Martha’s Cable Ratings Are Not A Good Thing; Should Oprah Worry?

Martha Stewart (Photo: NBC)

Martha Stewart (Photo: NBC)

Take note, Oprah – moving to cable is risky business. Just ask Martha Stewart, whose debut on Hallmark Channel Monday drew paltry numbers, far below the ratings for her former syndicated show seen on broadcast stations and far lower even than the show that formerly aired on Hallmark in her time slot (that would be repeats of ‘The Golden Girls’).

Martha! Martha! Martha! Hallmark Flips for Martha Stewart

In a multi-tiered deal with Hallmark, Stewart arranged to provide the cable channel with all of its daytime programming – shows produced by Stewart’s company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia – starting with ‘The Martha Stewart Show’ at 10 am EST. Other shows include ‘Whatever with Alexis and Jennifer,’ hosted by Stewart’s daughter, Alexis, and pal Jennifer Koppelman Hutt, daughter of the chairman of Stewart’s company, Charles Koppelman; and ‘Mad Hungry with Lucinda Scala Quinn’ (aka the executive food editor for Stewart’s company).

The rest of the day is filled out with ‘Everyday Food’ and ‘From Martha’s Kitchen.’ The new lineup launched this week.

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‘The Martha Stewart Show’ – her signature series and the flagship of the whole lineup – attracted just 199,000 viewers in its Hallmark premiere, a loss in viewership of nearly 61 percent over the previous year, according to The Hollywood Reporter. At this time last year, repeats of ‘The Golden Girls’ drew 514,000 viewers.

A repeat of Monday’s episode of ‘The Martha Stewart Show’ airing at 5 pm drew just 80,000 additional viewers, way down from the ‘Little House On The Prairie’ repeats that previously filled the time period.

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What’s it all mean? That it can be rough sledding moving to cable from the safer confines of broadcast television. Sure, everybody knows that cable has made incredible inroads over the past 10 or so years, cutting into the broadcasters’ ratings and audience. Still, the lower-than-low numbers for Stewart’s talker indicate that cable still has a long way to go before it can actually equal or even beat the broadcasters – even in weaker time periods such as daytime.

By turning over their daytime hours to Martha Stewart, Hallmark execs had hoped she would work her formidable magic to turn their channel into a daytime destination for millions of home-bound domestic divas. After all, Stewart has built a billion-dollar empire based on her cooking and home-making tips, and related products. Martha’s magic, though, isn’t happening here at the outset of this arrangement.

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Not that Hallmark expected to necessarily strike gold in the early going. “We do expect it will take time [for the audience to find it] and not be an overnight success,” Hallmark Channel CEO Bill Abbott told the Reporter. “We are planning for a few bumps in the road.”

So what does this mean for Oprah Winfrey? Just this: Despite her power and popularity, the launch of her OWN (Oprah Winfrey Channel) joint venture with Discovery could also encounter some “bumps in the road.” Due to launch next year, questions remain about just how much viewers will actually see of Oprah. Her Harpo Studios is charged with creating the network’s shows, so her fingerprints will be all over the OWN lineup. But Oprah’s fans want to see the woman. They might not care for a lineup of substitute Oprahs (Faux-prahs?), even if she’s the wizard behind the curtain pulling all the strings.

Moreover, unlike broadcast stations, whose locations on the cable dial are easy to find, the new OWN network – like Hallmark – will be all over the place. The challenge for Oprah and Discovery is to find ways to let people know where they are.

Financially, both Martha’s and Oprah’s deals are probably advantageous for both women. They’re hard-headed businesswoman and neither would have gone into either venture without the appropriate dollar amounts attached. Still, it will be some time before the audience for either of them equals the viewership they enjoyed (and that Oprah is still enjoying in this, her final season in syndication) on local TV stations. It’s like Howard Stern. He made something like $500 million for leaving old-school, terrestrial radio for Sirius satellite radio. But his audience is nothing like it was in the old days. And though it’s not easy to measure, his importance as a controversial and cultural lightning rod has been greatly diminished as well (though the mad money probably makes up for that).

Oprah and Martha Stewart are both huge successes, with robust followings of fanatical, loyal viewers, though the Oprah phenomenon, at least as far as TV talk shows are concerned, was always far and above Martha’s. If anyone can make the successful transfer from broadcast to cable, you would think Oprah could. But can she?

When Winfrey’s OWN network launches, will you follow her there? And what if you can’t find her? That might be so frustrating that even her most ardent fans will give up. Will you?

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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