Bonnie Hammer got her earliest lessons in leadership while pacing around a talk show set at WCVB-TV Boston in the early 1980s. The executive, who is now vice chairman of NBCUniversal, was promoted to produce the station’s “Good Day” morning show six months after she joined WCVB as a coordinating producer. It was her first big move up the ladder in the TV business. It would not be her last.
“Doing morning talk was an interesting education,” Hammer recalls. “We could produce a four-minute segment on anything in the world.”
Hammer’s career path eventually would lead her out of Boston and local TV into the “wild, wild West” of cable, where she was destined to rise to prominence as one of the industry’s most accomplished and respected executives. In recognition of her track record as an innovator, leader and mentor, Variety is presenting its inaugural TV Legacy Award to Hammer as part of the three-day virtual TV Fest that runs June 8-10.
“Bonnie embodies the essential qualities of a great leader,” says Chris McCumber, president of TV for Blumhouse Television, who formerly worked for Hammer as entertainment president of NBCUniversal’s USA Network and Syfy. “She’s fearless and she taught us to be brave champions for our teams. She fought for our projects, she fought for resources, she fought to get us everything we needed to be successful. She has that killer combination of great creative instincts and sharp-as-hell business acumen.”
Hammer credits Barry Diller as the boss that she learned the most from during her long association with cable stalwart USA Network, which had many ownership changes over the years. Diller, now chairman and senior executive of IAC and Expedia Group, returns the compliment.
“I’ve known and admired Bonnie Hammer for decades, and time has not dimmed her expertise and abilities,” Diller told Variety.
Hammer honed her skills as an executive and manager while working in the fertile ground of cable programming when the pay TV world was still in its formative stage. She was warned by her boss at WCVB that leaving the station in 1984 for a job at the fledgling Lifetime cable channel was a “dead end.” He couldn’t have been more wrong.
“I realized there weren’t that many opportunities for growth in the broadcast world because it was pretty male at the time,” she says. “Cable was attracting a lot of women who saw it as an opportunity for growth.”
Hammer points to a number of industry notables — former MTV chief Judy McGrath, longtime Nickelodeon leader Geraldine Laybourne, USA Network founder Kay Koplovitz and former A+E Networks chairman Abbe Raven — who got their start in this time. “We saw ourselves as the cable corps,” Hammer says. “It was a playground and a learning environment.”
Hammer’s early experience as an in-the-trenches producer has served her well throughout her career. Her experience producing “Good Day” and other TV shows taught her to think fast on her feet, to take risks and to pay close attention to the working environment.
“That’s when I got an incredible appreciation for working with other people who could be truly collaborative,” Hammer says. “We all win or we all lose together.”
Hammer moved on to USA Network in 1989, when the channel was jointly owned by MCA and Paramount Pictures. There she began a storied run that saw her revitalize USA and vault Syfy into the top echelon of cable channels with big bets on original series such as the 20-hour, Steven Spielberg-produced miniseries “Taken” in 2002 (during the Diller years of the late 1990s through mid-2000s).
By 2008, Hammer was promoted to oversee all of NBCUniversal’s entertainment cable channels. At its peak, Hammer’s division delivered about $1 billion in profit to NBCUniversal’s bottom line.
Along the way, Hammer endured no fewer than seven major shakeups in ownership, the last of which came in 2011 when Comcast acquired NBCUniversal. All those twists and turns proved to be invaluable learning experiences.
“It forced me to embrace different cultures, new managers and a new tone for how to deal with the boss,” Hammer says. “Each time it was a bit of whiplash. But I learned to read the room — how they worked, how they managed, what it was that got a ‘yes’ from them.”
As Hammer ascended into senior management, she became accustomed to being the only woman in the room most of the time. That is no longer the case, for the most part, but she still feels an obligation to prop open the boardroom door for others.
“When I was coming up, we didn’t talk about glass ceilings or career ladders,” she says. “But now that is part of the consciousness.”
Indeed, NBCUniversal’s senior executive leadership today in TV and film is dominated by women, with Universal Pictures headed by Donna Langley and the trio of Frances Berwick, Pearlena Igbokwe and Susan Rovner running networks, content production and programming for the entertainment TV group, respectively. But there is still more work to be done to ensure the pipeline of future leaders includes those from underrepresented backgrounds.
“It’s up to every single woman in power now to bring up other women. Let’s not be self-centered about it and let’s not be threatened by other woman in powerful positions,” Hammer says. “If we don’t do that, shame on us.”
If I Had a Hammer
The longtime NBCUniversal executive has been a role model and mentor to many in the industry
(CHAIRMAN, ENTERTAINMENT NETWORKS, NBCUNIVERSAL TELEVISION & STREAMING)
“She has a low tolerance for mediocrity, and fosters a creative environment by pushing for big ideas and disruption. Bonnie is not only a brilliant marketer who has built some of the most memorable brands in television, but she also has an uncanny ability to recognize and develop lasting relationships with talent.”
(SENIOR PRODUCER, “TODAY”; FORMER WCVB PRODUCER)
“Bonnie’s unassuming style is as authentic today as it was back when she was starting her career. She is a loyal friend with a deep sense of the power and meaning of friendship. She cares deeply about people, for it is personal relationships that matter most to her.”
(PRESIDENT, BLUMHOUSE TELEVISION; FORMER PRESIDENT, USA NETWORK/SYFY)
“She has great taste in picking projects. She has a real knack for discovering and spotting undiscovered talent. She always set a high bar and consistently drove us to achieve excellence.”
(WRITER, SHOWRUNNER, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER)
“USA knew what it wanted to be under Bonnie. That clarity was reflected in who she hired and how they all worked together. You never felt like there were a bunch of voices and agendas pulling in different directions. It was great to have such a clear creative brief.”
(PRESIDENT, ANONYMOUS CONTENT; FORMER PRESIDENT, UNIVERSAL CABLE PRODS.)
“Bonnie has set a standard for how to be a successful female executive and role model in the industry. She has really paved the path for more women to be leaders and has written the playbook on how to fearlessly lead with vision and grace. I feel incredibly lucky to have worked so closely with Bonnie for six years.”