The Hammer grammer (how to make culture)

Bonnie hammer USA Networks goes from strength to strength.

In March, the network had scored its 11th straight quarter as the nation's top-rated cable outlet—averaging 3.2 million viewers in prime time, the biggest audience ever in cable.  (Johnnie Roberts, Newsweek, ref. below)

Every parent company wants a child like this.

Of all NBCU's properties, including the namesake broadcaster NBC and its Universal studio, USA has become the biggest earner, delivering roughly $1 billion in profits last year.

This can't happen without someone smart and creative in charge.  That someone is Bonnie Hammer.  

Since [Hammer] took over in 2004, USA has produced a string of hits: Burn Notice, about a spy who's been fired; Psych, about a crime-solving police consultant who pretends to be psychic; In Plain Sight, focusing on a U.S. marshal aiding people in the witness-protection program.

Hammer's success raises an urgent question: how in the dickens does she do it?   TV is littered with failures. Hammer appears to be batting around .800.  What's the secret?

The great thing about Hammer is that she actually has an answer.  An lot of creatives demur, giving us answers that are vague and self celebrating: "Oh, it just comes to me," or "What can I say, pure intuition!"

Not Bonnie Hammer.  She knows how she does it.  And she's prepared to say how she does it.  Good news for the anthropology.  Hammer has put her creative process under glass.  It's our job to see if we can divine the Hammer grammer. 

In his excellent Newsweek article, Johnnie Roberts says,

Before Hammer's arrival, USA was the television equivalent of a potluck supper, a hodgepodge of reruns and castoffs. Driven by her unique show-selection technique—a process she refers to as the "brand filter"—USA has been transformed into a cohesive collection of character-driven shows that are resonating with viewers, and advertisers are in hot pursuit. […] The USA tag line describes its strategy: "Characters Welcome."

Hammer's secret, then, is "brand filter."  And what is this, exactly?  Roberts says,

Today when considering scripts, Hammer and her team ask a routinized series of questions: Does the show have a fun sensibility? Does it have a "blue sky" tone of hopefulness? Does it revolve around an "aspirational," if quirky, lead character with a moral and ethical center? Potential shows are scored based on how closely they match these dictates; only high scorers make it on air.

The USA show Monk was already in place when Hammer arrived.  And we can guess that it  gave Hammer a precedent and a guideline for that "quirky, lead character."  Monk helped to expand what counted as quirky on TV.  Shaloub's character is not merely "colorful."  He is afflicted, irritating even when endearing.  Monk gave Hammer room to work.

The Burn Notice character is trapped in a limbo, dependent on a friend, a girlfriend, and his mother.  This "quirky" departs nicely from the steely eyed, iron jawed model of competence that TV espionage prefers.  The Psych character is an early Jerry Lewis with a brain, an intertextual trickster who japes and goofs.  His "quirky" is kinetic, hyperactive tom foolery.  In In Plain Sight, the hero is, by turns, grouchy, rueful, and imperious.  This quirky charts new ground for a female lead.   Monk made many things possible.  Hammer is exploring the options.

Notice how unthreatening Hammer's quirky is. I was in Saratoga this summer with friends (thank you, Craig and Cheryl Swanson), and we were accosted by a small, energetic man who shouted historical declarations and theatrical possibilities at us.  Our first reaction to fear for our lives…and then our wallets.  Eventually, we saw this guy was no threat to anyone.  "What a character." someone said.  "Character" is what we call people who are odd but not dangerous.  Hammer keeps quirky civilized.

There's a second way Hammer manages quirkiness.   Her characters are never exposed to real peril or emotional darkness.  Despair is not allowed at USA Networks.  This is the oldest bargain in American television, but it has been challenged recently by shows like The Wire and The Sarah Connor Chronicles.  Hammer will have none of it.  Thus does her " blue sky" condition operate to keep her "Monk" license kept from running amuck (amonk).

"Fun sensibility" feels a little vaque.  All of Hammer's shows have this sensibility, but they depart so thoroughly, it's hard to know exactly what fun sensibility is.  Perhaps, this too is a boundary condition.  It says that while Hammer and company are attending to other matters, they must be careful not to  compromise the entertainment value of the project.  It guarantees, a certain animation or froth that "keeps the thing light."  Perhaps what fun delivers is fresh. 

