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Hammer on the New Upfront

It's the cable upfront high season, and USA Network/Sci Fi Channel President Bonnie Hammer has been working it with advertisers and the press. Sci Fi threw a talent-filled media bash last week, and USA plans one this week in New York at the Museum of Modern Art's chic restaurant The Modern. Hammer took a few moments to chat with B&C's Anne Becker about her networks' approach to the upfront and how advertisers are responding.

Like other cable networks, you have downsized your upfront presentations. Why?

Under the regimes of [former USA Networks chief] Barry Diller and [founder] Kay Koplovitz, there were always very big staged events with lots of bells and whistles. The people who came weren't always the senior decision makers. Some of the younger folks got exposed to your stuff, but it didn't end up directly having an impact—or so we thought—in what got sold or not.

Our attitude now is, rather than spending lots of money for huge events where we can't really quantify the upside, it's better to have events where the press and our staff and talent can schmooze for a couple of hours and enjoy one another to create some buzz and momentum and some real kind of rubbing of skin with people. Then, have real conversations with the advertisers where you can walk away knowing that you've done business. That's the name of the game: figuring out how to work together creatively from conception to completion and create a deal.

And what are advertisers saying they want?

Years ago, it was one size fits all. It was a CPM game. You wanted largest share of pie at the highest price per, and it didn't matter so much what the added value was. Now it's all about customization. Clients want to know, “If we're going to spend our money with you, what are we going to get, and how are we going to work together hand in hand to create stuff cross-platform?” And that's not going to come from a presentation. That's going to come from personalization.

And do advertisers mostly ask you for comprehensive packages?

Nobody really knows what financial model is going to work. No one has the formula or the equation of what goes to digital and what goes to on-air and how to integrate a product in a way that's organic and means something. Clearly, whoever comes up with the most interesting will be a really rich hero.

Everybody's coming to the same point where they know it's no longer going to be 30-second spots in breaks and, even if it is and they go to commercial-pod ratings, what does that mean? Is it going to affect monetization, and is it really going to work? Are we going to remain in a 30-second business or be a 15-second business, or go back to the old days of cable when we were all pioneers and entire blocks of programming were completely sponsored by one company or client? At least most people are being honest enough to say they don't know what will happen, but they'll work together to figure it out.

What's your digital strategy?

We literally look to every single platform when we go into production on a show. [NBCU chief] Jeff Zucker, probably ahead of the curve, introduced the concept of TV 360. All of us are following suit because it was a great idea. Battlestar Galactica ratings on-air are very good, but one out of every four people is watching it somewhere else: on DVR, downloaded, on DVD. We all have to figure out that, if the audience is starting to watch in new ways, how are we going to monetize or aggregate all those digital platforms so the advertising world really knows what they're buying and we know how many people are truly seeing our product?

We'll stream when appropriate. We still want our primary viewers coming back to the family room and watching on the television screen. But I'm not convinced that, for my 13-year-old, the television set will be his primary way of viewing. Part of it is educating the cable operators and making smart, creative deals with the operators and giving them original content to use as well.

You've overseen rebrands at USA and Sci Fi. What has been the ad community's reaction?

I'm thrilled. When advertisers are calling us the “character network” for USA, I think we hit a home run. On Sci Fi, we're getting more and more audiences in the younger demo, more talent signing up, people acknowledging the creative quality of our network. The awareness of the brand has picked up tremendously.