Saturday, July 17, 2004

Stewart still a role model for her fans

Programs remain on TV; network gets few complaints

By John Eckberg
Enquirer staff writer

FLORENCE - Martha Stewart may be a felon, a liar and a soon-to-be prison inmate, but for Burlington resident and Kmart shopper Carolyn Schweitzer, 53, Stewart will always be a role model and teacher.

"Because of her, I'm not afraid to try different things," said Schweitzer of the multimillionaire maven of do-it-yourself decor, dining and party planning who was sentenced Friday to spend five months in prison.

"She always had so many little helpful tips. And I don't think she's guilty of those charges, either. She was one of the richest women in the world. She was targeted."

Stewart was sentenced to five months in federal prison and five months of home confinement, though the sentence was stayed pending appeal, which could take months.

While she considers the merits of such prison grub as fish sticks and macaroni and cheese, her pre-taped television show From Martha's Kitchen will continue to air on E.W. Scripps Co.'s The Food Network - but only through September.

"They've stopped production," said Cindy McConkey, vice president of communications for Knoxville-based Scripps Networks. Home & Garden Television, another Scripps property, let a contract to broadcast From Martha's Garden expire in December.

The contract between Cincinnati's Local 12 WKRC-TV and Kingworld, which syndicates the Stewart show Martha Stewart Living, ends Sept. 10, and her 9 a.m. time slot will be filled with a game show, said Chris Sehring, vice president and general manager of Local 12.

The furor surrounding Stewart's trial and conviction has not, apparently, had much impact on her fans at HGTV and The Food Network. Few callers complained, and e-mail outrage was minimal, McConkey said.

"It was a non-event with our viewers," she said.

Raised the bar

Clearly, the impact of the Stewart empire on cooking, sewing, crafting, home decor and bridal planning has been sweeping and unprecedented, said Robert H. Hughes, one of 50 certified event rental professionals in the country and director of special events for All Occasions Events Rental, an Evendale firm that offers full-service party and event rental.

She raised the bar for planners, he said, by educating consumers.

That, in turn, can create unrealistic expectations of perfection.

"People would come in with a picture of a bouquet. I'll say sure, but the flowers in that bouquet are available one month a year and $15 a stem," he said. "I have to be the bad guy and say that bouquet looks great but it costs $700."

Julie Russo, a 31-year-old Walton, Ky., resident, believes Stewart's insider trading is something that happens all the time.

"I don't think it's fair, what they've done to her," Russo said. "I know people who are on board with this stock or that stock. People get inside information all the time. They don't go to jail."

Nathan Bachrach, a managing partner for Financial Network Group LTD of Cincinnati, believes Stewart should count her blessings.

"Martha's a very lucky woman," he said, noting that the five-month prison sentence sends a "mixed message" and is not stiff enough to be much of a deterrent.

A survivor

Personality-brand expert Samantha Ettus, president of Ettus Media Management, a New York City-based branding and public relations firm, believes the Stewart brand will recover from any image damage.

"She has a five-month sentence," said Ettus. "In the corporate lifecycle, this is a blink of the eye. In many ways, it will become a story of a survivor."

Nearly 20 years ago, Loveland resident Michele J. Groene paid $1,200 for a weeklong class on catering. The group ended up at Stewart's house in Westport, Conn., where they learned flower-arranging and other fine points about catering.

Groene, today an account manager for Ready Pack Produce Co., a produce firm that offers pre-washed lettuce and fresh-cut produce, said she remembers Stewart as a perfectionist and extremely demanding of her staff.

"Her philosophy was to go beyond and give the customer and client the very best," Groene said. "But I don't feel bad for her. She knew what she was doing. The lesson to take from what happened? No matter how big you get, you can make a mistake."

Schweitzer, the fan of Stewart's Kmart brand, was more forgiving.

"You can redo a bathroom for under $100. Anyplace else it's twice that," she said of the branded Stewart products sold at Kmart, which Friday said it would continue carrying Martha Stewart goods.

"Her items have quality, and they're inexpensive. I love the linens. I love her."

John Byczkowski contributed.


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