Why Martha Stewart is following Oprah to cable

Is Martha Stewart going the way of Oprah?

Seems so, given that Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia has sealed a deal to move her syndicated daytime TV show to the Hallmark Channel.

The news comes two months after Oprah Winfrey rocked the broadcast TV world by announcing that she’s quitting her syndicated show in September 2011 to focus on her new cable network, OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network.

Surely, neither Oprah now Martha, who are living-brand rivals, would embrace the notion that they’re walking in each other’s shadows. But the reality is, Oprah secured prime “real estate” in cable TV first by getting Discovery Communications to convert its Discovery Health channel, already in 70 million homes, to OWN. The OWN network, now in development, is a 50-50 partnership of Winfrey and Discovery.

Stewart’s deal, announced yesterday, does not give her an entire channel to call her own. But it does give Stewart a significant chunk of Hallmark’s airtime. That’s prime real estate too. Hallmark, owned by Crown Media Holdings , is in nearly 90 million homes. Starting in September, The Martha Stewart Show–which is distributed by NBC Universal and is not a moneymaker for Stewart’s company–will air at 10 a.m. weekdays on  Hallmark. The program will repeat twice each afternoon. MSLO also gets a 90-minute daily block to program, and a production deal for holiday specials.

The long-term play here? I got a clue into that last month when I had dinner with MSLO executive chairman Charles Koppelman. We talked about various ways that MSLO might grow, including a major move into cable like, perhaps, a Martha Stewart Channel. Koppelman declined to talk specifically about that prospect. But it was clear that he has big ambitions.

Neither he nor other execs at MSLO would say publicly that they dream about taking over the Hallmark Channel in order to Martha-ize it. On a conference call yesterday, Stewart herself kept her excitement about her new deal in check. But no question, with her TV ratings and her stock price sagging, she’s seeking a big platform to promote all the stuff–magazines, merchandise, acquired brands such as celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse–that comprises her Omnimedia enterprise. And of course, to promote herself.

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