The Woman Behind USA Network's Hit Machine

Bonnie Hammer is in a buoyant mood on a rainy May morning as she arrives on a Long Island production set of Royal Pains, a new series for USA Network. As the channel's CEO, she has plenty of reasons to be happy. In March, the network had scored its 11th straight quarter as the nation's top-rated cable outlet—averaging 3.2 million viewers in prime time, the biggest audience ever in cable. With luck, Royal Pains would help the streak continue. The series, starring Mark Feurstein as a physician who serves as a concierge-style doctor to superrich Hamptonites, is filming a lavish party scene in a rented 87-room Tudor mansion. It would be a complicated day of shooting regardless of the circumstances: the set is overrun with a cast and crew of 200, including an entire ballet troupe for one scene. The presence of Hammer—wearing a black fitted skirt, white blouse, and fierce heels, seated in a director's chair—only ups the ante. "I hope nothing gets screwed up," says Michael Rauch, an executive producer of the series. "There couldn't be more pressure than if God was on the set."

Hammer, a 33-year veteran of the television industry, knows about pressure. Since she took over in 2004, USA has produced a string of hits: Burn Notice, about a spy who's been fired; Psych, about a crime-solving police consultant who pretends to be psychic; In Plain Sight, focusing on a U.S. marshal aiding people in the witness-protection program. Along with CNBC, MSNBC, Bravo, and Telemundo, USA is controlled by General Electric's struggling NBC Universal. (Newsweek is a content partner with MSNBC.) Of all NBCU's properties, including the namesake broadcaster NBC and its Universal studio, USA has become the biggest earner, delivering roughly $1 billion in profits last year. "As for operating profits, it's the most important network," says Jeff Gaspin, president of NBC's Universal Television Group, who gives much of the credit to Hammer. "She's a natural." Given NBC Universal's—and, for that matter, GE's—overall financial picture, Hammer's bosses are counting on her ability to keep the black ink flowing.

In television, achievements like this can be fleeting. The process of greenlighting TV shows is extraordinarily subjective; often the genius who champions a hot show like ABC's Private Practice is the same person who subsequently greenlights dreck like The Unusuals on the same network. But Hammer, 58, is working to change that law of averages by systematizing the way her team looks at potential shows, by moving beyond the "golden gut" decision making that drives Hollywood to rely instead on formal checklists and scorecards. Today when considering scripts, Hammer and her team ask a routinized series of questions: Does the show have a fun sensibility? Does it have a "blue sky" tone of hopefulness? Does it revolve around an "aspirational," if quirky, lead character with a moral and ethical center? Potential shows are scored based on how closely they match these dictates; only high scorers make it on air. Before Hammer's arrival, USA was the television equivalent of a potluck supper, a hodgepodge of reruns and castoffs. Driven by her unique show-selection technique—a process she refers to as the "brand filter"—USA has been transformed into a cohesive collection of character-driven shows that are resonating with viewers, and advertisers are in hot pursuit. "The goal was to take a large, broad-based network and make it an exclusive club by creating connective tissue," Hammer says, describing the bond between characters on the screen and an audience of individual characters watching at home. The USA tag line describes its strategy: "Characters Welcome."

Hammer's approach also relies on a culture shift within USA. She is insisting that her top executives—including those in the marketing and promotion departments—not just have a vote in selecting shows, but also a voice in each other's plans for molding, rolling out, and supporting them. She calls it breaking down the "silos" that widely exist in Hollywood's TV-show factories and lead to inconsistencies in the look and feel of network brands. "Bonnie's management style is inclusiveness," says Jeff Wachtel, the network's top Hollywood exec, who concedes he'd wondered at first, "Why are all these people in my business?" But he's a believer now.

USA Network's roots lie in the earliest days of modern cable programming. Launched in 1980 under the joint ownership of Hollywood powerhouses Paramount and MCA, it had evolved out of a tiny startup channel initially housed in a Citizens First bank building in Glen Rock, N.J. The network's name was a reflection of its strategy: to take advantage of the innovation of satellite delivery to offer a national channel to local cable broadcasters. Over the next two decades, USA Network became a chess piece in the consolidation and empire building that's driven the entertainment industry, at times changing hands as readily as some TV viewers surf channels. Over the years it was owned by Matsushita, France's Vivendi, the Seagram heir Edgar Bronfman Jr., and Barry Diller. Its programming, meanwhile, was a grab bag of sports (like U.S. Open tennis), children's shows, box-office movies, and reruns of TV shows like Walker, Texas Ranger; Murder, She Wrote; and Miami Vice. While most of the cable dial evolved to offer channels with clearly defined niche -audiences—think ESPN, MTV, CNN, -Lifetime—USA was left competing with TBS and TNT, which were also aimed at mass audiences and whose schedules always seemed to be a mishmash.

Hammer attended Boston University and worked briefly as a photographer before falling into her television career. Her first TV job, in 1974, was at the Boston PBS station WGBH on a children's show called Infinity Factory, where her duties involved scooping up excrement from one of the show's costars, a sheepdog. By 1987 she'd moved on to Lifetime, where she developed award-winning documentaries about subjects like gang recruitment. In this era, when the big broadcast networks still reigned supreme, much of the industry looked down on cable as its minor-league sibling, but Hammer recalls immediately recognizing that view as shortsighted. "There were no rules in cable—it was a group of us kids playing in a sandbox making different sand castles," she says. In cable, she also learned how to do good work with tight budgets. "We could reach a level of quality without being extravagant," she says.

