Martha lives, can't relax as Rachael turns up heat

High expectations, perceived slip force Stewart changes; music, downloads ramped up

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As it turns out, Martha isn't such a sure thing.

Martha Stewart's version of "The Apprentice" fizzled and her much hyped return to syndication wasn't a runaway hit. The syndicated talk show, titled simply "Martha," didn't generate a huge amount of sampling, but it has been renewed for a second season and ratings are ticking up.

"Martha's" troubles may not be over, however. Next season it will face new competition from the fresh-faced Rachael Ray, who'll come out swinging with her own syndicated strip from Harpo Productions and King World Productions. Ms. Ray will arrive armed with not only her own ubiquity as an author and Food Network personality but with the imprimatur of Oprah Winfrey.

Despite her less than dazzling re-entry into syndication, Ms. Stewart is still a strong property, say show producers and media agency executives. But she'll need to work a bit harder; wheels are in motion to tweak the show.

Sheraton Kalouria, president of TV at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, says "Martha" is actually the second-highest daytime 1-hour syndicated launch this decade, out of 25 shows, and the highest-rated since "Dr. Phil" premiered in 2002. With a 1.8 rating, "Martha" also topped the first season's ratings of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" in 2003-04 with its 1.7, according to Nielsen Media Research numbers provided by MSLO.

Despite those numbers, a strong perception exists in the ad community that "Martha" stumbled. Preceding its launch last year, there was a sense that the curiosity factor alone would buoy Ms. Stewart, just recently released from house arrest.

less than thought

Barry Wallach, president of NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution, even said last year that he expected the show to do better than the 2 rating Ms. Stewart's previous syndicated program averaged in daytime. So while a 1.8 rating is nothing to scoff at in syndication, it's less than what was thought possible in the heady pre-launch hype.

"She was able to energize her loyal fan base but did not generate huge sampling," says Bill Carroll, VP-programming for Katz Television Group.

With two Stewart-centric shows on the air, "There might have been too much Martha," adds Brad Adgate, senior VP-research at Horizon Media, New York.

MSLO's Mr. Kalouria says: "The expectations, given the flurry of attention around Martha over the last several years, I think anything being short of 10 times the ratings we had would have been perceived as disappointing."

Those early expectations weren't entirely fair, says Rob Dauber, co-executive producer for "Martha." "We thought there were expectations put on the show only by the media, and we never really placed them ourselves."

Producers of "Martha" did make some tweaks to the show in the fall, such as moving the celebrity interviews more into in her natural habitat so she can talk to them while engaged in how-to projects with them. That fine-tuning will continue. Mr. Dauber says what's worked well have been monthlong themes such as "how to make a perfect anything."

Mr. Kalouria says he also wants to make more use of marthastewart.com as a supportive mechanism for the show, so viewers can download video segments and recipes, and to allow more audience feedback and interaction.

But can all these tweaks fend off the biggest challenge Ms. Stewart faces this year? That's America's sweetheart, Rachael Ray, who will expand her empire next fall with an eponymously titled syndicated show. While "Rachael Ray" won't compete head to head with "Martha" in time slots, they will compete for eyeballs.

Now it's Ms. Ray who has the weight of heavy expectations on her. "Certainly, the expectations, based on Oprah's involvement, set the bar really high," Mr. Carroll says.

Liz Koman, VP-advertising sales for TV at MSLO, is looking to reach across the various platforms-print, online and TV-for "Martha." "We have a couple big initiatives next year that we are looking to partner with advertisers on," she says.

She also wants to pursue more music partnerships. When "Martha" has featured a musical artist, sales for the artist have spiked the next day, Ms. Koman says.

That the syndicated "Martha" is returning despite its early sputters suggests that proven commodities work well in syndication, Mr. Adgate says. Most of the top-rated shows are syndicated stalwarts and off-network sitcoms, and he says "Martha's" familiarity is an upside in this environment.

But the sophomore "Martha" isn't home free yet. The true test of staying power is whether it returns for a third and fourth season, Mr. Carroll says, noting, "Once you get into that, then it's a continuing franchise. When shows come back, it's because it's been successful enough that you don't want to explore launching something brand new."
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