This is not an easy day for Martha Stewart. Sitting in her Manhattan office, surrounded by sparkling walls of ribbons, puff-paints, glitters and decorative hole punches, all carefully arranged by color and size, she has a very serious look on her face, which has been freshly repowdered after a midday yoga session.
FOR THE RECORD:
Martha Stewart: A Dec. 5 Calendar article about Martha Stewart reported that her jail time cost her company $1 billion. That figure is not an annual financial loss for the publicly traded Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. but an estimate from Stewart based on possible damage to her brand name and loss of future business deals. The company’s actual losses from 2004, when Stewart served her sentence, through 2009 totaled $172.3 million. —
“It’s the third anniversary of my mother’s death,” she explains, her eyes downcast. At first, it seems like she might get emotional — until you realize she’s just looking down at her laptop, reading a post on “The Martha Blog” about her mother’s death. “We got 400,000 page views on this already,” Stewart says, clearly pleased. “Of course, when my mother died, we got 5 million page views.”
Martha Stewart is not a sentimentalist. True, she became this country’s first female self-made billionaire by pinpointing the very things many people feel most sentimental about: home-cooked meals, handmade Christmas wreaths, a warm bed with tightly tucked sheets. But she’s always used those ideas to promote a lifestyle — one that can be achieved with Martha Stewart-brand products. After a reputation-damaging jail stint and a subsequent billion-dollar loss to her company, that lifestyle has become a tougher sell. Her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, reported a $14-million loss in 2009.
On the eve of her annual Christmas special bonanza — “Martha Stewart’s Holiday Open House,” guest-starring Jennifer Garner and Claire Danes, airs Monday on the Hallmark Channel — America’s No. 1 Working Mom knows she’s facing a do-or-die moment. In order to promote her merchandise, which is sold at Macy’s, Home Depot and PetSmart, she needs television. And unlike her flawless croquembouche recipe, her TV ratings haven’t been the very best they could be.
In September, looking to find a permanent home base for “The Martha Stewart Show” outside of syndication on NBC-owned stations, she launched an ambitious eight-hour programming block on the Hallmark Channel. But in the first month, “The Martha Stewart Show” averaged fewer than 200,000 viewers — less than half the audience of reruns of “The Golden Girls,” which ran in the same time slot on Hallmark a year ago. A talk show co-hosted by Stewart’s daughter, Alexis, attracted even fewer viewers, and a cooking show starring Martha Stewart Living’s executive food editor Lucinda Scala Quinn didn’t fare much better. In its annual report, filed in March, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia suggested that reduced ratings could make it “economically inefficient” to continue to produce “The Martha Stewart Show.”
So Hallmark’s 69-year-old queen bee is pushing herself to be a smarter, faster, stronger Martha Stewart. Working on four hours of sleep per night, she’s expanded her merchandising empire with items as varied as dog sweaters and kitchen cabinets. Her company now makes most of its money from merchandising, and revenue in that area is up from last year. She’s attracting younger fans with iPhone apps such as Martha Stewart Makes Cookies, an e-book club for the Sony Reader, and an iPad version of her magazine Martha Stewart Living. Over the last year, she’s been bucking her ice queen reputation by Tweeting about attending Diddy’s birthday party, playing herself on “The Simpsons,” even pole-dancing on a very special episode of “The Martha Stewart Show.” (“I want to do the upside-down things!” she told the crowd.)
Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Chairman Charles Koppelman says he can’t imagine the company pulling the plug on “The Martha Stewart Show.” “Quite honestly, that’s a show that has never really made all that much money, but it’s important because it drives our products,” he explains. “Someone else would have to pay $20 million a year for the kind of branding and awareness that our show has.”
But if America’s back to buying Martha Stewart the brand, why aren’t they embracing Martha Stewart the TV personality?
Such questions tend to exasperate Stewart. “For heaven’s sake!” she says, visibly annoyed, when asked if she was disappointed by her ratings. “You’re not going to be discovered on Day 1 on a foreign station. If you read my blog and my Twitter that first week, it was all, ‘Where are you? I can’t find Hallmark!’ or ‘I can’t afford to subscribe!’”
Hallmark’s message boards foretold other problems. Fatigued by the overwhelming number of cooking and redecorating and crafting shows on cable, some commenters suggested that the very lifestyle programming that Stewart pioneered might be gobbling up her audience.
