By  on November 16, 2005

In a conversation between James Citrin, senior director of Spencer Stuart, and Susan Lyne, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia president and chief executive officer, Lyne alternated between candor and caginess.

The candor came when she talked about being ousted from ABC just before the network's impressive turnaround in the 2004-2005 season.

After helping to oversee the development of the hits "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy," Lyne was let go in spring 2004, before the pilot episodes for those shows even had a chance to air. "I was fired three weeks before the Up Fronts," she said, forgoing the typical corporate euphemisms for getting sacked. Lyne also discussed the inspiration behind "Housewives" and "Anatomy," saying: "One of my comedy executives walked into my office one day moaning that ‘Sex and the City' was going off the air….The shows that were doing well at the time — ‘CSI,' ‘Law & Order' — were self-contained stories that didn't demand a viewer come week after week. So we doubled back in that season and developed a lot of what we hoped would be appointment television for women."

Discussing her transition to her next job at Martha Stewart, Lyne was more discreet.

"When I left ABC, I looked at a lot of different companies," she said. "In every case, the problem was either they didn't know who they were, or they had gone the cheap route with a lot of licensing and without building assets. The more I got to know Martha Stewart, the more I realized it had everything it needed to succeed, despite the crisis….The challenge to rebuild that company given what was there was irresistible."

And what about the pressures of running a company with such an iconic founder?

"I was lucky enough to have access to her knowledge and her vision for the future of the company," Lyne said.

Before she joined the Martha Stewart Living board, she said she knew Stewart only socially. They got to know each other better in summer 2004, and during Stewart's stint in an Alderson, W.Va., federal prison. "The nice thing about that," Lyne said, of her visits with Stewart in Alderson, "[was] I would get four hours with her, without interruptions," which gave her plenty of opportunity to talk about the heritage of Martha Stewart Living since discussions of current business were prohibited.But since Stewart's release and return to her company, the rebuilding efforts have hit a few snags.

On Nov. 15, NBC announced that the Martha Stewart spin-off of "The Apprentice" would end after only one season. "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart," which will air its final episode on Dec. 21, had consistently landed in fourth place in its Wednesday night time slot — well behind the leader, "Lost," another show developed under Lyne at ABC.

"That [‘Apprentice'] deal was made before I became ceo," Lyne told Citrin at the summit, "but I have embraced it because I think I see the value in it."

It wasn't a monetary value she was referring to — Stewart was paid only a talent fee, and Martha Stewart Living had no financial stake in the show — but rather a broader platform for the company.

"The Martha Stewart brand had gotten pigeonholed as a homemakers' brand," said Lyne, adding that "there are elements that are viable, interesting and useful to a broader segment of the population."

In response to NBC's announcement this week, a spokeswoman for Martha Stewart Living and Mark Burnett — the producer of "The Apprentice," "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart" and Stewart's new daytime talk show, "Martha" — claimed it was never Stewart's intention to go forward with two shows simultaneously. But "Martha" also has been struggling and Stewart and Lyne are reportedly adjusting the format.

In her talk with Citrin, Lyne focused on evolving another important aspect of the brand: the retail environment in which Martha Stewart products are presented. "The [shopping] experience reflects the brand overall. You can't have a disconnect," she said. "We've talked a lot about certainly a flagship store. Presenting product in a way that makes us proud is certainly an opportunity, if not a necessity."

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