On the last two qualities, the moral and the aspirational, I'm less clear.  Does "aspirational" mean that we want to be like these characters?  Does it mean that these character aspire to something else in life?

It seems to me these character are a little anti-aspirational.  They seem to me to endure a certain status immobility.  They are content with their place in life.  Naturally, they work their allowance.  They occupy their worlds with a certain intensity.  There is lots here that is "excess to requirement," but nothing that resists, protests or looks to transcend their lot in life.  Perhaps I'm missing what is meant by "aspirational."

On the moral center, I'm still less clear.  Monk is so preoccupied with his own special code that  morality doesn't seem to have much to do with it.  The Burn Notice guy seeks justice for himself.  Other kinds of justice come a distant second.  The In Plain Sight hero pursues a private morality, and the Psych character couldn't care less.  But again, perhaps I'm missing something. 

There are things about Hammer hits that are not anticipated in her code.  In Plain Sight makes a playground of the tensions and ambivalences of witness relocation.  There is also a dysfunctional family played really well by Leslie Ann Warren, Nichole Hiltz, Cristian de la Fuente and work life played really well by by Fred Weller and Paul Ben-Victor.  These together with the remarkable Mary McCormick give In Plain Sight a richness that makes The Closer look increasingly palid.  I am not sure what we would need to add to the Hammer grammer but let's leave that for the moment. 

Psych really is all about the cultural referencing.  As I argue in Chief Culture Officer, popular culture was once thoroughly cowed.  It was low culture and it knew it was low culture.  Quoting that was for high culture, for the arts and letters, for serious people doing lofty things.  I'm not sure when this changed but now popular culture routinely references itself. Consider Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, The Simpsons, NCIS, ESPN Sportscenter, to name a few.

The Psych guy has turned the subreference from an aside into the very source of the dynamism of the show.  Otherwise, Psych is exceedingly thin, a boys own, Hardy Boys adventure with not very much to show for itself.   Perhaps intertextuality, to give it its fancy name, needs a higher profile in the Hammer grammer.

Burn notice is interesting, I think, because we watch the character struggle with a world that it disorderly and uncontrollable.  His fate is being decided by forces and people larger than himself.  But in every episode, he finds away to overcome by "tacking" together friends and family.  He is a kind of a social McGyver (even as he acts as a technical McGyver as well).  This collaboration doesn't do anything to reconcile him to his girl friend and mother.  These relationships remain "spring loaded." 

The Hammer grammer or brand filter calls for characters who are quirky.  Thus does she explore the new latitude, or plenitude of our culture.  It also calls for a blue sky condition and a fun sensibility.  Thus does she manage quirky and prevent it from going places TV still generally does not go.  Finally, Hammer aims for character made engaging by their aspirational and moral qualities.  

This gives us a useful grammer for making culture.  But as we have seen, there are a couple of other things that Hammer appears to be doing but not acknowledging.  At the risk of presuming, we might add to the Hammer grammer the following: intertexuality, springloaded relationships, social richochet, a feeling of unpredictableness, plus a big dollop of great writing and great writing.  There is also wit and cunning at work.  (In one episode of In Plain Sight, the office staff gives an impromptu party for Mary to celebrate her engagement.  My wife noticed that one of the balloons in the back ground read "Get Well Soon.")  All of these need to be factored into our grammer.  I mention them almost in passing.  If I weren't sitting in a hotel room, I would dwell more carefully.

Grammars are like algorithms.   We need to test them, test them and test them.  More data, more editing.  More data, more refinement.  But clearly Hammer is closing in on a way to think about what works on TV, and our culture.  More to the point, she is demonstrating with hit after hit that this is not some mere academic imagining.  These ideas work.  The grammer is refining. 


McCracken, Grant.  2009.  Chief Culture Officer.  New York: Basic Books.  Available for preorder at here

Roberts, Johnnie L.  2009.  Bonnie Hammer's Hit Factory: Inside USA Network's winning streak.  Newsweek.  July 11, 2009. here.

Thanks to Kenn Taylor for giving me the head's up on Roberts' excellent article.

6 thoughts on “The Hammer grammer (how to make culture)”

  1. I thought you might be interested in another culture maker and an analysis of their sense of life.

    You have probably already heard of this, but it’s a gem:

    David Marc discusses the creators (culture makers from back in the day) of 60s and 70s crime and sitcom programming, as well as their own particular metaphysical checklist. Examples are Quinn Martin and Paul Henning. They ensured a certain style in their hits such as the Hillbillies, Barnaby Jones, etc.

