Fans eager to see Martha/Mark duo

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She's coming back and will be bigger than ever.

That's the prediction of media buyers and syndication experts who are keen on the potential that Martha Stewart's new TV show will bring to the marketplace.

The arbiter of all things home and hearth-if not investments-was scheduled to be released from prison last week, and still faces another five months of home confinement from the guilty verdict in her stock-selling case.

Nevertheless, Ms. Stewart's release from jail serves as a prelude to her much-anticipated return to TV this fall.

Two shows are in the works, both involving Mark Burnett Productions. A prime-time show on NBC will take its inspiration from "The Apprentice"; the other, from NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution, will mark Ms. Stewart's return to syndication, after "Martha Stewart Living" went on hiatus last year. Mr. Burnett's company will own the network show, and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia will own its syndicated counterpart.

Not only has Ms. Stewart's core fan base remained loyal, but she'll also have the Mark Burnett factor in her favor as he crafts a new style of show that will be an amped-up version of the former "Martha Stewart Living." The as yet untitled syndicated show will likely generate additional sampling simply because of the curiosity factor of "What will Martha do?"

In fact, the return of a known, salable entity to syndication is so powerful that many of the aspirants to Ms. Stewart's throne have now seen their projects pushed back another year, including Vera Wang, Paige Davis and Isaac Mizrahi.

`THE REAL THING'

"People want the real thing," says Bill Carroll, VP-director of programming at Katz Television Group, New York.

The trial and prison stint didn't turn off her fans, says Brett Stewart, senior VP-managing director at Universal McCann, New York. During Mr. Stewart's troubles, the Interpublic Group of Cos.-owned media agency conducted three different surveys asking whether people would continue reading her magazine, Martha Stewart Living. The surveys concluded that Middle America didn't care and would continue reading. That receptivity should translate to TV.

"Our belief is the magazine is going to survive because Middle America loves her and has always loved her," Mr. Stewart says, "and her program has done well in syndication. And with Mark Burnett and her, it will be successful."

The Mark Burnett factor is a potent one, Mr. Carroll says. "If you said to me two years ago, `I'll take this guy with strange hair and make him one of the most liked personalities on TV, I would have said, `I don't think so,' " he says. But that's exactly what Mr. Burnett did for Donald Trump in "The Apprentice."

"I would put my money on the fact that he can do that for Martha Stewart ... Under the tutelage of Mark Burnett, I think that's where we might have lightning in a bottle," Mr. Carroll says. If Mr. Burnett can concoct that potion, then Ms. Stewart may be able to draw a new audience beyond her core viewers.

That's what distributor NBC Universal is banking on. Ms. Stewart's previous syndicated show, "Martha Stewart Living" via Viacom's King World Productions, averaged about a 2 Nielsen rating in daytime, says Barry Wallach, president of NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution. Mr. Wallach expects more. "The difference is the new syndicated show will be more timely, energetic and fun," he says.

The old show was shot as segments in Connecticut and then aired as a magazine-style program without a studio audience. The new version will be shot in Manhattan in front of a live studio audience about a day or two before the air date, Mr. Wallach says.

While Ms. Stewart won't enter with a comedic monologue, she will interact more with the studio audience and with fans on location, says Heidi Diamond, president-TV at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.

"I sort of envision us being on the road a bit and we find these interesting people and for them to share the `good things' they learned from Martha," Ms. Diamond says. "It's a good thing" is Ms. Stewart's tagline for a project well-done. The Manhattan location will also allow more celebrities to come on the show and work with Ms. Stewart.

SIGNIFICANT SAMPLING

"Worst case you are starting off with that 2 rating," Mr. Wallach says. "She's gone through her personal situation. Her core base is there. And it appears now there is a larger group of people. I think the sampling will be very significant. There aren't many people who have just one name and you go by that. I think with this show vs. really any other show, you know you are starting with a core ... and the new format has got to be worth something."

The show has been cleared in more than 75% of the U.S., including NBC-owned stations, as well as on stations owned by Hearst-Argyle Television, Gannett Co., E.W. Scripps Co., Belo Corp. and Meredith Corp.

Provided the show continues to clear on strong stations and in good time periods, advertisers are going to be interested, says Ray Dundas, senior VP-group account director, national broadcast, at Interpublic-owned Initiative, New York. "It's a different kind of program that you won't find in other venues," he says.

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