Martha is not a master of prime time

Times Staff Writer

Three weeks into the fall TV season, Martha Stewart just isn’t fitting in with NBC’s prime-time dreams.

With the domestic diva on the comeback trail after a five-month federal prison sentence, “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart” was expected to at least pique viewers’ interest, if not become a monster hit. Instead, it has been a flat souffle bogging down NBC’s Wednesday night lineup -- and it may even be dampening viewer interest in the original “Apprentice,” starring Donald Trump. That show, along with the aging “ER,” are propping up what’s left of NBC’s once-dominant Thursday schedule.

To make matters worse, behind-the-scenes jockeying over Stewart’s troubled spinoff has sparked friction between the network and famed “Apprentice” producer Mark Burnett, who also oversees the lucrative “Survivor” franchise for CBS.


Burnett was particularly unhappy with NBC’s decision to push “Apprentice: Martha,” starting this week, from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m., where it was expected to be crushed by ABC’s hit thriller “Lost.” The move was widely interpreted as a last-ditch effort to save “E-Ring,” the low-rated Pentagon thriller from producer Jerry Bruckheimer that’s switching places with Stewart’s show, and tacit admission that the end of “Apprentice: Martha” is a matter of when, not if.

“Now we’ll have ‘E-Ring’ leading into ‘Martha,’ which isn’t a good lead-in,” Burnett said in a phone interview earlier this week. But then, Burnett thought his reality show and Bruckheimer’s drama made an ill-suited pairing from the start. “I’ve never understood the connection between the two, but I’m not a scheduler.... Clearly the move is designed to save ‘E-Ring.’ ”

Burnett was mollified somewhat this week when ratings for “Apprentice: Martha” actually grew slightly in the new time slot, although it’s still a long way from a hit. “Despite very few promos [the program] showed decent growth,” Burnett wrote in an e-mail Thursday. Still, as it tries to battle back from low ratings, NBC can ill afford a public spat with a producer of Burnett’s stature.

Despite some recent setbacks -- including last season’s boxing series “The Contender,” a costly flop for NBC -- the British-born Burnett remains one of the most highly regarded and prolific TV show suppliers in Hollywood. When asked if the “Martha” dust-up had damaged relations with Burnett, NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly replied, “I’d like to not think so,” adding, “Every show Mark does is extremely well-produced.”

Burnett is hardly the first producer to tangle with network executives over scheduling. But the Martha Stewart situation is a little more complicated than most, largely because NBC and Burnett have placed an unusually large wager on the diva’s comeback.

The network is also distributing “Martha,” her new daytime syndicated show, which, unlike “Apprentice: Martha,” has gotten off to a fairly strong start in the ratings. (In many markets the program ranks first or second in its time slot, although in Los Angeles it’s averaging third place at 3 p.m. weekdays on KNBC, behind two strong competitors, “Oprah” on KABC and “Judge Judy” on KCBS.)


The syndicated series is owned by Stewart’s company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, which is also on the rebound following some dark days (NBC Universal also has a stake in the show beyond its distribution rights). Burnett serves as an executive producer on both the daytime and prime-time shows.

“The Apprentice,” a corporate-themed contest in which young hotshots jostle for the approval of a prospective boss, inevitably channels Trump’s larger-than-life personality; pressed for a tagline to match The Donald’s magisterial “You’re fired!,” Stewart has offered the more tentative, “You just don’t fit in.”

The syndicated “Martha” has freer rein in letting Stewart be herself, blending the host’s fabled household know-how with the conventions of a daytime talk show. This week, for example, Stewart taught Jessica Alba how to make pink applesauce, and soon-to-be mother Jennifer Garner dropped by for a baby-themed show.

To a much greater extent than “Apprentice,” the syndicated show is aimed at helping sell Martha-branded products at Kmart and elsewhere, and building that sort of market awareness is the main reason Stewart does TV to begin with. Unlike, say, Oprah Winfrey or Ellen DeGeneres, Stewart is a merchandiser first and a television personality second.

“The daytime show is our bread and butter,” said Susan Lyne, the former ABC entertainment chief and current chief executive of Martha Stewart Living. “We’ve only been on the air three weeks, and our sales [at Kmarts] are up significantly.”

She declined to offer a precise figure, citing confidentiality agreements with Kmart.

Lyne admitted that she was disappointed with the “Apprentice: Martha” ratings. But the company still finds the show valuable, she added, because it exposes the Stewart brand to viewers who will never see the daytime series.

Stewart wanted to do both shows this fall, Lyne said, to give a big marketing push to the company, whose survival was in doubt as the founder went to prison for lying to investigators regarding a 2001 stock sale.

“After a couple of tough years, all of us felt getting back into television [would] jump-start the company’s business again,” Lyne said.

Adding the two programs simultaneously may have made sense for Stewart, but the recipe hasn’t gone so well for NBC. The network may have overestimated viewers’ interest in Stewart’s post-prison life. In one ominous sign, a CBS movie starring Cybill Shepherd that chronicled Stewart’s stock scandal and aftermath tanked last month.

The publicity blitz for the two new series may have simply left Stewart overexposed. “Maybe there was too much press,” Burnett said. “It was, like, everywhere.”

Even some within NBC have pondered the wisdom of running the Stewart and Trump versions of “The Apprentice” at the same time.

“I’d ask the same question: ‘Why do you have two of them on? It feels a little odd,’ ” Reilly told reporters in July. He answered by saying that the network had nothing else it felt would work as well as Trump on Thursday nights and that “we wanted to get Martha on the air. She’s hot right now.”

Lower-than-expected numbers for The Donald and Martha suggest that “Apprentice” might be permanently damaged. “NBC made a tactical mistake,” said Bill Carroll, who advises local stations on programming for Katz Media in New York.

Without saying so publicly, NBC executives now appear to have virtually given up on “Apprentice: Martha.” The decision to move the show opposite “Lost” -- which has roared into its second season as one of the most-watched shows on television -- virtually guarantees some tough going in the ratings in coming weeks.

Burnett, suddenly hopeful after this week’s ratings improvement for “Apprentice: Martha,” is trying to take it all in stride.

“I’m not mad,” he said. “It’s just business.”