Moore remembered pitching the story from L.A. to Hammer and other Sci Fi execs in New York via videoconference, and when he announced that he was turning one of the original series’ most prominent characters, Starbuck, from a man into a woman—which caused an uproar among fans of the original—Hammer “clenched her fists in the air and said, ‘Yes!’”)
When Universal Television merged with NBC in 2004, Hammer added USA Network president to her resume. In the months leading to the merger, Jeff Gaspin, president of the cable arm of NBC Universal, said, “It was very clear to us that for Bonnie to be challenged, she was going to have to have more than one channel.” Once again, Hammer was charged with rebranding a channel, in this case one that had changed hands so many times it had lost any clear identity. Among her first steps: persuading old friend Vince McMahon to bring wrestling back to USA, which wound up giving USA a huge ratings boost, especially among younger viewers. Hammer’s next challenge was to brand the channel’s disparate shows—everything from the comedy mystery Monk to the country music competition Nashville Star to reruns of Law & Order spinoffs to W.W.E. Raw wrestling—with a unified, appealing identity. After more than a year of research, Hammer and team came up with “Characters Welcome,” which positioned the channel as a “nation of wacky but memorable characters,” as the Los Angeles Times described it. “We realized that USA was not about the place, but that it was about people,” Hammer said. “There is nothing on our air that isn’t about characters.”
The campaign was extraordinarily well received, and in 2005—the same year Hammer both launched “Characters Welcome” and brought wrestling back to USA—she was named the most influential woman in cable by CableWorld magazine. She also makes regular appearances on Hollywood Reporter’s annual list of the most influential women in Hollywood. Her many other awards include the National Association of Television Programming Executives’ 2007 Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award, named after the legendary NBC programmer who died in 1997. Honored to be considered in Tartikoff’s company, Hammer said she sees similarities in their programming styles: “I’m a risk-taker. The chance to win big or lose 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 also has received a MUSE award for outstanding vision and achievement from New York Women in Film & Television and is a member of the board of the International Radio and Television Society. She's an accomplished photographer, whose work has been displayed in several galleries and published in Time, the Boston Herald, the Los Angeles Times, and various books.
Throughout her career Hammer has demonstrated a keen social conscience, creating the “Erase the Hate” campaign at USA, as well as “Visions for Tomorrow,” 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.