“First we had the Food Network. Then the Cooking Channel… How many food shows do we need?” wrote one viewer. “She belongs on a HOME Show channel like Home and Garden Network, NOT HALLMARK!” wrote another.
Brad Adgate, senior vice president for research at Horizon Media, wonders if some of Stewart’s advertising dollars have been reallocated to her competitors. “She had a niche there that was ahead of its time: the alpha-moms and ‘mom-prenuers,’ ” he says. “Now you have the Oprahs and the Rachael Rays going after the same niche.”
Asked what distinguishes her from all the other domestic doyennes on cable, Stewart often uses the word “teacher.” She once said that Ray is “more of an entertainer ... with her bubbly personality, than she is a teacher, like me.” Marking the main difference between her and Oprah, she says, “I’m a teacher, she’s a preacher.” By way of example, she opens up a promotional booklet on her desk and points to an old photo of herself surrounded by young girls. “There I am teaching my daughter and her friends the very best techniques when they were 10 years old,” she says.
Stewart’s demand for perfectionism, both from herself and her guests, has made her a superhero to millions of aspirational nesters. But she’s up against a how-to market that’s increasingly democratized. Home decor sites such as Apartment Therapy and Design Sponge focus on everyday readers and their unstaged, shabby-chic apartments. Food sites like NotMartha.org highlight simpler dishes instead of laboring over condiments made from scratch. Yes, these sites seem to say, you can have it all — but do you really want it all?
“What Martha’s facing is that there are thousands of young Martha Stewarts out there with blogs,” says Jessica Coen, editor in chief of the feminist website Jezebel, which often recaps Stewart’s show. “With Martha, it’s: ‘The Martha Way is perfect.’ Online, it’s: ‘Here’s how I did it, but you could probably do it your own way with the same tools.’ And they do it for much less cost.”
Stewart’s viewers don’t necessarily need to think about budgeting. Koppelman says Stewart has the most affluent audience of any daytime talk show hostess. Her move to Hallmark raised the average household income of the network’s viewers from $50,000 to $70,000, and not everyone was happy about it. When she brought Manolo Blahnik on her show, one commenter on Hallmark’s website wrote that “outside of large cities like New York and the west and east coast,” no one could afford these shoes.
In this bruising recession, the do-it-yourself movement has become more important than ever. And to be fair, Stewart kind of invented it.
“Yes, we’re bringing people back to basic values in this economic downturn,” she says, “but people forget that we’ve always been doing that, since Day 1. I have a garden and I pick my own parsley and spinach and make my own green juice every day. It would cost seven dollars if you went to the store to buy it.”
She pauses, suddenly thoughtful. “You can waste your whole life not doing anything,” she says. “That’s very important to me, having in-depth knowledge of what you’re trying to do with your life.”
Ironically, if Stewart’s life was a Hallmark movie, a lot of people would watch it. Born to two Polish American teachers who taught her how to cook and garden and can and sew, she developed an immigrant work ethic early on. Her father, she says, challenged her in Scrabble every single night of her childhood, and she beat him only once. She built her empire up from a catering business in her Westport, Conn., home, and ran much of her empire as a single mother. Joan Didion once described her back story as “a ‘woman’s pluck’ story, the dust-bowl story, the burying-your-child-on-the-trail story, the I-will-never-go-hungry-again story, the Mildred Pierce story, the story about how the sheer nerve of even professionally unskilled women can prevail.”
Hallmark loves a good underdog story, and Stewart has one that’s still being told. Early next year, she plans to fight her way back into viewers’ households by expanding on her brand beyond the how-to model. True, she’ll introduce a new Julia Child-inspired baking show, “Martha Bakes,” but she’ll also indulge her inner talk-show host with a prime-time interviewing special, “Martha Stewart Presents: The Men Who Make Us Laugh,” starring Seth Meyers and other comedians. Like Oprah, who’s backed shows by guests like Dr. Oz and Nate Berkus, Stewart also is endorsing programs by experts she approves: Next year, she’ll premiere a new docu-series called “Petkeeping With Marc Morrone.”
Stewart’s out to prove that she’s still “a good thing.” And as she’d tell you herself, even good things can always be better.
Times staff writer Meg James contributed to this story.