Its bonny Hammer time

Bonnie Hammer's very first television job led her where union members fear to tread: cleaning up behind a sheep dog.

"When people whine about paying dues, I just think, 'You don't know how easy you've got it,'" she says, remembering her days as a production assistant on Infinity Factory, a PBS children's series.

Hammer wasn't some desperate kid on the verge of starvation, ready to do anything for a buck. She was well on her way to establishing a career as a photojournalist, with credits in the Boston Herald, the Los Angeles Times and Time magazine. Doing some free-lance shooting on the set of Infinity, she was drafted as a temporary production assistant. The title sounded interesting, and the extra money wouldn't hurt: Hammer signed on.

She remembers the minute director Allan Muir started the process of shooting the show and she learned how TV was made. She was hooked.

That career-path detour that day in 1974 eventually led her to the helm of the Sci Fi Channel, the 24th-largest network in cable, one with a fan base that includes tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, author Anne Rice, talk-show host Queen Latifah, and Virgin king Richard Branson.

Hammer was named executive vice president and general manager of Sci-Fi Channel in November, when the network was pushed out of the shadow of USA Network. Until then, both were run as a single business at USA Networks Inc. Recognizing Sci-Fi's potential to flourish, owner Barry Diller and his camp gave it a separate identity and tapped a program executive with one of the more diversified production portfolios in television.

Hammer's programming credits cover the far corners of entertainment. At WGBH-TV in Boston, where she landed after the sheep-dog gig, she produced the archetype of handyman shows, This Old House, plus kids series ZOOM. Then, in the mid' 80s, as a programming executive at Lifetime, she launched the Signature Series, a string of resolute documentaries examining child abuse, women with AIDS, children in gangs, and postpartum depression. One program, 1988's Gangs: Not My Kid, pulled in a Lillian Gish Award, a Cine Golden Eagle and a National Association for Youth Mentor Award.

After joining USA in 1989, she developed another series of human-condition documentaries focused on racism, sexism, homophobia and other issues that divide society. Erase the Hate added an Emmy Award to Hammer's trophy shelf.

Then came wrestling. Hammer was handed the reins of the WWF, the World Wrestling Federation's theater of comic manly aggression. She, whose sensibilities leaned toward scrutinizing humanity's often contradictory value systems, was put in charge of programming that violated at least some element of every prevailing value system in American culture with histrionic violence and sexual pandering.

It was also the highest-rated programming on cable TV. Still, it was kind of a sheep-dog day for Hammer: 20-plus years of making socially meritorious television led to the WWF. "I cannot believe this is where my career has come," she mused.

Then she did that mental adjustment toward accepting what one cannot change. "You just have to have a sense of humor," she told herself.

Hammer supervised production of the WWF for 2½ years before landing at Sci-Fi. Now she's in charge of taking Sci-Fi where no other topically specific channel has gone before: into the mainstream. Hammer's boss, USA Cable President Stephen Chao, says he expects Sci-Fi to "rival the scope of terms of audience size, ratings and ad dollars."

All signs point in that direction. While revenue, ratings and expenditures at USA have dropped, Sci-Fi's ratings have risen.

USA advertising revenue grew from first quarter 1999 to first quarter 2000 by approximately 20%. Sci-Fi's grew by 80%-on the strength of a couple of durable originals, Outer Limits and Farscape, and standards Hercules and Tales From the Crypt. Come December, the channel will feature a six-hour miniseries based on Frank Herbert's Dune.

Next year's 20-hour Stephen Spielberg miniseries on alien abduction called Taken promises to be one the most expensive and ambitious projects in cable television-supervised by a woman whose career in television started out behind a sheep dog.

"I love taking something that is not quite there yet, not quite complete, and being able to grow it," Hammer says. "We have an opportunity to break it out. [Diller and Chao] have given me the job, and they're letting me do it."