Desperate No More, Ex-ABC Boss Lyne Takes Stewart Gig

“This is the kind of stuff I did for fun, whether it’s organizing closets or cooking or decorating my house. All that stuff I love,” said Susan Lyne, 54, sitting in her brand new office in the Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia headquarters on West 42nd Street. “Paint chips, I love.Fabric swatches. I love the drawer organizers that allow you to find things faster. I’m a catalog junkie. I always have been. I love Home Depot-I love those kinds of stores. So the turf we operate in, I understand very well.”

It was Monday, Nov. 15, Ms. Lyne’s second day on the job as the chief executive of the Martha Stewart multimedia empire, and she was trying to explain her connection to the gingham-and-pie-crust constituency she’d just inherited. Of course, it isn’t her penchant for paint chips that qualifies Ms. Lyne for the job as head of the famous homemaking enterprise. Ms. Lyne has a diverse business and publishing background, and until April 2004 she was the president of the entertainment division at ABC. There, she shepherded a number of hit television programs to the airwaves, including the Sunday-night phenomenon Desperate Housewives-one of the few on-air reprieves from reality TV, and a saucier take on the very women that Martha Stewart’s company targets. It’s hard not to notice the eerie, almost comic logic in Ms. Lyne’s recent career move.

“The whole idea of getting inside the mind-set of American women was very much on my mind for the last couple of years,” said Ms. Lyne. “And maybe was one of the reasons that this job was as appealing to me as it is.”

Sitting in her sleek new office, fronted by glass beyond which a series of polished, (mostly) female Martha Stewart employees strode purposefully back and forth, Ms. Lyne seemed to still be absorbing her new reality. While she has run magazines ( Premiere, The Village Voice), produced films and television shows (at Disney and elsewhere), and headed corporate units at Disney and ABC, playing C.E.O. of a multimillion-dollar public corporation is something different. It’s unclear whether sharing Martha’s passion for home improvement is critical to reviving her troubled company.

Of delicate build, with gentle blond, bob-length hair and a tailored plum-colored tweed jacket, Ms. Lyne bore a certain resemblance to Ms. Stewart herself.

“This is a really strong company, fundamentally, that has had this cloud hanging over it having nothing to do with their business,” said Ms. Lyne. “And so I’m really optimistic about what’s possible. Otherwise I wouldn’t have taken the job.”

Ms. Lyne has good reason for being optimistic-about her own instincts, anyway. Desperate Housewives, which depicts a group of sexed-up Suzy Homemakers, harried mothers and libidinous divorcées machinating in the suburbs, attracted an estimated 24.9 million viewers last week. Its success, along with other shows produced on Ms. Lyne’s watch, such as Lost and Wife Swap, has suddenly transformed ABC from prime-time loser to the “hot” network. But before Desperate Housewives or Lost had even made it onto the air, ABC fired Ms. Lyne and her boss, Lloyd Braun, in what appeared to be a ritual bloodletting at the until-recently-floundering network, turning the two executives into TV-land martyrs.

The Next Girl Show

Desperate Housewives was born out of a noticeable absence in television. Ms. Lyne recalled a conversation that she’d had with another ABC executive, Stephanie Leifer, about two years back, lamenting the fact that Sex and the City was about to go off the air.

“Somehow, that idea of ‘my shows’-the shows that women have to be home for-had, for the most part, disappeared,” Ms. Lyne said. ” Melrose Place, Ally McBeal, Sex and the City … you know, those passionate guilty pleasures weren’t on television any more.”

It was an epiphany of sorts, and Ms. Lyne made “finding the next girl show” one of her mandates.

“We did four pilots that were all looking for the girl show,” said Ms. Lyne. “First among them was always Desperate Housewives. There are really interesting things about those characters, because they could have been archetypes: the harried mother who has given up her executive job and was great in the work place and can’t handle four kids; the divorcée who is dying to find another man, and yet is vulnerable and maybe trying a little too hard to hang on to her youth; the perfectionist who believes that her worth is tied to doing everything just so, and is making her family’s life miserable as a result.

“What I love about them too is they’re women of a certain age, you know-except for Eva Longoria, who is her own delight-but it’s four women around 40,” she went on. “That’s an age that I think changes everything in terms of how you perceive yourself, how you’re perceived by other people, and it’s a moment when a lot of women go through some kind of crisis.”

The women are all in crises of sorts, which drives each one of them to varying extremes in their struggles to get what they want. But in every case, they are seeing their power diminish with age, a reminder that women’s fortunes are often written, literally, on their faces. And in the business world, beauty can be both a blessing and a curse.

“You know, I think it’s a liability until you are old enough that you are not just looked at as a pretty face,” said Ms. Lyne, when asked what it was like to negotiate a high-powered career as an attractive woman. “Once you get beyond a certain age-and I don’t know what exactly that age is-I actually tried to remember the moment when I thought that I’d hit that perfect place, where I was no longer perceived as the ingenue and yet I still felt young. And I don’t know when it happened, but it just goes by.

“But once that does happen, I think that it’s absolutely not a liability-and, in some instances, may actually help you,” she continued. “I mean, I’ve read all the studies about attractive people having an easier time getting promoted, but I do think that, as a young woman starting out, it is a liability, because it’s much harder to get people to take you seriously. They assume you’re in your job for the wrong reasons. I know that I developed a manner that was probably more serious in business and less playful in the office, just so people wouldn’t think that I wasn’t a serious person.”

