Martha Stewart: the comeback kid

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And so begins the Martha Stewart comeback.

This may seem strange, considering a prison term still awaits her. But public-relations experts and savvy media observers say Ms. Stewart's surrender to prison and development deal with reality-TV ace Mark Burnett, aided by the speed of news cycles and the public's capacity for forgiveness, will enable her climb back-especially if there's a spectacle attached.

While the details of the Burnett deal remain sketchy, his involvement can only help with the public perception, said observers. "The truth is, Martha's comeback is going to be a tough slog. She has really damaged her business," said Simon Dumenco, a former New York magazine columnist and longtime media commentator. "To have a master producer give her a hand, and allow her to make the ugly, uncomfortable, difficult redemption much more telegenic-that is brilliant."

enhanced `living'

Mr. Burnett, according to his production company, was shooting on set last week and unavailable for comment. A spokeswoman for Martha Stewart Omnimedia would not comment beyond a previous company statement that said Mr. Burnett would develop a prime-time network series featuring Ms. Stewart, as well as "enhancements" to future episodes of "Martha Stewart Living." The nascent show has yet to be shopped to networks, said Hollywood executives. But Dick Lippin, Chairman-CEO of Hollywood PR firm the Lippin Group, said, "It's a done deal for a network to buy it."

The storyline that multiple observers found irresistible would focus on Ms. Stewart's climb back to the top from imprisonment, incorporating footage shot during her home confinement, which is expected to follow her jail term. But a company insider insisted that no such plans were afoot.

Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia stock rose over 9% in the wake of the Burnett announcement, which was made after the markets closed Sept. 22. Later news that the company renewed Ms. Stewart's contract gave the stock a further boost. Shares closed the week up over 39%.

There are multiple ironies at play. One, of course, is that her redemption begins with her imprisonment. Another is that Ms. Stewart's defiant stance now wins nods of approval from the very PR executives who'd formerly urged her to express contrition and beg for public forgiveness.

"I might have [suggested a] more humble, less in-your-face approach," said Lou Colasuonno, a partner at New York's Westhill Partners, who worked with Ms. Stewart's co-defendant Peter Bacanovic. But "maybe her defiant attitude was the way to go." Mr. Colasuonno pointed out a certain perversity in public perception-that a position, held long and strongly, may eventually turn public opinion in its direction: "Consistency is at least as important as the position you take."

No easy way back

Even so, observers make clear the road back won't be easy, particularly on the business side. "The problem is a lot of clients have gotten comfortable elsewhere," like at Time Inc.'s Real Simple, said a major print media buyer. "Unless budgets go up, I don't see the magazine rebounding 100% in terms of ad pages or circulation." This media buyer expected any ad bounce back would not begin until 2006, since future budgets will likely be set while Ms. Stewart is in prison.

In business terms, that could be overlooked if Mr. Burnett's prime-time show hits ratings gold. Hollywood executives suggested Mr. Burnett begin development before Ms. Stewart heads to prison, given the slow process of TV development. If so, a show could be on network schedules once Ms. Stewart's expected release from prison occurs in the spring.

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