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."
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 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.
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 Amazon.com 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.