NBC Exec Bonnie Hammer on Advice Book, What's Next


Bonnie Hammer is, by her own estimation, agenda-free in a way that she never could be before. There’s no longer a boss to win over, no purview to extend. “In many ways, I actually work for nobody now,” she says as our late May dinner veers into hour three.

Having spent a healthy portion of her five-decade career as the “Queen of Cable,” a label that outlets (including this one) gave her, she segued into her current role as vice chairman at NBCUniversal in 2020. At the time, it positioned her as a consigliere to CEO Jeff Shell, but he’d later get caught up in a scandal of his own making and was fired abruptly last spring. Comcast president Mike Cavanagh assumed his responsibilities, then restructured the executive ranks. Hammer did as she’s done many times before and embraced the change. “The reality is, you can’t stop it,” she says, “so why waste the time or energy trying?”

Much of Hammer’s workday now is devoted to mentoring those at the company eager for her advice on how to navigate such things as the new structure, the politics and the desire to be seen. Having survived six corporate takeovers and eight bosses (most of them named Jeff, Steve or Mike), Hammer knows of what she speaks. Plus, she insists, she’s un­biased and unfiltered. “I’m offering an opinion based on my many, many years of experience, but I have zero say in what happens,” she says. “No one really above me wants my advice anymore, and I don’t have the power to greenlight or do anything, so it is just about the purity of wanting to help.”

That desire to “pay it forward,” as she puts it, led her to write 15 Lies Women Are Told at Work … and the Truth We Need to Succeed, her newly published book of advice — the kind that she wishes someone had given her early in her career. Unlike many other offerings on the self-help shelf, it strives to dismantle the myths that women in the workplace are routinely fed. Over 300-plus pages, which also include Hammer’s personal tales of triumph and failure, she rejects such pithy maxims as “Know your worth,” “Trust your gut” and “Fake it till you make it.”

“They’re all BS, and worse, they hold women back,” says Hammer, who initially toyed with titling her book I Call Bullshit (Simon & Schuster apparently balked). Rather, she urges readers to “Work on your worth,” “Check your gut” and “Face it till you make it.”

Hammer’s flown out from the East Coast for a whirlwind week of book talks and parties, including a Q&A moderated by Suits star Gina Torres and attended by a who’s who of her USA tenure, including Royal Pains‘ Mark Feuerstein and Psych‘s Dulé Hill. The events fall during a challenging time for the industry, fueled by a cocktail of contraction and panic, but Hammer brings the kind of perspective that comes from several decades in the business. “I think what people forget,” she says, “is that every time industry change happens, everybody believes, at that moment in time, that it’s the worst, hardest, craziest end-of-the-world change that’s ever happened.” She’s here to remind you it isn’t.

***

For reasons of convenience and nostalgia, Hammer and I opt for an early dinner at Culina at The Four Seasons Beverly Hills. Fittingly, “Welcome backs” and “We’ve missed yous” from the staff punctuate our evening. This is, after all, where Hammer spent at least a few days of every month, and often more, back when she ran the USA and Syfy networks and, later, NBCUniversal’s entire cable portfolio. Despite pleas from multiple bosses to relocate at different points in her career, Hammer was never willing to raise her son, Jesse, in “the very visible, very noisy, very entitled world” of L.A.

Her choice to settle instead in the suburbs of Connecticut meant that her now-married, CAA Sports-employed son, who has her husband’s last name, could be just another kid — and Hammer’s entire social existence could be removed from the industry. In hindsight, she’s convinced it differentiated her from her peers and gave her a filter that proved helpful. At the time, however, the 3,000-mile distance from Hollywood caused her a great deal of anxiety at work, and the frequent travel led to outsize guilt at home. “We’ve been brought up on the myth that you can have it all,” she says, “but it’s a crock of shit.”

Nevertheless, Hammer became one of the industry’s most powerful executives. In any given week, more than 100 million viewers were watching one of the networks in her portfolio, which she managed to grow in revenue and profit for 15 consecutive years. It’s the type of clout that translates to power lists, including THR‘s, and board positions (in her case, at IAC/InterActiveCorp and eBay). “But when you grow up in cable, the goal is broadcast,” she says. “It’s the Olympic ring, and you want it.” So, when the opportunity arose to run the entertainment division of NBC’s signature broadcast channel in 2007, she wanted the gig — and, as she reveals in 15 Lies, she was all but promised she’d get it. In fact, with her stable of cable networks as commercially and financially successful as it was, it seemed like Hammer’s to lose.

