How-to HEROES Home-improvement gurus manage to build a national following

August 02, 1993|By Patty LaNoue Stearns | Patty LaNoue Stearns,Contributing Writer

Bob and Norm started it all. Then came Steve. Now there are Joe and Ed, Beverly and Lisa, Walter and Tony, Dean and Robin and Lynette.

They are the Dream Merchants of the '90s, those inspirational home-improvement gurus who make the most intimidating renovating, refinishing and remodeling projects look like a day at the beach. They use the best tools, the finest materials and, thanks to the wonders of cinematography, take the least amount of time to transform dingy rooms into palatial chambers.

Apparently, we like to watch: Come fall, no fewer than 14 TV home-improvement shows, nearly half of them brand-new, are being syndicated nationally. Perhaps igniting this explosion has been the large success of Tim Allen's ABC-TV sitcom, "Home Improvement." The show single-handedly boosted the sagging status of pioneer how-to host Bob Vila, a frequent guest, to something just under demigod. (Mr. Allen refers to his own shtick on "Home Improvement" as "Bob Vila on acid.")

Owen Simon, a vice president of Group W Productions in Los Angeles, which syndicates Vila's "Home Again" show to 132 stations nationwide, says Mr. Allen's show definitely has enhanced the popularity of programs like Mr. Vila's, but there's another explanation for their proliferation: How-to's bring in megabucks.

"One reason the stations like the shows is the environment for advertisers [they provide]," Mr. Simon explains. "People tend to follow these shows and pay close attention because of the subject matter."

It's the perfect direct-marketing vehicle -- ad-friendly, in other words. Stations can charge up to $1,000 per minute, versus $700 and less, for airtime.

Even without commercials, the sponsors of PBS' "This Old House," the 15-year-old show that spawned Mr. Vila and now has Steve Thomas as its host; "The New Yankee Workshop," with Norm Abram; and "Hometime," with Dean Johnson and Robin Hartl, are thriving, thanks to viewer pledges and copious corporate sponsorship.

"This Old House" producer Bruce Irving, 32, who has been with the show five years, says funding for public TV's most popular half-hour program -- with 7.7 million viewers per episode -- has poured in steadily during the past two years. Though Mr. Irving says the show is produced on a shoestring -- "way, way below $2 million per season" -- compared with commercial programming, his crew has been able to travel extensively around the country. One project this year included rehabbing a Mediterranean Revival home in Miami that was hit by Hurricane Andrew.

Mr. Irving's not concerned about his new commercial competitors eating into his show's funding, either. "We wish all of our imitators luck, because they're doing a good thing -- spreading the gospel that you can do this stuff yourself."

One of the newest -- and most odd -- of the genre is "Furniture on the Mend," an underground-hip mix of humor, wit and expert renovation demos. It has developed a cult following on Philadelphia's public TV channel since it debuted four years ago.

Off-the-wall hosts Ed Feldman and Joe L'Erario might well be described as Tim Allen on acid: "In 1971, somebody gave me something, and ever since, I've been this way," Mr. Feldman laughs.

The show went national on cable's Learning Channel this year, quickly spawning another cult-craze in Hollywood, where the "furniture guys," as they're affectionately called, have even landed a bit part in an upcoming kid-flick, "Double Dragon."

All joking aside, Mr. Feldman and Mr. L'Erario are furniture masters, providing trade secrets on wood finishes, brushes and other tools, and demonstrating such techniques as applying gold leaf.

No question, these how-to shows provide some of TV's most practical motivational programming. Now that baby boomers are buying houses in a big way, sooner or later they will need some instruction on repairing leaky toilets, hanging wallpaper or a new storm door, finishing an attic or knocking out a wall.

As "This Old House's" Mr. Irving says, "The more physical improvement that occurs to the housing stock of this country, the better we're going to be."

And the better educated we can become by watching how these tasks should be performed, the smarter we are as consumers.

STILL MORE HELP FOR HOME-IMPAIRED

Six home shows debut this fall:

* "Martha Stewart Living": Author, lifestyle authority, Kmart huckster and princess of perfection, Ms. Stewart provides inspiration and how-to info on entertaining, cooking, gardening, restoring, and more in a weekly half-hour format. (Begins Sunday, Sept. 19, at 7:30 a.m., WJZ-Channel 13)

* "Home Matters": An eclectic mix of ideas, field trips, demonstrations in a half-hour show. (Begins Sept. 27, 10 a.m. weekdays, and Nov. 27, 1:30 and 5:30 p.m. Saturdays, Discovery Channel.)

* "Homebodies": An array of activities broken down into steps, coupled with home-improvement trends. (Begins Sept. 27, 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. weekdays and Saturday, Learning Channel.)

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