Doyennes in Distress!

Oprah and Martha, queens of empowerment, unceremoniously dethroned

Martha Stewart spent her first five on-air minutes of 2012 doing damage control.

“I’m here to assure you that you will see me on television this fall,” she said, tossing her blond bob so it grazed the shoulders of a sheer pink blouse.

“Our show was not canceled,” she added with signature Yankee brusqueness. “What we’re trying to do is to figure out a new way to do our show, just to keep evolution occurring.”

Last month, the New York Post and others reported that Stewart’s long-running daily program, which moved to the Hallmark Channel in 2010, had been canceled because of low ratings. Adding insult to injury, the stories noted, Home Depot had decided to dump Stewart’s personally branded line of wall paints.

Cribbing from the Kim Jong Il playbook, Stewart staged a display of her power, turning up at the 23rd Street Home Depot, where she praised the building’s cast-iron details, to demonstrate to bewildered customers that it was business-as-usual in Marthaland. They could still purchase her paint colors; they would simply have to mix Martha Stewart-brand pigments—the whites, so the story goes, based on egg shells gathered in her hatchery and pasted into her Filofax—into a Glidden-brand base.

“They are selling like hotcakes, I am told,” she said, gesturing to an array of the swatches propped up before her.

The news that The Martha Stewart Show was on the butcher’s block (the Hallmark Channel reportedly is replacing Stewart with Marie Osmond this fall) signaled the end of an era for the so-called Doyenne of Domesticity, a former Connecticut caterer who turned a monthly magazine and weekly half-hour how-to program into a publicly traded corporation, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, worth $1.87 billion in 2005. The same week, papers reported that fellow daytime maven Oprah Winfrey was still struggling to lead her network audience of about 6 million to the upper register of the cable dial, where her year-old Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) had landed. The New Year’s Day premiere of Oprah’s Next Chapter, a weekly answer to The Oprah Winfrey Show, drew just 1.1 million viewers, suggesting a once-revolutionary media archetype—the self-made goddess of self-improvement—had entered her declining years.

It’s been quite a run. Oprah launched her nationally syndicated talk show in 1986, seven years before the arrival of Stewart, who, except for a brief 2004 stay in West Virginia, has been on the air nonstop since 1992. Between the two of them, Stewart and Winfrey were a tag team of ’90s empowerment that ushered their viewers—women that the economic boom had enabled to “opt out” of the workforce—away from the mind-numbing hell of endless soaps and channeled their latent ambition into near-militant homemaking and a determination to live their “best life.”

How could that not be a good thing?

There was a nice balance between them. If Stewart’s topiaries began to seem symptomatic of some Apollonian psychosis, we could always flip to Oprah, where “spiritualist” Iyanla Vanzant taught self-love so complete it bordered on onanism. Stewart stuck to surfaces and Winfrey plumbed our psyches, but both shows were built upon a similar promise of feminine self-betterment. Anything we missed on TV we could catch up on via their dueling monthly magazines, Martha Stewart Living and O: The Oprah Magazine, which took up the mantle of the antediluvian “Seven Sisters.”

Winfrey’s spirituality (to say nothing of her body mass index and her feelings regarding her BMI) was a work in progress she tended to for our entertainment. When she wasn’t propagating delusional self-help programs (what was The Secret, again?), her bread-and-butter spots were a parade of Mall of America grotesques not so different from those of predecessor Phil Donahue. But while we sneered at Maury and Springer, Winfrey’s quickness to relate her guests’ stories to her own lifetime of adversity set off a chain reaction of transference. We gawked at them until we identified with them until we—cut to the studio audience, quivering, dabbing their eyes—sobbed along with them.

Her couch was the first stop for celebrities seeking public redemption. It was where Michael Jackson explained that his skin had lightened due to an obscure disorder, where Tommy Hilfiger promised that he didn’t care if black people wore his clothes, and where James Frey was excoriated for fudging his memoir, which we’d read only because Oprah had recommended it.

While Stewart was frostily autocratic, Winfrey had the homey wisdom to know the difference between the things she could and could not do, as the 12-steppers say, plus the money to employ an army of gurus to cover for her weaknesses. Rather than keep this privileged life under wraps, she introduced us to her menagerie of specialists: her private chef, her personal trainer, Chicago’s hottest decorator, a renowned cardiac surgeon who advocated alternative medicine, and the ex-psychologist who gave her legal counsel in her case against Texas cattlemen.

The most faithful of them reaped unimaginable rewards, with posts on a Mount Olympus of syndicated spinoffs. As for the implements of fulfillment that couldn’t be taught on daytime television (high-thread-count sheets, personal digital assistants, tummy-tucking undergarments), she could always dole them out on the orgiastic annual “Favorite Things” giveaway spree.

Last year, the launch of OWN was the talk of the Television Critics Association press tour, from Winfrey’s messianic news conference to the glitzy after-party packed with Oprah’s friends-turned-network costars. There was Gayle King, Winfrey’s loyal sidekick, and Dr. Laura Berman, Oprah’s talk radio sexpert, and Suze Orman, the credit card wizard. You get a show! And you get a show! And you get a show!

As The Oprah Winfrey Show wound down in May, reunion specials spiked ratings, giving the impression Winfrey had bested Stewart for good. That month, shares of MSLO dipped below $5 and the company brought in the Blackstone Group to advise on a potential sale.

