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Martha Stewart and Hallmark: Ideal TV partners?

The Associated Press, Wednesday, October 13, 2010, 3:17am (PDT)

NEW YORK (AP) -- A deal that joins Martha Stewart with Hallmark Channel — it seems like a marriage made in heaven. It seems like the sort of they-lived-happily-e ver-after pairing you might find at the fade-out of a Hallmark Channel movie.

Consider: After five seasons of scattershot scheduling in local TV syndication, Stewart last month moved her weekday home-and-lifestyles hour to the fixed address of a single cable network. "The Martha Stewart Show" now airs each day at 10 a.m. ET on Hallmark Channel.

Every day, same time: a new episode of cooking, decorating, entertaining, gardening, with a live audience and celebrity guests (on Tuesday, Martha carved pumpkins with "Jackass" star Johnny Knoxville), all framed by the precision and deliciousness of Martha Stewart's signature do-it-yourself style.

But there's more.

As part of this multiyear strategic partnership, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. is supplementing the flagship "Martha Stewart Show" with other programs on Hallmark Channel's daily lifestyle block.

At 11 a.m., author-food-editor-m om Lucinda Scala Quinn hosts a feed-your-family-qui ckly-and-heartily cooking show, "Mad Hungry."

At noon, Martha's daughter, Alexis Stewart, teams up with her chum Jennifer Koppelman Hutt to co-host a sassy girl-talk hour, "Whatever With Alexis & Jennifer."

(Then repeats of "The Martha Stewart Show" from the day before and the same day air at 1 p.m and 2 p.m. respectively. An additional three hours of repeats have been cut for now.)

That's still not all Martha Stewart has up her sleeve. Added to the mix are occasional prime-time specials. In November, she will interview Seth Meyers and other comedians for "The Men Who Make Us Laugh," and her Christmas special will feature Jennifer Garner and Claire Danes.

"I've always wanted to produce more programs," Stewart says. "I've always wanted to do what the Food Network beat me to doing. I dreamed about having a station."

While Stewart wanted a TV domain to fill with a growing slate of programs, Hallmark Channel wanted her to develop its daytime real estate, which has mostly been a friendly neighborhood of off-network reruns of such shows as "Little House on the Prairie" and "The Golden Girls."

Hallmark Channel President and CEO Bill Abbott says Stewart's production company "has a stable of talent that's very, very strong, with a very strong point of view that centers on 'celebrating life's moments.' We have that, too. So the two brands work very well together."

The only problem after working together the first month: Their viewers haven't shown up in anticipated numbers.

Not surprisingly, neither partner in the venture is signaling defeat.

Stewart scoffed at naysayers who, after less than a month, have rushed to judgment in faulting the deal.

"The Hallmark Channel gives us this good home for good information," Stewart said. "And even though the ratings are inferior to what we hoped, they have been gaining strength."

Abbott said many fans of Stewart and the shows she produces haven't found her new address since she left the random airtimes on local stations she had occupied in syndication.

"Maybe we did underestimate the challenge of doing something that had never been done before — moving a syndicated original live show to cable," said Abbott, pointing to the step Oprah Winfrey will be taking on an even more colossal scale when she uproots herself from syndication to reign over her own round-the-clock cable empire starting in January.

"Maybe we underestimated how well-established viewing habits are in daytime. But we're up 30 to 40 percent from when we started," Abbott said, noting that the audience for the 10 a.m. airing of Stewart's show has grown from less than 200,000 homes to averaging between 250,000 and 275,000 homes.

"After four short weeks, we believe we see a shift in audience in our favor," he said.

Abbott laughed as he recalled that in discussions about the Hallmark-MSLO partnership he had with industry insiders, "not a single person said to me going in, 'I'm not so sure about this, I don't know if this will work.' And now it seems as if, after just four weeks, the entire world thinks it's a bad idea."

But Abbott says they are confident. And Stewart says plans remain to build out the daytime lineup with additional hours of original MSLO lifestyle fare, such as a series hosted by pet expert Marc Morrone.

"It would have been very easy to stay the course with our acquired series," Abbott says. "But we're daring to be great. And we certainly think our partners are giving us great programming. At the end of the day, the viewers will find it and we'll be successful."

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"The Martha Stewart Show" and other programming are produced by Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc.; Hallmark Channel is owned and operated by Crown Media Holdings.

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Online:

http://www.marthastewart.com

http://www.hallmarkchannel.com

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EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org

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