Martha Stewart's "battle of the anklet" may have revealed a major shift in strategy by NBC with regard to its The Apprentice reality show franchise. Although NBC refuses to confirm its Fall 2005 schedule at this point, it appears that the Martha Stewart version of the show may be the only one to air in the fall of 2005, with the next edition of the Donald Trump version delayed until Spring 2006.

When the domestic diva last hit reality TV newswires, the word was that she would star in her own spin-off version of The Apprentice, to be called The Apprentice: Martha Stewart. That show was to be executive produced by Stewart's "good friend" Mark Burnett, the biggest star in reality television production, as well as by Apprentice co-owner Donald Trump.

At the time, Burnett compared the Apprentice franchise to CSI and Law & Order, which air multiple versions with different personnel simultaneously. Extending that idea to the show's casting efforts, NBC announced that its already-announced Apprentice 4 casting calls -- originally promoted as casting for a Donald Trump-led Apprentice 4 series that would be airing in Fall 2005 -- would suddenly also be casting for the Martha version of the show, with Burnett stating that potential contestants would be given a choice of Apprentice versions.

However, in the "battle of the anklet," Martha Stewart, who was released from federal prison on March 4 after being convicted of lying to U.S. government investigators about a stock sale, petitioned the sentencing court for (1) an expansion in the number of hours that she could spend away from home per week from 48 to 80 and (2) removal of her court-mandated electronic anklet during the sentence -- and may have unintentionally prematurely disclosed a change in NBC's Apprentice strategy.

Although her request for resentencing was ultimately rejected by the supervising judge on April 11, Martha's claim rested on a legal basis: a recent Supreme Court decision holding that the mandatory sentencing guidelines under which she was sentenced were unconstitutional and should be treated as merely advisory. However, as part of its initial argument, Martha's legal team also submitted a letter from Mark Burnett regarding her television work. In the letter, Burnett stated that the anklet prevents Martha from wearing "skirts or dresses" on the air and also from being taped in the gardens surrounding her estate.

In reply, federal prosecutors mocked Burnett's claims, stating that "minor inconvenience to one's ability to star in a television show is an insufficient ground for resentencing." In their subsequent reply brief, Martha's lawyers wanted to make the point that Martha's work "starring in a television show" is key to the growth of Martha's publicly-traded company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc. (MSO). To that end, they included a letter from MSO CEO Susan Lyne.

In a quote from the letter reported by the Associated Press, Lyne makes the point that Martha's appearance on TV is part of MSO's strategy to revitalize the company. In part, she wrote:

"Ms. Stewart does not need publicity, nor does she have a desire to be more of a public figure than she already is. The company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, made a decision that it would be beneficial to expose our brand, our products, and our mission, to a broader demographic -- and in the process, to re-introduce Ms. Stewart's services on the fourth edition of The Apprentice."

The "fourth edition of The Apprentice"? Not on The Apprentice: Martha Stewart?

The letter by Ms. Lyne, a former vice chairman of ABC (and the long-time primary backer of the current smash hit series Desperate Housewives), seems to indicate that The Apprentice 4 and The Apprentice: Martha Stewart have merged into each other. It seems unlikely that someone with Lyne's longtime television background would make such a statement by mistake, especially in a letter being submitted to a court on behalf of MSO's namesake and primary asset.

NBC, while admitting that this statement by Susan Lyne is correct, refuses to expressly confirm or deny that any plans for the broadcast of these shows has changed. In comments to Reality TV World, NBC spokesperson Jim Dowd stated that the Peacock network is "still not commenting on the schedules of either show at this stage." He said that the Martha version and the Trump version of The Apprentice were both "Cycle four", and that they should be viewed as "4A and 4B." Whether only one version or both will be on the fall schedule will not be officially revealed until NBC's "upfront" 2005-2006 primetine schedule presentation on May 16.

The use of these designations indicates that the plans for separate shows appears to have faded; it seems doubtful that The Apprentice: Martha Stewart would be given a cycle number in the sequence for Donald Trump's The Apprentice unless plans to make it into a separate show had faded. For example, it is unlikely that NBC referred to this year's first season of Law & Order: Trial by Jury as "Cycle 15D" of Law & Order.

Based on this scant evidence, it would appear that NBC's current plan is to debut The Apprentice: Martha Stewart as the fall version of The Apprentice -- thus, to air it as The Apprentice 4 in effect, if not in name -- while holding the Trump version of The Apprentice (the "4B" version) to air in the winter and spring. However, this apparently cannot be confirmed until May 16.

One piece of evidence in favor of holding back the next Apprentice featuring The Donald until 2006 is the apparent decline in interest the finale of NBC's upcoming The Apprentice 3. Reports indicate that the finale will be held in NYU's Skirball Center of the Performing Arts, a 860-seat venue that doesn't have anywhere near the prestige of the Lincoln Center's larger Alice Tully Hall venue that hosted The Apprentice 2's December 2004 finale -- nor nowhere near the capacity of the Madison Square Garden location that hosted last spring's New York finale of Burnett's Survivor: All Stars series.

Even if live demand for the finale is off, ratings for The Apprentice have remained very good, especially considering that the show's lead-in audience collapsed with the abject failure of NBC's much-hyped Friends spin-off Joey. Although NBC previously managed to spin a successful character on an ensemble show off to a new series once (Frazier Crane from Cheers), Joey's dismal season brings back memories of prior NBC failures like Beverly Hills Buntz (a spin-off from Hill Street Blues featuring Dennis Franz, later known as the Emmy-winning Det. Sipowicz of NYPD Blue). Without a reliable lead-in, NBC may believe that its best chance on Thursday nights at the start of the 2005-2006 season is by placing The Apprentice under new tutelage.

Since The Apprentice 4 is scheduled to enter production in April, it will be interesting to see whether both versions begin shooting in coming weeks -- or whether only "Cycle 4A" (Martha's version) does. After all, according to NBC Universal Television president Jeff Zucker's February comments, the next two cycles of the show with Donald Trump (which have been referred to as The Apprentice 4 and 5) and the Martha Stewart edition would all "play out over the next sixteen months." And given that an NBC spokesperson later told Reality TV World that none of the editions would air as summer programming, how such a scenario could occur if none of the editions air simultaneously is difficult to envision.