Businesswomen first, Ms. Winfrey and Ms. 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, Ms. 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 Mr. Burnett, Martha, Ms. 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 Ms. 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.
Ms. 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.
There’s nothing Ms. Stewart did—be it crafting, canning, or chicken-raising—that some kids aren’t now doing in Bushwick or Portland, albeit with a little less WASP-y flair. Far from living the good life, like Ms. Stewart at Turkey Hill, they’re likely looking to make rent with an Etsy store or saving up for a food cart.
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 Thursday at a cocktail party in the 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 on stage. Did their top-secret syndication collaboration aspire to fill the Oprah void? And there was first girlfriend Sandra Lee, whose proclivity for cooking with prepared goods, we imagined, Ms. Stewart must privately mock.
And then suddenly she appeared in the doorway. Like most of the camera-ready guests who’d turned up, Ms. Stewart was remarkably unlined for her age (she is 70) but looked queenly in a jacket made of white fur. It must have been faux—she renounced the good, bad stuff and 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.