Then Ron Meyer, her friend and colleague, called. He’d been on the plane to L.A. with then-CEO Jeff Zucker and others, and he’d heard 37-year-old Ben Silverman was about to be tapped to run NBC. “It was the Monday of Memorial Day weekend, I can remember exactly where I was sitting in my house, and it just took the air out of me,” says Hammer, though the heads-up from Meyer allowed her to be more composed when Zucker reached out later that day. At the time, she was furious and embarrassed. Silverman was 20 years younger and had a quarter of her experience. But with nearly two decades of distance now, she doesn’t cast blame: “I was a known commodity, and I’m sure everybody thought that I’d do a fine old job, but Ben was this young superstar and Zucker wanted to swing for the fences.” (Spoiler: The experiment ultimately flopped, and the young superstar was out in two years.)

Hammer would learn later that one of the reasons, if not the reason, that she was passed over for the NBC gig was because she was so successful in cable. As it was eventually communicated, her bosses wanted her to keep milking their cash cow. “Why they didn’t just tell me that from the get-go, I don’t know,” she says. But when Hammer arrived at the office that Tuesday morning, HR was standing outside her door and, as she recalls, “they literally doubled my salary on the fucking spot.” In that moment, her leverage was clear. And though she was still plenty pissed, she turned it into an opportunity to ask for exactly what she wanted: the ability to create her own cable studio, which she did with Universal Content Productions (né Universal Cable Productions).

“I didn’t want to leave. I mean, what, was I going to go to Turner?” she says. “So, the choice was to be a bitch to Zucker and everybody else, or go, ‘It’s done, I lost, now let’s figure out a way to get something in return.’ “

In the decade or so that followed, many of those linear viewers migrated to streaming, and cable slowly fell out of favor. By early 2019, at former CEO Steve Burke’s behest, Hammer relinquished her cable empire. What might have felt like a gut punch at the time — even if Hammer was moved briefly to the company’s then-nascent streaming division — feels like a blessing now. “I had this amazing team, most of whom were with me for two decades, and we literally rode the entire upstream of the cable business, and it was fabulous,” she says wistfully. “Now, whether Steve was trying to protect me or not, I’ll never know, but I wouldn’t have wanted to downsize my team or to say no to great projects. So he saved me from having to do all of that because, frankly, it would have killed me.” As is, she has trouble looking at her former networks, now rife with reruns and reality, without feeling a pang of disappointment.

***

Hammer’s contract is up later this year, and she’s not yet sure what’s next. She’s joked in the past that she’s not ready to be “put out to pasture,” but the opportunities for a woman in her 70s aren’t exactly bountiful. It’s not lost on Hammer that a man of her age and experience would likely still be fielding offers for top jobs. Bob Iger returned to Disney as CEO at 71, after all.

I wonder aloud what Hammer would do with an offer like that. Would it even be appealing at this stage? “Let’s be realistic, a woman at my age, I’d almost guarantee it doesn’t happen, regardless of the capability that could be there,” she says. But I didn’t ask whether it would happen, I say. I asked whether she’d want to do it if it were offered. Hammer thinks for a minute. “I’d seriously consider it,” she says, “if somebody wanted me to help get [a company] to a place and a point where then I plop somebody else in. But not just to do something for another title or money or to work. And am I going to commit to a decade? Abso-fucking-lutely not.”

For the foreseeable future, she’ll stay focused on making the path to the C-suite easier for other women, which includes helping them negotiate better deals for themselves. “One woman’s success (or salary bump) doesn’t hurt the rest of us; it helps,” she writes in 15 Lies. “So, when you get paid, pay it forward. Share your salary with your female coworkers. Let more junior employees know what their going rate should be.” As she reveals in a chapter titled “It’s a Man’s World … Only if You Let It Be,” when she found out another woman was taking on a similar role to hers at NBCU, albeit in a different division, she not only introduced her to her lawyer but also instructed her lawyer to share exactly what Hammer was making so that the other woman knew what to ask for. As Hammer sees it, she had nothing to lose — it’s not like they were going to take her money back. “I talk in the book about the [power of] the XX chromosome, but I do believe in the XY paycheck,” she says. “And for me, I was finally and luckily at the level where it was equal to any guy at my level, and I felt that she should have it, too.”

As for what Hammer may do, should she find herself without a 9-to-5, there’s the marathon that she’s still committed to running, and a fitness routine that would intimidate someone half her age. There are grandchildren, too, and a husband whom she adores. In fact, they’re hoping to go on a safari. “And while I still can — I don’t want to just sit in the jeep looking at animals, I want to go trekking with the gorillas,” she says, and then lingers on that point. “Until I’m at the end of whatever that physical or mental line is, I want to make sure that I’m actively living rather than just watching other people live. I really want more life experiences. I want to enjoy the next chapter.”

This story first appeared in the June 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.



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