One of the most remarkable things about Ms. Lyne is that everyone seems to love her, which seems rare in both Hollywood and the annals of corporate America. Even the receptionist at the Martha Stewart offices felt obliged to gasp, “I just met Susan Lyne this morning. She’s a very nice lady!”

Cyndi Stivers, the president and editorial director of Time Out New York, who worked with Ms. Lyne at Premiere magazine, said that “[Susan’s] wise, kind, compassionate, one of those people who has room for everybody-stepdaughters, children, cousins. She’s always got nieces and nephews staying with her. And this is true of every kind of writer, editor, creative person, too. She’s never been a desperate housewife. I don’t even know that she knows any desperate housewives.”

In Martha’s Absence

After leaving ABC, Ms. Lyne took the summer off, during which she “did all the things [I] never get to do in New York City,” including sleeping in, hanging out with her daughter and “walking every inch of Central Park.” Ms. Lyne was offered the C.E.O. spot at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia after serving on its board of directors for five months, which means she knew the company’s troubles well.

For starters, Ms. Stewart is in jail in West Virginia, serving out a five-month sentence for lying to federal investigators about a 2001 sale of ImClone shares. Ms. Stewart’s magazines have been losing ad pages and face competition from publications like Real Simple. Production of the television series has been suspended, although there are plans to resurrect it with the help of reality-TV guru Mark Burnett, who was recently hired as a consultant. Kmart sales of Martha housewares are holding up, although there seems to be a crisis of confidence in the overall brand, which has always been embodied by Martha herself. The company’s last C.E.O., Sharon Patrick, a company veteran who held the post for less than a year and a half, just wearily announced her resignation for “personal and professional reasons.”

Ms. Lyne only had good things to say about Ms. Stewart and her future impact on the company.

“The irony of it is that, for all the pain and problems that Martha’s situation caused for her and the company, it created a different interest level in her than I think has existed, maybe ever,” Ms. Lyne said. “And she is an extraordinary character. I had never met anyone who has as fertile a creative mind. She really knows those women who shop at Kmart. She really knows the women she creates this how-to content for-respects them, and knows them. I think she will return with an unbelievable pent-up energy to do new stuff.”

Ms. Lyne acknowledged that there were similarities between ABC, which faced terrible ratings and an identity crisis when she first took on its entertainment division, and her new project of safeguarding the Martha brand name through a rocky public-relations recovery. There were also some differences.

“Network television, for all that is said otherwise, is such a hit-driven business,” said Ms. Lyne, a potted white orchid quivering on the table beside her. “Making television is really fun. That’s different from the business. The business is brutal. Someone asked me last week why I left ABC-which you know, was amusing in its own right. But a friend of mine said, ‘What you should have told them was that very few people retire from entertainment jobs in television.’ And it’s really true. When I went into it, I said to my husband, ‘This is a three-year cycle.’ So that’s what my expectations were.”

While she knew it was an unpredictable universe, Ms. Lyne said she was still hurt when the ax came down just over two years into the job. (ABC declined to comment on Ms. Lyne or her departure.)

“I was completely surprised-but, you know, six months out, I probably should have been less surprised that they’d made changes,” she said. ” Disney is a company that’s been under enormous pressure from stockholders, and obviously they felt they had to address what was a poor performance.”

When asked whether she’d been given enough time at ABC, Ms. Lyne said: “Oh, no! Of course not. And I’m sure nobody feels like they have enough time. Two years really is an awfully brief window, given how long it takes to turn a network around.”

She said she still had many friends at ABC and still thought of it as “my network,” and that watching shows like Desperate Housewives take off after her departure was “thrilling.”

“All the way up to the top,” said Ms. Lyne, “everybody has been very generous in saying, ‘Thank you, thank you.'”

A ‘Rock-Solid Center’

Ms. Lyne now lives with her husband, George Crile, an investigative 60 Minutes producer and the author of Charlie Wilson’s War, on the Upper East Side. They have two teenaged daughters together, as well as Mr. Crile’s own two girls.

Ms. Lyne grew up in the tony Boston suburb Chestnut Hill, the oldest of five children, with “the only Irish-Catholic Republican parents in Boston.” She rose quickly in her career. After dropping out of college at U.C. Berkeley to pursue journalism, Ms. Lyne quickly went from an editor at Francis Ford Coppola’s startup, City magazine, to the managing editor of New Times and, after it folded, the managing editor of The Village Voice from 1978 to 1982.

Then, with the backing of Rupert Murdoch, who owned The Voice during her tenure there, she founded Premiere magazine in 1987. She went over to the Disney film studio in 1996, and to ABC in 1998, where she worked first as head of movies and miniseries, producing TV films like Annie and Life with Judy Garland, before becoming president of ABC Entertainment in 2002.

Ms. Lyne has certainly enjoyed an enviable rise to the top-and, according to those who know her, it’s not surprising. One of her close friends, the powerhouse ICM literary agent Amanda (Binky) Urban, described her as having a “rock-solid center.”

“You know, I do feel that I’m a pretty steady person,” Ms. Lyne said in response. “My children would say that, too. Not that I don’t get into high dudgeon occasionally, but yeah, I am pretty steady.

“You’re either born with it, or you’re not,” she continued, when asked about the source of her steely core. “I was born with it. I have an older daughter who has that same basic centeredness. That’s why, I think, I was never scared of that ABC job. It did not keep me awake at night. I never woke up in the middle of the night, worried about what the ratings were going to be. Maybe I should have been! But I don’t think you can do one of those jobs for long if you don’t have some of that basic calm.”