    I have the book in storage, otherwise I’d give you the exact page – but there is actually a table that lists precisely the same ‘grammer’ you list here for USA.

    It was riveting, tremendous, a gem. This post here reminded me very much of that book.

    If you haven’t come upon it, you might like it, because I just discovered this site (Scouts seem an awful like like early adopters to me) and Marc’s book is about how TV is the cultural maker and surface symbol of our democracy. In other words, how TV and its creators are culture makers, and then discusses very accessibly their templates.

    Give it a look someday.

  2. How One Woman Has Set Out To Make Our World All “Blue Sky” And “Popcorn”…THE MINDSET OF BONNIE HAMMER…

    Due in part to the recent news regarding NBCU and USA Network, I’ve decided to take a deeper look into the background and mindset of Bonnie Hammer. That’s always been my MO, I carry a big shovel and I dig deep, it’s in my nature to be informed and satisfy a thirst for knowledge. Bonnie Hammer, 59, is the President of NBC Universal Cable, graduated from Boston University College of Communication and has a master’s degree in Media Technology from the University’s School of Education. OK, she is educated, “book smart” as is justifiably assumed given her credentials. Having said that, it doesn’t always mean much relative to being “street smart” in coming from behind the education screen and experiencing firsthand the environment of that in which you are educated, to be schooled in the trenches to the point of earning respect. Sometimes there are variables that stand in the way of that, perhaps it is money, quest for power or bad judgment. Bonnie Hammer is ranked as number 47 out of 50 according to Fortune’s “Fifty Most Powerful Women”. Merriam-Webster defines “powerful” as follows: 1: having great power, prestige, or influence 2: leading to many or important deductions. “great power”, let’s take a look at that, with power comes responsibility and more often than not power wins over rationale in overcoming selfishness and blind sightedness. In other words, having an ideology fueled by power wherein a person becomes a legend in their own mind. For example, I went back 11 years and found an interesting piece of information that explains Bonnie’s grand plan for the viewers of any network she is involved with. Here is the reference to what will follow:

    “The current generation of boys will not have this inspiration from science fiction, at least from science fiction on television and in movies. That’s because there is an undeclared war on real science fiction on TV and in movies. The former Sci-Fi channel, now “Syfy”, is a good example of what has been happening to science fiction on television. In 1998 Bonnie Hammer took over the Sci-Fi channel and declared that “more female viewers were needed”. Over the next several years, the Sci-Fi channel became increasingly feminized losing many of its traditional male viewers in an attempt to go after women viewers. This included making the logos “warmer and more human” because the logos before were “too male and too dark”. The biggest change was in the feminization of the programming shown on the Sci-Fi channel. The re-imagined re-delusioned Battlestar Galactica is a good example. (Many of you might not be aware but there was an original Battlestar Galactica series shown in the late 70s.) While the original series had its problems, it was more standard science fiction with men doing and accomplishing things. The new series instead had lots of relationship drama, men whining, and men generally unable to find their way out of a wet paper bag. The new Battlestar Galactica was so feminized that one of the main characters from the original series, Starbuck, (who was a man) was turned into a woman. When Bonnie Hammer first heard about this, she clenched her fists in the air and yelled, “Yes !”. There’s so much more that can be said about this, but rather than write pages and pages more, everyone should read what Dirk Benedict, the original and only Starbuck had to say about it in a piece called, Lt. Starbuck…Lost in Castration. (Run, do not walk to that webpage. It’s that good.)”

    And this is an expose’ written by Dirk Benedict formerly of the original “Battlestar Galactica”. It is rather long but I urge you to read it, it is stunning in its forthrightness and candidness, it blew me away:

    Lt. Starbuck … Lost In Castration.

    Vincent is a strong man, tall in stature, commanding in his space, and all of that is translated onto his character of “Bobby Goren”, who also happens to be intelligent, self-assured and intense. All of these factors do not fit into the puppies and kitties world Bonnie Hammer is living in, and it is quite obvious that she is intimidated by men to the point of wanting to “feminize” them. This is her way of using her power as a network executive for her own agenda in “softening” men so she can feel stronger as a woman. She is in need of that control. Quite frankly, I would much rather have Vincent walk away than have Bobby turned into a pansy.

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