But since then, Winfrey’s cultural stock also has taken a hit. Between sporadic scheduling and OWN’s unfortunate spot on the cable lineup, Oprah’s audience drifted away. So in July, Winfrey named herself CEO of the network and launched an ad campaign instructing viewers where to find it.

At the same Television Critics Association event this year, all eyes were on King, but not, for once, because of any affiliation with Winfrey. In a recent overhaul, CBS made Winfrey’s consigliere co-anchor of This Morning, alongside Charlie Rose and Erica Hill.

Asked if Winfrey would be making any guest appearances, King hedged.

If she is in the news, she replied.

By then it was also becoming clear that a spot in Winfrey’s pantheon did not guarantee eternal, syndicated glory. Dr. Phil, the original Oprah spin-off, fell below Maury in daytime ratings, and The Nate Berkus Show was canceled because of low viewership. Meanwhile, over at the Hallmark Channel, it wasn’t just The Martha Stewart Show that was at risk of cancellation but all MSLO programming, including Martha Bakes and Emeril Lagasse, acquired in 2008.

As Stewart and Winfrey receded into to their respective boardrooms, onlookers sought an heiress apparent. For a moment, it seemed that Food Network star Rachael Ray was the one. She had Winfrey’s warmth and Stewart’s interest in entertaining. What she lacked in authority (she was one mispronounced ingredient away from giving Anthony Bourdain an aneurysm), she made up for in relatability. In 2006, she left no-name publisher Lake Isle Press for Clarkson Potter, Stewart’s first publisher, and launched her own magazine with Reader’s Digest, Every Day With Rachael Ray. The same year, Winfrey opened the door to syndication with a Harpo-produced cook-talk show, Rachael Ray.

The EVOO began to go stale in time. Late last year, Reader’s Digest blamed Every Day’s weak ad revenue for the company’s declining profits and sold the title to Meredith.

Interestingly, Ray’s most popular recent endeavor had nothing to do with imparting lifestyle advice. On New Year’s Day, the premiere of Rachael v. Guy Celebrity Cook-Off—in which she and fellow Food Network provincial fave Guy Fieri coach D-list celebrities like Aaron Carter and Summer Sanders in a cooking contest—drew 3.5 million viewers. That’s more than three times as many people as Winfrey pulled for a two-hour heart-to-heart with Steven Tyler.

In 2012, we’re less likely to see a high-functioning superwoman deified than we are to see the celebrities we’ve already exalted flap about as they try their hands at lowly housework. As if Bravo’s “Real” housewives weren’t already ample proof that money can’t buy Martha-grade taste, it seems we’re still doomed to get the latest news from the dysfunctional Kardashian domicile. As Martha Stewart Living, O: The Oprah Winfrey Magazine and Every Day With Rachael Ray continue to scrap for advertisers, the Kardashians have reportedly been talking to tabloid giant American Media about launching their own magazine.

Businesswomen first, Winfrey and Stewart seem to have intuited and prepared for this shift in viewing tastes, even at the cost of totalitarian control of their brands. To make a big comeback upon returning from the big house, Stewart teamed up with reality television producer Mark Burnett and prostrated herself before audiences on her own season of Celebrity Apprentice. Even after she’d earned our forgiveness, she never really reverted to the old June Cleaver meets Catherine the Great shtick.

On a new daily show produced by Burnett, Martha, Stewart gave up declaring which things were “good things.” Instead she played anal-retentive straight woman to celebrity guests ranging from Alan Cumming to Snoop Dogg. Viewers tuned in not to learn how she frosts hot cross buns, but to watch her squirm when Seth Meyers messed up her pastry bag.

At the launch of OWN, there were two empty spots in the channel’s lineup. Unlike the other stars hand-picked by Winfrey, these were reserved for the winners of a reality show competition, Your OWN Show: Oprah’s Search for the Next TV Star (yet another Mark Burnett joint). The contestants were nominated by an online audience vote. The winner, Karina Kuzmic, launched The Ambush Cook, which uses guerrilla tactics to rid the world of hapless home chefs.

Kuzmic will never reach as many viewers as Oprah and Martha did, but after their long runs, fewer of us need to be rescued. As a culture, we’ve long since graduated from their respective schools of self-improvement.

As for the cathedral of catharsis on The Oprah Winfrey Show, it seems unlikely that any television show will ever replace it, but an afternoon spin on Facebook, a well of unsolicited confessions and personal narratives, is probably a satisfactory substitute.

All this was on our mind last month at a cocktail party in New York’s Edison Ballroom, which was being thrown to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Today show. We spied Jeff Zucker in the back, and there was Katie Couric, dancing onstage. Did their top-secret syndication collaboration aspire to fill the Oprah void?

And then suddenly she appeared in the doorway. Like most of the camera-ready guests who’d turned up, Stewart was remarkably unlined for her age (she is 70) but looked queenly in a capelet made of white fur. It must have been faux—she became a PETA spokeswoman while in prison—but it was soft as a chinchilla when we tapped her on the shoulder.

We were looking for a little clarity regarding Hallmark’s statement on Martha.

“We’re not canceled,” she said crisply.

She’d promised she would be on the air in September; would she return on Hallmark or a different channel?

“We’ll be back,” she replied, averting her eyes, as someone whisked her away to a private balcony, an unimpeachable VIP.