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Bonnie Hammer, Small-Screen Mastermind

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Bonnie Hammer, Small-Screen Mastermind

Pop Culture

Bonnie Hammer, Small-Screen Mastermind

Bonnie Hammer, Small-Screen Mastermind

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Bonnie Hammer i

In her tenure at USA and Sci Fi, Bonnie Hammer has successfully rebranded the television channels, sweeping the ratings and allowing them to compete with broadcast networks like The CW. NBC Universal hide caption

toggle caption NBC Universal
Bonnie Hammer

In her tenure at USA and Sci Fi, Bonnie Hammer has successfully rebranded the television channels, sweeping the ratings and allowing them to compete with broadcast networks like The CW.

NBC Universal
Triple H i

Millions of viewers tune in to USA's WWE Raw to watch wrestlers like Triple H wreak havoc in the ring. Martin Schoeller/USA Network/WWE hide caption

toggle caption Martin Schoeller/USA Network/WWE
Triple H

Millions of viewers tune in to USA's WWE Raw to watch wrestlers like Triple H wreak havoc in the ring.

Martin Schoeller/USA Network/WWE
Katee Sackhoff i

With its political themes and strong female characters like Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Katee Sackhoff), Battlestar Galactica managed to draw in an entirely new demographic for the Sci Fi Channel. Carole Segal/Sci Fi hide caption

toggle caption Carole Segal/Sci Fi
Katee Sackhoff

With its political themes and strong female characters like Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Katee Sackhoff), Battlestar Galactica managed to draw in an entirely new demographic for the Sci Fi Channel.

Carole Segal/Sci Fi

For some time now, ratings for cable television have been going up, while the big broadcast networks are looking at lower numbers. Leading the pack for cable is the USA Network — the No. 1 channel on basic cable.

A lot of that success has to do with Bonnie Hammer, who runs both USA and the Sci Fi channel — as well as the studio that produces much of USA's programming.

Hammer took over in 2004, having already produced results at Sci Fi with shows like Battlestar Galactica. One of her first moves at USA was giving the network a stronger brand identity.

"Research had told us that people felt USA was predictable, like a nicely worn-in old shoe," Hammer says.

So she made USA's programming more diverse. Now it runs wrestling — WWE Raw is one of its more popular programs — and original dramas.

In fact, the channel currently has an extraordinary string of original hits: Monk, Psych, In Plain Sight, Burn Notice and Law and Order: Criminal Intent.

A new program based on last year's successful miniseries The Starter Wife is set to premiere in October.

All these different shows work together on USA, Hammer says, because she brought to the channel a new slogan: Characters Welcome. It gives executives a framework for picking and developing programming.

"Is there a central character?" Hammer asks. "Is this character slightly flawed but upbeat? We wanted it to have an upbeat, aspirational tone. People weren't just accepting pitches from anyone about anything."

It's paid off, says Anthony Crupi, a senior editor at the trade journal Mediaweek.

"They've won pretty much every quarter in prime time," says Crupi. "They've won every year, every time period. They're at the top of the ratings heap."

The big challenge now, Crupi warns, is figuring out how to keep it up.

Hammer knows how easy it would be to make a mistake. Her executive team may be high on the network's ratings success, and yet a little low on self-esteem. When Emmy nominations were announced recently, rival AMC picked up 16 nominations for its critical darling Mad Men, an edgy period piece about Madison Avenue advertising execs in the '60s. Mad Men's low ratings would be unacceptable on USA — but that's still 16 nominations for just one show. USA squeezed out only four for all of its shows.

USA is known for controlling its budgets and for operating under the assumption that TV shows make stars, not the other way around.

So when Hammer met with her staff on a July morning the day after the Emmy nominations were announced, she kept the focus on doing better among the relatively young demographic that advertisers pursue — not on getting buzz, but on improving the ratings.

"Frankly, I don't want to be here for our first failure, because I am enjoying the ride of the success!" she says.

This might mean that USA treads with some caution — in a pair of cute but sensible shoes instead of those flashy, pricey, impractical Manolo Blahniks.

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