Mom at work
Bonnie Hammer: She is Sci Fi
By Porter Anderson
The Sci Fi Channel debuts "Soulkeeper," a new original film, on Saturday at 9 p.m. EDT (and at 1 a.m. EDT Sunday). It stars Michael Ironside, Brad Dourif and Karen Black.
(CNN) -- "Maybe you're just a magnet for the weird, Bonnie."
Bonnie Hammer pays no attention to that gentle ribbing from a colleague. In fact, in conversation Hammer has something like the "laser focus" certain White House administration leaders once talked of.
"As anyone knows," Hammer is saying, "when a channel is flailing about and has great potential" and the older management group has failed to identify or exploit that potential, "it's easy to look real good."
Lots of modesty there. The reason Bonnie Hammer looks "real good" these days is because she has taken her company's numbers way upward. The Sci Fi Channel's reach has gone from 50 million to 67 million potential viewers; advertising revenues were up more than 50 percent in 2000; ratings rose 29 percent; and viewership is up 53 percent. Since 1998, Sci Fi has moved from No. 17 to No. 10 in cable rankings, according to a report at Forbes.com.
And in its best showing to date, the Sci Fi Channel pulled a 4.4 rating for the three-night premiere of its critically honored six-hour miniseries of Frank Herbert's "Dune," directed by filmmaker John Harrison and starring Alec Newman. This was by any estimate a gutsy gamble in the extreme. The company flew right into the faces of one of the longest-established and most sophisticated cult followings in modern literature and proved it could mount a significant, luminous response to the material.
"Dune" drew Sci Fi some 2.9 million households in early December, double its previous records. The film helped the network reach its best net-income figure to date for the quarter ending December 31, with some $30.2 million in adjusted income.
But the irony you get in a talk with the Sci Fi Channel's executive vice president and general manager isn't so much that she rushes to share the glory with her colleagues, crediting all successes to team efforts. It's that even her modesty comes out with the same bite as the slogan she's made so popular.
You know how the line "I am Sci Fi" is voiced over or spoken by actors with that sharp finish to it on the network's "bumps" and promos. Sort of like the full sentence is "I am Sci Fi and I'm going to eat your left arm now because I'm a good-looking mutant from Alpha Centauri, so please stand by."
Bonnie Hammer -- as friendly as she is -- has that same precision going for her. You're just kind of glad she's from Westport, Connecticut, not Alpha Centauri. The way she tells you she is Sci Fi is by having some comely stars do it for her: Venus and Serena Williams, Jet Li, Traci Lords, Queen Latifah, Lara Croft, Richard Branson, Everclear, Moby and a winking, bat-accompanied Anne Rice are among the humanoids -- flesh-and-blood and virtual -- who grace Hammer's air with their own distinctive sayings of the phrase.
'Unlock the value'
"We'd all been talking about how we could make the channel more accessible," Hammer says. It was 1999 and she'd been ordered by Sci Fi's parent company, USA Networks (Nasdaq: USAI), to "unlock the value" of the Sci Fi cable network.
"We didn't want to use the usual suspects," she says, "like William Shatner or Roger Corman (although filmmaker Corman's production company is behind the new 'Black Scorpion' on Sci Fi this season). 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 1998, as the network's programming manager, Hammer had overseen the launch of its first full night of original programming. "Sci Fi Prime," they called it. At the beginning of this year, she'd launch a second night of all-original work, bringing the weekly total to an unusual 10 hours of original scripted programming, unmatched by other cable outlets in prime time.
But between those launches, a lot of design and conceptualization was going on.
"The execution and name of the 'I am Sci Fi' campaign," she says, "came out of the marketing group," which at the time was headed by Josh Greenberg. He now has gone on to lead what Sci Fi press releases this past summer called a "secret programming laboratory" in Los Angeles -- a production wing for the network.
But besides simply "characterizing" the network and selling its personality to viewers, "One of the mandates for me," Hammer says, "was to integrate the company, so all the creative juices and goals were the same."
In any large corporation, particularly one built around expressive content such as television programming, one of the challenges you may hear most frequently mentioned is "integration" -- the pulling together of disparate offices and teams into a coherent whole.
"I was young and green in terms of what I was being asked to do, but one of the things I did early on was throw up the schedule completely, every department. And then I had us all sit in a room in the evenings. We'd order in dinner. Sit there from 6 to 10 at night."
Apparently, Hammer needed only the intensity of these round-table meetings to hit her mark: "What we ended up with, instead of in-fighting, was everybody becoming invested in a given show's time slot and making it work. That's not to say I'm always going to listen," she cautions against any ideas of complete egalitarianism taking over the operation. "An executive decision must overrule sometimes."
But on the whole, she'd hammered out something many CEOs would kill for -- a largely cohesive commercial television entertainment unit, everybody pulling together for the good of the big picture.
Among the cleanest elements of Hammer's integration success: SciFi.com. Both in form and substance, the network gets cozy with techies very easily and Hammer has not only recognized this but capitalized on its nerdly potential to the max.
