Media Circus: Perfect World

Like Sherwin Williams paint, Martha aims to cover the earth. And with the launch of Martha Stewart Omnimedia, Martha's tastefully decorated evil empire is growing ever more omnivorous by the day.


Mary Elizabeth Williams
March 15, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

no matter how loudly, fiercely and repeatedly he may declare it, Howard Stern is not the King of All Media. No, if you want the lord high major-domo taco supreme of media, there is only one name -- Martha. Since unleashing her first sumptuously photographed collection of impossible-to-duplicate entertaining ideas 15 years ago, Martha Stewart has become a veritable steamroller of books and magazines and TV specials and Kmart home furnishings. And now she's about to get even bigger.

In a major fit of entrepreneurial redecorating, Martha announced last month the next phase of her global domination agenda -- she's just acquired Martha Stewart Living right out from under Time Inc. Apparently the Martha empire has outgrown Time, that fly-by-night operation that also publishes People, Fortune and Sports Illustrated -- though the corporate behemoth will still retain a minority interest in the Martha machine.

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In the world of media, the first step in marking one's territory and making it clear to all that a power shift has occurred is to get a new name. So it is that the already you-said-a-mouthful company known as Martha Stewart Living Enterprises will henceforth be the rather more ominous-sounding Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. Scary, but not necessarily surprising -- chairman Martha, after all, knows how to put the O in omni. Her multi-tentacled enterprise already encompasses a 6-year-old magazine, a weekly television show, innumerable books, an "askMartha" newspaper column and the Martha by Mail catalog.

So with all this Marthaness out there already, what's she going to give us next? Why, more Martha of course. Other titans of media may have record companies or networks, magazines or movie studios. But they are small roasted garlic crust potatoes to Martha. Martha doesn't just want to be the books on your coffee table -- she wants to be the coffee table itself, picked up for a song at a local Chippendale garage sale. Martha will clothe us, feed us, paint our walls and furnish our homes. Her new venture is dividing into three separate companies -- Publishing and Online, Television, and Merchandising. That's the whole world, more or less, clasped in Stewart's delicately patrician hands.

The press release on the new venture makes extensive use of the word "synergy," a concept that seems to have been created exclusively for the Martha Stewart Collection. Read about the "Martha Stewart Living" TV show in the Martha Stewart Living magazine. See Martha by Mail products on the TV show. Drool over the Martha Stewart paints in the Martha Stewart decorating book. It's Marthapalooza.

As part of the stepped-up Marthafication campaign of all existing entities, the "Martha Stewart Living" television show -- a program that boasts so many declarations of "Perfect!" by the host per episode that the utterance has inspired drinking games in some circles -- will go daily starting in September.

There have even been rumors of a proposed Martha Stewart computer -- designed especially for the kitchen, bien sur. Although Martha could probably slice Bill Gates like a handful of fresh strawberries, mix him with steel-cut Irish oatmeal and eat him for breakfast, her publicist, alas, denies the story.

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The relationship between Martha and Time Inc. was probably destined to dissolve from the beginning. A woman whose wedding guide suggests that brides prepare bouquets of "six hundred individual rose petals wired in place around a single central flower" is perhaps a woman with issues around detail and control that could make Barbra Streisand look like Homer J. Simpson.

There have been murmurings for well over a year regarding the "restructuring" of the relationship between the doyenne of decorating and the media monolith. It may have taken a while, but the payoff promises to be sweeter than a tamarillo brulie with whipped creme franche. The March issue of Living had a print run of 3 million copies; the "askMartha" column is closing in on 200 newspapers; reruns from the first three seasons of "Martha Stewart Living" air twice a day on Lifetime. Stewart's empire generates somewhere in the not-too-shabby neighborhood of $200 million a year.

The turning point in the Marthafication of Everything may have come in 1992, with the launch of Martha Stewart paints -- allowing Martha to cover the earth, Sherwin Williams style, in luxurious, dusky hues. The paints allegedly take their cues from objets d'Martha -- one palette is "inspired by the delicate hues of eggs laid by Martha's Araucana and Ameraucana chickens" (cluck), while a "Colors of the Garden" collection includes such pretty poison shades as Digitalis Mauve. The Martha paints were followed in 1995 by the Martha by Mail enterprise, which offers cookie decorating kits and plant presses, as well as nifty little organizers for keeping track of one's cookie decorating and plant pressing. And now -- Omnimedia.

Is Martha frightening? Why would you say that? For years I've been looking every month at "Martha's Calendar," the personal agenda that appears in every issue of Living, expecting to see an entry like "Sept.1: Prune lilac bush. Invade Poland." I haven't seen it yet, but it may be worth noting that on the day she jumped ship from her five-year stint as a "Today" correspondent and began doing new segments for "CBS This Morning," the entry for her February calendar was a reminder to sharpen her knives.

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Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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