Martha Stewart appears with Mark Burnett
Reuters file
Martha Stewart appears with executive producer Mark Burnett of 'Martha,' at the New York Public Library, May 2.
By
updated 5/4/2005 1:55:47 PM ET 2005-05-04T17:55:47

Martha Stewart's long, dark night of legal woes, prison time, and shattered company finances seems to be nearing an end. On May 2 at the New York Public Library in Manhattan, a svelte and smiling Stewart presided over a lavish presentation to promote her new daily TV show to advertisers.

For a woman still under house arrest for lying to government officials about the circumstances of a stock sale, her mood seemed almost giddy. She showed off her "lucky" gold shoes, adding that she was "wearing something on her ankle which I will not show" -- a reference to the electronic monitor she has to sport for the next few months.

Top talent recruited
Stewart joked about her "difficulties" and living through "you-know-what," prompting further guffaws by noting that this was an "approved event" under the terms of her probation. And she regaled the lunchtime crowd with tales of meeting and entertaining style-challenged reality-show guru Mark Burnett, who is producing both her new daily daytime show, dubbed Martha, and a spin-off version of the prime-time hit The Apprentice.

A one-hour show set to launch Sept. 12, Martha certainly has a wealth of high-powered talent behind it. There's Brit Burnett, a former paratrooper and later a Beverly Hills nanny who made his mark with the Survivor franchise. The show also boasts Emmy Award winner Rob Dauber, best known as a co-producer of the Rosie O'Donnell Show and The Restaurant. A self-professed Martha fan, Dauber lives in New York City with his chocolate Labrador, Scout, and still helps his mother bake cookies "from scratch" every Christmas, he said at the press conference.

Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia announced separately on May 2 that Liz Koman, former general sales manager of AMC and WE: Women's Entertainment, would join the company as vice-president for advertising sales at the TV business.

Martha has already been sold in the top 50 U.S. TV markets. It will reach more than 90% of the country through NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution.

'I really like people'
Stewart's vision of the show? Perhaps segments featuring, say, cycling with Robin Williams or sharing a treasured family recipe with Tom Hanks, she offered. Add to that features on young mother/entrepreneurs to help women fulfill their business dreams. There will be Martha scholars -- talented but underprivileged young people whose stories tug at viewers' heartstrings. Who knows? Perhaps one of the scholars will go on to college to become the next Martha Stewart.

Dauber promises that Stewart will also reach out to help the worst cooks in America: "women who want to cook for their families but don't know how."

Stewart herself vowed to project a sunnier persona, expressing the hope that "my sense of humor will come out a bit more." Instead of her traditional pedantic lecturing to a camera, she will chat with a live studio audience -- "I really like people!" -- and take field trips into people's homes.

Previously serious
In one aired clip, Stewart makes an unannounced visit to a fan's kitchen as the woman is preparing dinner. "How would you feel if I showed up at your house?" Stewart asked the camera before marching inside to be greeted with hugs and phone calls to neighbors about the celebrity in their midst. All that's missing is the typical reality-show element of a big-money payday or viewers' votes to determine the outcome.

All in all, it feels like an ambitious rethinking of the Martha franchise. The challenge will be to make it also feel authentic. While Stewart may indeed project a warmer, more fun-loving presence, many of her fans have come to expect the air of distant perfectionism that she has always projected.

Her former TV show distinguished itself with its lack of gimmicks. Stewart was there to show you the best way to treat tomato plants or whip up an extravagant souffle. It was all very serious. Even the family Christmas specials featured more craft-making, cooking, and decorating than hugging and people talking about their feelings.

Bringing MSO cheer
No one knows for sure how advertisers feel about the new format. Despite the hearty applause and laughter at the May 2 event, they haven't exactly been racing to support her brand. On Apr. 26, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia posted a loss of $19.2 million for the first quarter and projected losses for the second quarter as well. Revenue also fell to $38.7 million, from $44.5 million a year earlier.

Nonetheless, the mood has noticeably brightened in the halls of MSO. With its famed founder back at work and new talent streaming in under the leadership of Chief Executive Susan Lyne, the company's fortunes seem to be slowly on the mend.

A key question remains, though: Can Martha & Co. convince advertisers and viewers that nobody can match the unique appeal of Martha the Personality, even as her image morphs to fit the reality-TV mold? As they say in TV Land, stay tuned.

Copyright © 2012 Bloomberg L.P.All rights reserved.

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