Cable TV 2008

Hammer: NBCU Cable Is All About 'Brandwidth'

The Goal Is to Develop Brands at USA, Sci-Fi,Other to Drive Everything From Product Integration to Entire Series

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It's 3:30 p.m. on a late-March Monday, and Bonnie Hammer is finding it hard to settle down for an interview. Just as she takes a seat to speak with Ad Age about the evolution she's overseen as president of USA Network and Sci-Fi Channel, Ms. Hammer is asked to take a quick phone call. "I'll be two minutes," she says, excusing herself.
Bonnie Hammer
Bonnie Hammer

Moments later, the 30-year veteran of the TV industry returns, and the interview kicks off with a question on what her job at NBC Universal entails. She has just handed the reins of Sci-Fi to Dave Howe in January and is nearing the end of her contract with NBC Universal.

"First off, I think I have the best job in the industry," Ms. Hammer says, talking about how she's seen cable transform from an afterthought to the major growth force in the TV marketplace with the help of strong executives at her side. "Running the No. 1 channel and running the No. 6 channel, one very genre and one so broad, gives me total license to experiment with any kind of content on any platform out there."

Just five hours later, the news breaks that NBC Universal President-CEO Jeff Zucker has promoted Ms. Hammer to president of NBC Cable Entertainment and Cable Studio, with oversight of USA and Sci-Fi as well as NBCU's emerging cable channels Chiller, Sleuth and Universal HD.

During her interview with Ad Age, Ms. Hammer spoke about the evolution of Sci-Fi and how busting silos within her organization has helped allow for more innovation in branded entertainment.

Ad Age: You came to Sci-Fi at a time when cable was still very much secondary to broadcast and niche entertainment was something of a risky venture for a network to scale for advertisers. When you look at it today, how do you define the Sci-Fi brand?

Ms. Hammer: When I took it over, what they had done was more in the horror vein. If you looked at their marketing and looked at their graphics and everything that surrounded it, it was darker, more about horror, B movies, space, "MST3K." ... What we did was humanize it, bring it back to earth, gave it more of a sense of humor. We took it out of this dark view of the world and really defined it the way sci-fi is defined, which is speculative fiction. If you can't define it, in a lot of ways it's Sci-Fi. It's about imagination -- anything outside of what we know is true or quantifiable. ... It's a very broad, very provocative channel about imagination.

Ad Age: In the case of USA, where you took the reins in 2004, branding was also really crucial for you to give the network some momentum and identity. Now that you've made it the top-rated cable network in prime time for the past eight quarters, how do you expand on that success?

Ms. Hammer: We have all these lists of No. 1's, but the truth is the list doesn't do us any good. We have to figure out what's beyond No. 1. And what's beyond No. 1 is growing the brand, "Characters Welcome," and making it the most powerful brand in the media landscape -- not just a cable brand or just a TV brand but truly a brand that advertisers can relate to, that our audience relates to, that crosses all platforms.

That's really our goal here. We're calling this "brandwidth." We have such an incredible engagement with our audience. They have embraced "Characters Welcome" to such a degree that it's a true bond with the channel. Those people believe they themselves are characters, and they really embrace the advertisers' brands on the air.

Ad Age: Speaking of connecting brands, the campaign you did for "The Starter Wife" last year with Unilever's Pond's is often cited now as the model for branded-entertainment partnerships -- making brands a key part of a show's plot, promoting that partnership during the commercial pod and reinforcing it at retail through point-of-purchase placement on the product itself. How important is branded entertainment to your business model now?

Ms. Hammer: We have some solid plans we're going to bring up in the upfront. ... From the minute we greenlight a script, we are thinking about what car would be perfect for that character inside "Burn Notice" and how do we use it? One of the most brilliant uses of product integration we did last year was "Burn Notice." At the very end, our main character, Jeffrey Donovan, was taking instructions from the voice of God coming through [General Motors Corp.'s] OnStar, the directive of where he had to go to find out who burned him. He literally is taking information, riding this car up into the back of a huge semi truck, and the last thing you see as he rides into this empty truck, OnStar is saying, "We'll see you on the other side." And the doors close, and it ends the series for the summer. It was the perfect use of it but had to be written into the script. It had to be totally organic to the script to anchor the story.

That's where we're going with "brandwidth." The brand will help drive everything we do on and off the air. We have a brand filter, which nothing will get a green light -- whether it's an entire series, whether it's a piece of marketing, whether it's an online piece of content, something on mobile -- unless we check it off on our brand filter. There are no silos. Everybody on our marketing, PR, digital side, all the senior people read every single script. We do a retreat or an off-site to greenlight the next pilot, and everybody has roles. Obviously I can kill it, but everybody's invested, everybody wants to make it a success.

Ad Age: What keeps you up at night as a media executive these days?

Ms. Hammer: [Laughs] Let's reverse it. What lets me sleep is I have an amazing senior team, and I really believe and trust in those who are basically my cabinet, if you will, to be smart about what they're doing and also to make sure there are no surprises. The one thing that makes me nuts is if there's a problem or something that I don't know about. ... So a lot of the reason I sleep is because I'm not worried about a loose cannon [or] a weak link. And that's a pretty amazing statement for somebody who's running a couple of channels. When I look at my senior team over the last few years, I don't think I've lost a direct report. So that lets me sleep at night.

What keeps me up is always raising the bar, and what makes my team happiest and also most worrisome is I'm always asking for more. I always want to do better, I always want to find a new challenge. ... What people were giving me back at first was a lot of verbiage but not the clarity. Don't give me something that's blah, blah, blah; give me something that's real. ... How do you basically say you're going to use this brand that is broad, that encompasses everything we do, that 100% of the people who turn us on get and love?

It's kind of how I get to the next step before Zucker asks me the next day. How do I deliver before somebody is asking me about it?