A constantly shifting site, SciFi.com makes aggressive use of visual elements from programming to drive traffic back to the television -- but only after selling a few tchotchkes and bonding with viewers via free downloads of wallpaper, screen saver and some serious browser skins. The community area of SciFi.com is called "Colony: Great minds thinking alike."
Curiously, where some minds differ is in the Sci Fi Channel's component of horror programming mixed with the science fiction. Hammer takes this combo in stride but understands questions about it and is ready with answers.
"Horror is a part of science fiction," she says. "It belongs in the definition of sci-fi. In the older regime" before she got her hands on the console, "the network's look was darker, horrific. That was totally wrong, wrong definition, wrong way to pursue this channel. What belongs on the air is lighter."
And here comes her definition of just what sci-fi is: "It's anything outside of what we know to be true. Sci-fi is speculative fiction. 'Field of Dreams' is sci-fi. 'Farscape' (soon to start its third season with Ben Browder in the lead) is sci-fi, of course -- any space opera is. It's a place for reverie. Fantastical. The magical. Very different."
And so the network has aired, among its original offerings, a range of shows from Corman's "Black Scorpion" superhero camp to the "Around the World in 80 Days" fantasia, "The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne."
When you hear anybody say "I am Sci Fi" on this channel, they've said a mouthful.
'I'd say, "You're crazy"'
"I read a lot of sci-fi when I was younger," Hammer says. "Loved it from the literary point of view. But if somebody came to me five years ago and said to me that I'd be doing this, I'd say, 'You're crazy.'"
Hammer, who cordially declines to give her age -- "It's irrelevant, I'm too old to talk about it" -- recalls seeing Broadway shows once a month as a child, plus taking piano lessons, voice lessons, 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.
"My mother was a full-time mom and Dad started his own business. He was a mini-American dream story. Came from Russia at age 4, started his own pen business in Brooklyn. The company isn't around now, but he created his own healthy, little world, leaving a decent legacy. My dad taught at Cooper Union, but was never fully graduated, himself.
"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."
Having taken a BA in education and an MA in media and new technology at Boston University, she found herself at WGBH in Boston -- a flagship PBS affiliate -- for some seven years. She worked in children's programming ("Zoom") and morning talk (Boston's "Good Day!"), and did development work for Dave Bell Associates in Los Angeles ("Alive & Well," "Infinity Factory"). Before moving to USA Networks, Hammer was in documentary films, winning a Women in Film Festival Lillian Gish Award for the 1988 "Gangs: Not My Kid." An avocation, photography, is a going enough interest that some of her photos have been seen in Time, the Boston Herald and the Los Angeles Times.
Is there a dark side to this booming career? If so, it sounds a lot like that frequently mentioned by others whose work has taken off in a way many might envy -- the search for a balance between career and personal life, home and family.
"Depending on what day you ask me," Hammer says, "this is really, really hard. I'm very lucky that my husband" -- Dale Huesner, a strategic planner with FAME Information Services -- "is a true partner in child-rearing. If I get home late, he gets home early or vice-versa. I travel more, and he's able to spell me when I'm gone. I feel very guilty some days about my 7-year-old. It's never enough.
"I think it's impossible for anybody, male or female, to feel balanced. No matter how hard you work, because of the other side of your world, some days you want to throw it all up and say, 'It's not working.'
"But you just have to keep checking on how things are going. The other day, my 7-year-old son came home with a report card and all the right words were used -- 'smart kid, kind, cares about friends,' -- so we must be doing something right. We have a happy child doing well in school, so far.
"I struggle with what comes next," Hammer says about her professional future.
She's talking "theatrical" a lot, though, as in theatrical releases -- film. The success of "Dune" no doubt has struck a chord. And another project, a $40 million 20-hour doing of "Taken," about alien abductions, is in the pipeline with DreamWorks on board and Steven Spielberg, himself, down with it as executive producer. But that project was originally listed for 2000. And some observers are worried that the looming actors' strike in Hollywood could have an impact on production now.
"'Theatrical' keeps coming back to me," Hammer says, musing on directions she could take from here. "Something well done, well written, fun, not depressing, not dark, something that leaves people walking out feeling good -- some sort of inspirational but not religious feel to it."
In a career so demanding as hers, Hammer says, "You have to take the temperature of everything around you. I've given up friendships. Well, not given them up but had to put them on the shelf, to do this. We (she and Huesner) turn away a lot of engagements and offers. We end up sacrificing.
"What I'll do next? -- Well, what happens with me is I fantasize or visualize something. Somehow I plant a seed somewhere along the line. I stumble into it, or the spirits are with me. And at some point it turns into an action plan."
Hammer likes this idea of the feel-good theatrical venture she's glimpsing in that process of emotional seeding. But maybe what makes her so good at this job -- that clipped, sharp, sure delivery that sounds like she just snapped "I am Sci Fi" at you -- is that she has a lot of reality programming in her, too.
"I hope it happens," she says about some theatrical-release film work. "And not at the cost of things that are important to me."
Work and life: The search for balance
January 29, 2001
Roger Corman: Attack of the independent filmmaker
January 4, 2001
Careers in collaboration: 'Dune,' rising
November 30, 2000
FAME Information Services Inc.
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