Hammer takes hold of cable programming

NBC Universal is shaking up its TV production units, handing oversight of its cable programs over to USA/Sci Fi chief Bonnie Hammer.

Decision to slice the studio in two comes as Hammer seals a new multiyear deal with NBC U. Under the new pact, she’ll now serve as NBC Universal president of cable entertainment and cable studio.

Hammer’s new arrangement keeps her firmly in charge of the cable nets she has overseen since 2004 while taking on the new studio duties.

Also, Hammer will now oversee NBC U’s emerging cable network group, headed by Dan Harrison. That means digital channels like Chiller, Sleuth and Universal HD are now part of her domain as well.

Decision to split the studio into broadcast and cable entities is seen as a reward for Hammer, who has helped grow USA and Sci Fi (which she has run since 2001) into powerhouses — and two of NBC U’s biggest success stories. USA was the most-watched basic cable net for the second year in a row in 2007, while Sci Fi was the year’s sixth-ranked basic cabler.

Under the new arrangement, Universal Media Studios will now focus its efforts on producing for the broadcast nets. Cable skeins that Universal Media Studios previously produced — such as USA’s hits “Monk” and “Psych” and its upcoming “In Plain Sight” — will now be produced by the new Hammer-led entity.

Hammer said she now sees an opportunity to streamline her networks’ development process.

“It’s a simple premise: Let the cable group control what it does, and let the network group concentrate on what it does,” Hammer said. “This gives us a little bit of control not only on the creative, but I’ll have an opportunity to control our own bottom line.”

Hammer said the new structure will allow her to move money around more freely — perhaps going over budget on one project but making it up by spending less on another. She also sees an opportunity to bring in more projects directly to USA and Sci Fi.

“In a studio setup, they would take a lot of pitches, but if a great pitch came in, they’d hand it to the network first,” she said. “This way, when stuff comes in, it’s ours.”

Hammer dismissed concerns that the two sibling studios could wind up fighting for projects.

“We are going to be good sisters and brothers,” she said. “We’ve always worked closely with the network. There’s never been an issue.”

With the new setup, Hammer said she also expected to create “great efficiencies” by trimming the number of people working on development.

As part of the change, Universal Media Studios senior VP Richard Rothstein, who handled cable series for the company, and his direct reports will move over to the cable studio side and report to Hammer. Rothstein and the new NBC Universal Cable Studio will be based in Los Angeles; Hammer said she plans to spend more time alternating between coasts.

Hammer’s elevation could also mean good things down the line for her lieutenants, such as original programming exec VPs Jeff Wachtel (USA) and Mark Stern (Sci Fi). Hammer just recently named Dave Howe president of Sci Fi Channel.

Hammer continues to report to Universal TV Group prexy-chief operating officer Jeff Gaspin, who announced the shuffle along with NBC U prexy-CEO Jeff Zucker on Monday.

“Bonnie is one of the most talented executives in the industry, with an amazing track record of success,” Gaspin said. “She’ll be able to put her exceptional branding, programming and leadership skills toward an expanded portfolio of cable assets.”

New arrangement also brings USA and Sci Fi into line with many of their competitors. FX, for example, produces most of its series via its inhouse FX Prods.; HBO produces the lion’s share of its series inhouse as well.

As part of her reup, Hammer has also joined the boards of A&E Networks, Shop NBC and the Sundance Channel.

“She’s a multitalented executive who knows how to run a network, program it successfully and inspire a team,” Zucker said.

Meanwhile, Universal Media Studios — the studio formerly known as NBC Universal TV Studio, and the result of the merger between Universal TV and NBC Studios — will be hyperfocused on developing for NBC (and, to a lesser extent, the other broadcast webs).

Move means less oversight for NBC Entertainment/U Media Studios co-chairs Ben Silverman and Marc Graboff, as well as UMS prexy Katherine Pope.

But Silverman noted that until recently, the major TV studios didn’t produce for cable anyway. The lower budgets, smaller episodic orders and unusual production locales make it a different business than network production, he said.

“Let them take on the risk and reward in the cable world, and let us concentrate on the broadcast world,” he said.

Silverman also dismissed concerns of sibling rivalry, noting that NBC’s program objectives are different from those of USA and Sci Fi.

“What we’ve done here is continued to evolve,” he said. “We’re streamlining what is our studio business.”

Universal Media Studios has had a mixed year, with frosh drama “Life” earning a pickup for next season but the heavily hyped “Bionic Woman” failing to make the grade. A third entry, “Lipstick Jungle,” just completed its run but hasn’t yet been picked up for next season.

The studio oversees the tremendously profitable “Law & Order” franchise, as well as comedies “The Office” and “30 Rock” and Fox’s hit drama “House.”

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