In 1989 Hammer jumped to USA Network as a programming executive. Among other assignments, she inherited oversight of World Wrestling Entertainment, a pillar of USA's programming. Televised wrestling dates back to the earliest days of the medium in the late 1940s, and USA's Monday Night Raw, with its mix of scripted faux drama, acrobatic athleticism, and over-the-top shtik, is the longest-running prime-time cable program in history. Unlike the network's boss at the time, Hammer fashioned a warm working relationship with WWE owner Vince McMahon. She also approached the wrestling franchise like any other show, offering notes on how to improve plotlines and story arcs. Hammer even persuaded McMahon to hire soap-opera and comedy writers, and used cross-promotion by casting wrestlers in USA shows. She arbitrated some of WWE's less tasteful tendencies: for one live episode, in which one wrestler used a machete to attempt to castrate an opponent, Hammer stayed on the phone with the cameraman while watching from home, instructing him on precisely when to pull the camera away. WWE's ratings, already high, soared further, helping push USA toward the top of the cable rankings.

In 1997 Hammer found herself working for the Hollywood mogul Barry Diller after he purchased USA from Seagram heir Bronfman. Having Diller as a boss was a formative experience. "It took me a year to get used to Barry—he scared you to such a degree," says Hammer, who was also responsible for programming at the sibling Sci Fi network. Diller's management style was mentorship by fire—to question and push back at subordinates, forcing them to rationalize decisions and stand firm against skepticism. She remembers him once admonishing her to cut $20 million from her budget, declaring, "Don't you know you're just a financial asset to me?" Hammer spent a weekend arguing with him via e-mail about programming philosophy, which ended with his reply, "Your argument wins." Later, when Hammer was widely criticized for spending $40 million on a 20-hour Steven Spielberg miniseries called Taken, Diller asked to see a rough cut. He loved it. "Honey, ignore the world," he told her. (Disclosure: Diller serves on the board of The Washington Post Company, NEWSWEEK's parent.)

Today Hammer works from a sleek Rockefeller Center office with a low-slung white sofa. The top of a file chest near her desk is crammed with family photos, including son Jesse, 15, and stepdaughter KiMae, 29. She retains only a slight accent that gives a hint of her working-class upbringing across the river in Queens. At 5 feet 4 she's hardly imposing, but her track record of greenlighting series that become ratings monsters garners Team Hammer huge respect among producers. On the set of Royal Pains this past spring, Hammer seemed to be working to avoid the royal treatment: when underlings worried about her walking without an umbrella through a cool drizzle to the lunch tent, she waved them off. Around the creative types upon whose work she renders judgment, Hammer projects authority but not self--importance: a mix that's in contrast with a lot of Hollywood bosses. WWE boss McMahon, an unabashed fan, says her performance and style make her a serious contender to someday succeed Jeff Zucker as head of NBC Universal. "She's just that smart," McMahon says.

The key to the network's current success, as Hammer sees it, lies in the brand filter she and her team have devised to figure out which shows belong on the network—and which don't. In her first six months on the job, Hammer accelerated research into USA's identity crisis. In focus groups, viewers were asked what appealed to them about the U.S.A., as in the United States of America. They said the nation's appeal was more about its people than the place. That was an important clue to Hammer that the network should focus on people—and the "characters" strategy emerged. Monk was already a hit because of its germphobic lead character, detective Adrian Monk. What the network wanted was more shows in that vein, and to build the overall network's identity around them.

To find character-driven shows, Hammer's team abandoned the usual Hollywood drill for picking shows. Typically, TV networks use an informal process to decide the scripts that should be turned into pilots, then subject those would-be scripts to extensive focus-group testing. When Hammer and her lieutenants consider scripts, they spend up to two days in their own conference room, using charts to map out exactly how a proposed show matches the "blue sky," "aspirational," "fun," and "character-centric" values that viewers identified as key attributes of Monk. Today the network sees those qualities as the core of USA's brand identity. Based on their subjective assessment of how each script rates in terms of the brand traits, each team member votes anonymously for his or her top three picks in order of preference. A tally is taken to whittle the field down to the three scripts with the most votes. Then the discussion turns to each of the traits. If a script isn't character-centric enough, they may ask the writer to beef it up. This process continues until rounds of voting produce a winner. "We won't greenlight something that doesn't have most or all of the traits," Hammer says. "It doesn't guarantee a winner, but limits failure." What if the group can't reach a consensus? "This is not entirely a democracy," Hammer says. "I'll make a decision."

The process often results in significant tweaks to the shows producers pitch to the network. Consider USA's newest hit, Royal Pains. Originally, the series focused exclusively on the medical travails of rich Hamptonites and the doctor who's at their beck and call. Hammer's team felt that focus wasn't right for their brand. "They wanted more middle-income people to be incorporated," says series star Feurstein. "The audience isn't just going to want to watch rich people." So based on the feedback, the show now has a storyline about a clinic for working-class townies where Feuerstein's character works. "Originally, it was just about the Hamptons, but there's another world here now," says executive producer Rauch. "The balance is much better now."

Viewers seem to agree: since its debut in early June, Royal Pains has dominated its time slot (Thursdays, 10 p.m. ET), with ratings rising each week. To advertisers, it's a sign that under Hammer's watch, a network once known as a smorgasbord has become focused and confident. "They know what they want," says a top television producer, who asked for anonymity in speaking about a network with which he does business. "They don't buy shows for the sake of buying, only when it fits what they're looking for." And in a business that's often derided for pursuing flavors of the month, for now at least, Bonnie Hammer seems to have a taste for all seasons.