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Martha sticks to kinder, gentler TV image

Stewart's latest on-air blitz is meant to shore up her corporate image
/ Source: Reuters

Martha Stewart's newly softened, post-prison persona may not play well in prime time, but the lifestyle guru is determined to stick with her kindler, gentler image to revive her corporate brand, her firm's CEO said on Wednesday.

Stewart's spin-off version of the NBC reality hit "The Apprentice" premiered last week to lower-than-expected Nielsen ratings and criticism that Stewart would make a more compelling TV boss by baring some claws in her on-screen boardroom.

"That would not serve the long-term interests of the company or her," Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Chief Executive Susan Lyne said. "She's not going to play a role that doesn't fit."

Real estate mogul Donald Trump boosted his profile, and NBC's advertising, with a high-handed demeanor in the original "Apprentice" contest between corporate wannabes. Stewart took a gentler approach, writing a personal consolation note to the first contestant to be eliminated from her show.

Stewart agreed to the "Apprentice" spin-off in a deal that did not directly involve her company.

She also appears in the daily how-to program "Martha" that plays up her connection with the millions of Americans who adore her cookie baking and house-painting advice.

The first week of "Martha" had a solid start, posting the highest ratings for the debut of a new daytime show in syndication since self-help guru "Dr. Phil," according to the show's distributor, NBC Universal Domestic Television.

TV is keyLyne said securing television appearances for Stewart in the 2005-2006 broadcast season was key to MSO's recovery, as Wall Street would not wait long for the company to regain momentum after her jail term ended in March.

"We know being on television really has an enormous halo effect on everything we do," Lyne said during an Advertising Week event in New York City. Lyne, the former head of entertainment for the ABC network, said she had hoped Stewart's reality show would expose her to a new and younger audience.

"My needs were different from NBC's needs," Lyne said. "They were disappointed by 7-plus million viewers. I think that was 7 million more viewers that were exposed to us."

Shares in MSO fell nearly 2 percent on Wednesday to $24.51 after a surge to nearly $34 in August on hopes of good ratings for her shows.

Stewart served a five-month federal prison term for lying about a stock trade. Advertisers had fled her television program and magazine after her legal woes came to light in 2001 and many media observers all but buried her brand.

While still in jail, Stewart cultivated a softer image than her past reputation as a harsh taskmaster, befriending inmates and dispensing tips for better prison food. Brand experts said a show of humility was key to any Stewart comeback.

The company's losses widened last quarter, but it expects an improved second half of 2005 as ads and circulation pick up.

Lyne said MSO will sell a DVD series of Stewart's how-to advice starting in October, with the first four titles dedicated to holiday season entertaining.

The company seeks to expand its merchandising, overhaul its Internet platform and reach new markets such as young women and men interested in cooking and design. Lyne did not rule out a Martha Stewart cable channel, not unlike E.W. Scripps Co.'s successful Home & Garden Television.

A cable channel has "been mentioned to us a lot," she said. "There's always room if you deliver something different."

NBC is owned by General Electric Co and ABC is a part of Walt Disney Co.