Martha Stewart block shortened at Hallmark

Network subs in 'Little House' reruns after weak ratings start

NEW YORK -- The Hallmark Channel has shrunk its lifestyle-programming block from Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia that launched only last month but has gotten off to a weak ratings start.

Stewart's fans haven't followed her to cable in large numbers so far, so the network has gone back to airing classic TV fare in the form of "Little House on the Prairie" in the 3-6 p.m. slot as of the first week of this month. Those three hours originally were part of what Hallmark touted as a 10 a.m.-6 p.m. MSLO lifestyle block.

Daytime viewership is staying with broadcast networks, which have a "crowded" offering of daytime content including shows from Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres, Hallmark Channels CEO Bill Abbott said.

"People don't yet think of cable, or Hallmark Channel, as having daytime original programming," he said. "So, we condensed the lifestyle block, focused on fresh, topical content and cut out library product that didn't do the ratings we were hoping for and lost us momentum."

Abbott told The Hollywood Reporter that Hallmark remains committed to lifestyle programming and hopes the shorter block will be easier to promote.

"We were very aggressive and likely a bit too aggressive," he said of the block. "But we are committed to our lifestyle programming and investment in Martha and believe we can make it work."

The channel mainly cut library content acquired in a broad deal with MSLO. Abbott said some might return if Hallmark manages to establish the block in the ratings.

"We made a big investment and will focus on trying to make it work eventually," he said. "We got to walk before we run. It is important to get the 'Martha' show right" along with the rest of the block.

This week will see Hallmark promote the core of its program block in primetime. The channel's website shows that a rerun of 10 a.m. Monday-Friday "The Martha Stewart Show" will shift from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. It will be followed by reruns of "Mad Hungry With Lucinda Scala" and "Whatever With Alexis & Jennifer," also part of the block and also weak performers.

A Hallmark spokeswoman said the "Daytime into Primetime" reruns from 8-11 p.m. are "an effort to expose our largest daily audience to the new programs." The change is planned for this week only.

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Abbott called it an experiment to lure viewers who haven't found the lineup on his network. He also said the holiday season tends to be strong for Hallmark and Stewart's show, which could improve ratings and provide an opportunity to promote the lifestyle block during the coming weeks and months.

Hallmark also quietly has taken a new approach to reruns of each weekday's "Stewart." It started off with two reruns a day, at 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., but that has changed to a 2 p.m. rerun following a 1 p.m. rerun of the previous day's episode. Through late into its fourth week, the MSLO block has averaged 129,000 viewers 2 years and older. That number is down 68% from the 406,000 that Hallmark averaged with such classic TV shows as "The Golden Girls" and "Prairie" during the same period last year, Nielsen data shows.

The 10 a.m. airing of "Stewart," which has improved of late, is averaging 193,000 viewers, down 56% compared with the slot last year; during the most recent week, that number reached 210,000. The two reruns average about 200,000 viewers combined. Last week, the show hit its two highest ratings since its move to Hallmark, Abbott said.

Although difficult to make fair comparisons between syndication, where "Stewart" previously aired, and basic cable, experts agree that the Hallmark shows have pulled significantly fewer viewers.

Stewart and Hallmark might also hope for some big names to create buzz. Among Stewart's upcoming guests is Johnny Knoxville, who is slated to carve pumpkins Tuesday, and shoe designer Manolo Blahnik on Friday.

Asked about the relationship between Hallmark and Stewart, Abbott said: "It remains very strong. They are as committed to the partnership as we are, and we both realize it will take time."

In another change, Laura Sillars, a former HGTV programming executive who joined Hallmark during the summer as senior vp lifestyle programming, has been forced out, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Abbott confirmed the departure and said both sides agreed they weren't a good fit for each other. Sillars couldn't influence "Stewart" and the MSLO block in a significant way that would have made both sides comfortable, he said while lauding her skills.

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