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


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.


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.)

* "The Home Pro": Projects for the handy person. (Begins Sept. 28, 9 p.m. and midnight Tuesdays, 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturdays, Learning Channel.)

* "Better Your Home": Better Homes and Garden magazine's 30-minute blitz rebuilds a different home each week. (Begins Oct. 2, 1:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. Saturdays, Learning Channel.)

* "Lynette Jennings Home": Everything from horticulture to interior design, with interaction from a studio audience. (Begins Sept. 27, 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.. weekdays, Discovery Channel.)


Here's a guide to what's playing now:

* "Bob Vila's Home Again": After 10 years as the host of "This Old House," Mr. Vila packed his tool box and struck out on his own. Four years later, his show's nearly identical to the one he left: savvy, smart, slick. His visits to celebrity houses aren't quite as glitzy as Robin Leach's excursions, but they're far more intelligent. (Sunday, 7 a.m., WJZ-Channel 13.)

* "Remodeling and Decorating Today": Hosts Walter Muellenhagen and Tony Kramer look like father and son, but they're just a couple of unassuming, no-frills do-it-yourselfers who transform bathrooms, kitchens and add on rooms in this 30-minute stretch. (Saturday, 10 a.m., Sunday, 6 p.m., the Nashville Network.)

* "This Old House": The original, with adventurer/restorer/author Steve Thomas and master carpenter Norm Abram rehabbing old homes, digging septic fields and checking out fascinating operations all over the U.S. such as paint conservatories and window factories. Steve's the one in the sprayed-on jeans. (Saturday, 5:30 p.m.; repeats Sunday, noon, WETA-Channel 26.)

* "The New Yankee Workshop": That Norm Abram. He gets all the good tools -- power everything. But he needs them; this is not a show for novices, whose eyes might glaze over when he gets into dadoes or the finer points of mortise-and-tenon joinery. Step-by-step instruction for serious woodworkers and wannabes. (Saturday, 6 p.m., WETA-Channel 26.)

* "Hometime": Host Dean Johnson marks his seventh PBS season, and nearly as many co-hosts in that time -- all playing the role of his wife. (In reality, he's married to Kathi Johnson and has two children.) This year's is Robin Hartl, refreshingly first-rate as a carpenter/residential builder, who declines help when well-meaning Mr. Johnson offers a hand. Please -- she'd rather do it herself. The patter is good-natured and the projects are diverse. (Saturday, 6:30 p.m., WETA-Channel 26; reruns weekdays at 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., the Learning Channel.)

* "Easy Does It": Charming co-hosts Beverly DeJulio and Lisa Nailen show how to patch concrete, unclog drains, repair wicker and hang traverse drapes, all accomplished with perfectly manicured fingernails. Chatty and full of tips for recycling, the show also includes a segment for new products. (Weekdays, 12:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m., the Discovery Channel.)

* "Homeworks": Lynette Jennings blends common sense with preppie panache -- the quick-fix kitchen, eco-tips, a visit from a color consultant, preparing a simple plate of poached pears stuffed with "stinky Stilton." Then, she's in a kimono, creating her own backyard Shangri-la -- an "easy" Oriental garden. Fun stuff, good ideas. (Sunday, 10 a.m., and weekdays at 12:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., the Discovery Channel.)

* "Furniture on the Mend":The Flying Burrito Brothers fix furniture. Joe shellacs the top of a chest; Ed remarks: "It's coming alive, Joseph." Joe splashes shellac on Ed's shirt; Ed remarks: "You lumberjack, you!" Bizarre fun and instructive how-to, from upholstery to finishing kitchen cabinets. (Tuesday, 8 p.m. and midnight, Sat. 12:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m., the Learning Channel.)

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