Cable channel acquires first-run rights to show

Hallmark is turning to the queen of domesticity for a channel makeover.

“The Martha Stewart Show” will move to the Hallmark Channel this fall in what could be the first step in a much bigger overhaul at the cable network.

Acquisition reps the first big programming move at Hallmark Channel by prexy-CEO Bill Abbott, who took the reins of Crown Media (the parent of Hallmark and sister Hallmark Movie Channel) last year.

According to Abbott, the Stewart show will help the Hallmark Channel evolve beyond its current family movie-centric focus.

“About eight months ago, when we had executive changes at Hallmark, we looked at our networks and asked ourselves, ‘How can we better attach ourselves to the Hallmark brand?’” Abbott said. “We see great opportunity to own daytime and own the lifestyle area with Martha.”

Hallmark still has a full slate of 24 telepics on tap this year. But Abbott said Hallmark is looking to eventually move its movie properties to its Hallmark Movie Network, freeing up Hallmark to focus on a mix of lifestyle shows, series acquisitions and holiday programming.

“Strategically we could look to separate the channels going forward, and this sets us on our way,” he said.

Such a move would align Hallmark Channel much more with the Hallmark brand, particularly its retail stores, Abbott noted. (Hallmark owns a majority stake in Crown Media.)

By giving Hallmark and Hallmark Movie Channel more defined identities, Crown Media also hopes to improve its place as an independent in what has mostly become a consolidated cable landscape.

But by more aggressively going after the lifestyle space, Hallmark also enters a crowded field of successful nets, such as TLC, Food Network and HGTV. Oprah Winfrey’s OWN also joins the category in 2011.

Crown had been looking to sell the Hallmark Channels, but eventually took them off the market — prompting last year’s departure of topper Henry Schleiff, who was brought in to prep the company for a sale.

As for Stewart, the move to cable reps Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia’s desire to expand its TV presence.

Wholesale move also comes as MSLO’s deal with NBC Universal TV Distribution was set to expire, and ratings for “The Martha Stewart Show” had dropped, making for a tougher go in the firstrun syndie world.

NBC U, which had distributed “The Martha Stewart Show” for the past five years, declined comment.

Prior to Stewart’s prison stint, she was the star of a lifestyle strip syndicated by King World.

Hallmark will run “The Martha Stewart Show” at 10 a.m. weekdays. Then, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Hallmark will also run additional programming from Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.

“Martha Stewart” will also repeat at 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. on the channel, and MSLO will additionally produce holiday and interview specials for Hallmark’s primetime schedule.

Announcement was made on Tuesday by Abbott and MSLO executive chairman Charles Koppelman.

Abbott called the move a “match made in TV heaven,” while in a statement, Stewart said she had been looking for a home to run MSLO’s “unique evergreen content to television in an expansive way.”

“Our core values and content areas — entertaining, weddings, crafting, cooking, gardening, holidays, pets and humor — are a perfect fit with Hallmark Channel,” she said.

Stewart is no stranger to cable, as repackaged editions of her earlier syndicated series have aired on outlets such as Food Network and HGTV. More recently, repeats of “The Martha Stewart Show” have run on Fine Living (which also has run “Whatever, Martha,” a satirical look at Stewart that is co-hosted by her daughter).

Koppelman said the move came as MSLO began reviewing its partnerships. That included switching merchandising partners, moving from Kmart to Hope Depot, Macy’s, Pet Smart and Michael’s.

“Once we got that organized, next on our agenda was figuring out how to build and upgrade our media relationships,” he said, “and find the right partners to build out not just Martha Stewart, but other talent as well.”

Koppelman said MSLO also liked the idea of “Martha Stewart” airing in pattern across the country, and the fact that there’s room to grow more shows on Hallmark.

Deal is not exclusive, however, allowing MSLO to still produce for other nets. The company and Hallmark are also still identifying what properties will run on the cabler between 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.

Among the titles that will soon be available is “Whatever, Martha,” which reverts to MSLO once Scripps turns Fine Living into the Cooking Channel later this year.

NBC U is not involved in the Hallmark show; still being determined is the future involvement of Mark Burnett, who helped launch the revived “The Martha Stewart Show” after sealing a deal with Stewart in 2004 (while she was still incarcerated). Burnett also cast Stewart in the ill-fated “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart” on NBC.

“Mark is very talented and we’ll be talking with him about opportunities down the road,” Koppelman said.

Stewart becomes the latest host to exit syndication, as hosts such as Bonnie Hunt and Tyra Banks (whose show was technically cleared on the CW) end their runs this year, and Winfrey shuts down her show in 2011 to focus on her cable network.

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