Stewart’s syndies still draw auds

No evidence advertisers bailing out of programs, ad exec sez

NEW YORK — Tabloid headlines are gradually turning Martha Stewart’s name and reputation into mulch, but viewers are still watching her TV shows, and advertisers are still buying time on them.

Counting “Martha Stewart Living,” her benchmark series, which runs six hours a week in TV syndication — plus the 23 half-hours a week of reruns on Food Network and HGTV — Stewart is one of the most ubiquitous celebrities on television.

Those series are all under the control of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, her public company, but what she can’t control are the remorseless zingers delivered — in slow-drip, Chinese-water-torture fashion — by Jay Leno, David Letterman, the women on “The View” and even by “Live With Regis & Kelly.”

Every barb reminds viewers that Stewart is under investigation for allegedly dumping ImClone stock following an insider tip that it was about to collapse, and for allegedly making false statements about the trade.

But there’s no evidence that advertisers have started to bail out of any of the Stewart programs, says John Rash, senior VP of the ad agency Campbell Mithun Esty. Advertisers have concluded that — at least for the time being — the ratings of all the TV incarnations of Stewart as household guru have not shown any noticeable softening.

It’s a no-brainer for advertisers to spend money on the various Stewart shows because the “environment” of food recipes, gardening tips and home decorating represents the perfect outlet for many products, says John Muszynski, executive VP of broadcast TV for Starcom.

“If I had a client that advertised in the syndicated series,” adds Andy Donchin, senior VP of Carat North America, the media buyer, “I’d tell him to stay the course. People are continuing to watch the show because they’re more interested in the subjects she’s discussing than about the financial problems she’s dealing with.”

A spokeswoman for King World, which distributes “Martha Stewart Living,” says the ratings are “holding steady,” with “no negative calls or feedback from our stations” so far.

Stewart has signed for another year of firstrun syndicated shows, which will run on TV stations in 87% of the U.S., including many CBS 0&0s. WCBS New York and KCBS Los Angeles, among others, schedule the hourlong “Martha Stewart Living” at 9 a.m. Monday through Friday.

But one insider familiar with the show, and with Stewart’s thinking, says that — barring a guilty verdict on the charges against her — she probably won’t sign another contract with King World beyond the 2002-03 season.

The reason is that her Nielsens have fallen to a less- than-stellar 1.4 average rating this season, which means “Martha Stewart Living” is not even among the top-100-rated series in TV syndication.

And because the Stewart shows, which began in syndication nine years ago, don’t become dated, she’ll be able to continue selling the reruns to cable networks like Food and HGTV for as long as people continue to watch them.

Because of the low ratings, the TV division of Stewart’s company accounts for only 10% of its revenues and 8% of its income.

But Stewart’s TV celebrity helps to keep other, more lucrative divisions of the company such as publishing and merchandising pumping out profits.

That TV image has become tarnished, says Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz TV, because “Stewart has made perfection her watchword. She’s the Mother Teresa of hearth and home.”

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