Chair of NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Group, Bonnie Hammer
(CGS’69, COM’71, SED’75)
Boston University Commencement Address
May 21, 2017
Thank you, President Brown, Members of the Board of Trustees, Faculty and staff, friends and family, and most of all, the 6,532 members of this most distinguished Class of 2017:
I’m so honored to share this day with you, especially because I didn’t make it to my own graduation. Actually, I almost didn’t make it to Boston University at all. I was originally planning on going to NYU, a quick subway ride from Queens, where I grew up.
But my wise older brother said to me, “If you go to school in New York, mom will be at your dorm three times a week.” All of a sudden, a four-hour drive to Boston became a very attractive proposition.
Of course, once I had escaped my parents, I realized NOT only how much I loved them, but how much I owed them for my success. So before we go any further, let’s hear it for your parents, your loved ones, and everyone who helped you get here today!
I certainly learned a lot during my time at BU. It was a great school back then, and even greater now. Thanks for making my degree look even better every year, I am an incredibly proud alumna.
After grad school, I lucked into my first job in television and it’s been a fun journey ever since. Over the years, television has changed a lot, and those changes only seem to be accelerating.
But there’s one thing that will always remain constant. Whatever the genre: scripted, unscripted, even news and sports. Television, at its core, is a platform for telling stories.
And for thousands of years, stories have entertained and inspired us. They’ve shocked and charmed us. They’ve brought us unforgettable characters, from Odysseus
to Kim Kardashian. For the record, I had nothing to do with Odysseus, Kim…I’ll plead the Fifth.
You may not know it now, If you studied communications or engineering, law or medicine, business or classics: you’re a storyteller, too.
When you leave here today, you’ll begin writing the most powerful, most meaningful, story of your life. It’s the story of YOU.
Now, as you can imagine, I’ve heard a whole lot of story pitches in my career. Some good, some not so good. And what I’ve learned is that the most compelling stories have five elements in common:
1. The best stories have a strong lead character who undergoes some sort of transformation. That, my friends, is you.
2. They have a cast of supporting characters who help them achieve more than they can do alone. You’ll meet them, if you haven’t already.
3. They have conflict and adversity that the lead character must overcome. That’s coming, for sure.
4.They are also grounded in an interesting, exciting, time and place. Trust me, that’s now.
5.And finally, they help us understand something that was hidden or undiscovered before.
With these elements in mind, let’s talk about the story of you. And of course, like any good television executive, I have some notes that might help you along the way.
Want to hear them? You’re a captive audience… So here we go.
The best stories start by establishing character. Not just likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, but attitude. Because attitude sets the tone for so much else, something I learned on my first job.
I was working just down the street at the local PBS station, WGBH. I was a production assistant on a kids’ TV show called “Infinity Factory.” As a PA, everyone outranks you- everyone. You’re often assigned to a cast member, to help them with whatever they need. Whether it’s running lines, making copies, or picking up coffee. I was assigned to one of the most popular members of the show’s cast, the sheep dog. You know, when people complain that their job is crap? My job was literally crap.
Because instead of coffee, that’s what I had to pick up. But here’s the thing, I would do it all over again. That job taught me how important it is to understand the needs of your coworkers- canine or otherwise. Life dishes out plenty of crap, figuratively and sometimes literally. It’s how you handle the crap that counts.
Now all characters need development, and the lead in your story does, too. And nobody’s going to help you more than some key supporting characters. After all, where would Batman be without Robin, Kirk without Spock, Serena without Venus, Ben without Jerry, or for that matter, the other Ben without Matt?
Who are the supporting characters who will be central to your story? The catalysts for your best conversations and your biggest transformations. You’ve already identified a few of them: your parents, your professors, your friends; the warm, caring, wise people we typically think of as mentors. For me, it was my father.
But there’s another type, equally important, someone I call the challenging mentor. This is the person you think is your antagonist, who ends up being your greatest ally. The person who pushes, criticizes and challenges you, to meet a standard of excellence you might not otherwise achieve. For Harry Potter, think Professor Snape, for Tom Brady, think Bill Belichick.
I met my first challenging mentor right here at BU. His name was Harris Smith, and he was a brilliant ex-Army sergeant who taught photography. And when I say “taught,” I mean he commanded the darkroom like boot camp.
He would hold up a photograph and say, “Bonnie, this is pure junk!” He literally kicked me out of class and would not let me return until I had put in the effort to take a great shot. It wasn’t fun, but I knew he was right, and that I could do much better.
Throughout my career, I’ve had other mentors who initially terrified me but who ended up nurturing me. The most memorable was, and still is, Barry Diller. A media giant, and my boss at USA and SYFY many years ago.
One Friday night I got an email from him. Subject line: “Your decisions.” Those two words sent shivers down my spine. Barry had some questions about one of our SYFY shows, called “Crossing Over,” which featured a psychic.
The Question: If the psychic was real, why was he on the science fiction channel? And if he wasn’t real, why the hell were we in business with him at all?
That’s right, if you think you’re done with philosophy just because you’re wearing a cap and gown- think again.
Barry’s interrogation lasted the entire weekend. He wanted to understand not just what I had decided, but how. My facts, my logic, my entire thought process. He forced me to think outside my comfort zone, and create a water-tight argument that I had to own.
By 11 p.m. Sunday, I had reached the conclusion: you can’t prove that psychics are real, so a show with a psychic exists somewhere between fact and fiction, perfect for the SYFY channel.
Barry’s final note simply said, “Okay, your arguments win.” To this day, those are some of the best four words I’ve ever heard. I mean, they are right up there with, “Here’s a big promotion,” “Will you marry me,” and “Free drinks at the Dugout!” Okay, that’s five words.
My point is these supporting characters are vital. When they push you, you might stumble, you may even fall down but once you get up, and you will, you’ll end up standing even taller.
Now, even fairy tales don’t go straight from “once upon a time” to “happily ever after.” There’s going to be, there’s gotta be, conflict. And in most conflicts your voice is the most powerful tool you have.
The thing is before you use your voice you have to learn how and when to use it. And that starts not by speaking with arrogance but listening with humility.
Who is your audience? What do they want? What are they trying to tell you? And how can you get them to “yes”?
I once worked on a show where I knew my voice would never be the loudest in the room. I also knew it would be a couple octaves higher than everyone else’s, because the room was full of pro-wrestlers and World Wrestling executives.
I had been put in charge of WWE, even though I knew nothing about wrestling. You can imagine how skeptical everyone was- including me.
This meeting was a recipe for hot tempers and high anxiety. My first task was to convince a room full of strangers to work with me and trust me. Strangers who had necks wider than my waist.
So my approach- I sat quietly and listened. I didn’t cower in the corner, and I didn’t claim to have all the answers. What I did was figure out what they needed and what I had to offer. These guys knew wrestling and their audience. I knew how to develop characters and build stories. I knew how to make good TV.
And that very first conversation, which was honest and authentic on both sides, became the basis for a wonderful 20-year work relationship and deep friendship- not to mention some very entertaining wrestling.
So find your voice. Know when to use it. And, just as important, when NOT to use it.
Your attitude, your supporting cast, how you handle conflict. Those are all choices your character makes. But there are two pieces of your story that you don’t get to choose: time and place.
Forty-six years ago, when I was sitting where you are, or when I was supposed to be sitting where you are, everything felt uncertain and unsettled.
We were fighting a deeply unpopular war in Vietnam. Student protesters at Kent State had been fired upon—and four killed—by the Ohio National Guard. Civil rights issues were front and center. Many of us looked for guidance from BU’s own Howard Zinn, a beloved professor and prominent anti-war and civil rights activist.
Meanwhile, our technology and culture were changing rapidly, the modern environmental movement was taking off. Women were rebelling against the patriarchy. And people on all sides of every issue were taking to the streets.
We felt like we couldn’t trust our leaders, or authority in general. The future, and our roles in it, were open questions.
But when the stakes are highest, that’s when the world needs you most. That’s when
your story goes from being about a character, to being about character.
Today, everywhere you look, people are retreating into bubbles. And those bubbles are
hardening into shells. We’re not willing to see, much less embrace, difference.
Now, in my family difference is a given. I’m a Russian Jew from Queens. My husband’s a WASP from Cleveland, My stepdaughter, Ki Mae, is half Malaysian. Her grandparents are Indian and Chinese and my son Jesse’s identity was informed by all of the above.
Around our dinner table, difference is celebrated. But outside our home, that’s not always the case.
I remember the first time I faced anti-Semitism while studying in Kansas for a semester. I remember when Ki Mae’s elementary school classmate told her that her skin was too dark. I remember being asked if my own stepdaughter was my son’s nanny.
But moments like these are the reason it’s so important that we listen to other people’s stories, and share our own.
Many years ago at USA Network, we launched a campaign called “Erase the Hate.”
It started as a series of documentaries highlighting stories of people from all walks of life and became an award-winning initiative dedicated to acceptance and tolerance.
Sadly, that mission is even more relevant today.
In this moment of polarization, it’s more important than ever that we pay attention to each other’s stories.
And that starts with you.
I encourage you to take the time to figure out where other people are coming from- literally and figuratively. Learn about your own blind spots, acknowledge your fear, listen to podcasts that make you angry, read about things that make you uncomfortable.
Talk with- not at- people with different points of view.
When you step outside your bubble you’ll develop more empathy for people with whom you disagree. You’ll develop a stronger sense of self, and become a better advocate for what you believe.
If I’ve learned anything in the years since I graduated it’s that the most improbable stories are the ones that capture your imagination. Because they allow you to see things differently and they teach you something about your own character.
That’s the reason we started telling stories in the first place: they help us understand things we didn’t before.
Today, your story begins anew.
You have everything you need to make it a great one: The talent, the education, the character and the voice.
Now all you have to do is write it, tell it and live it, fully. Thank you, and Congratulations, Class of 2017!