The first prime-time network series to spin out of America’s current fixation with home improvement and design is a hyperdrive version of the home shows that have come before it.

In fact, you could call it “Trading Spaces” on steroids.

Ty Pennington – the hunky carpenter from “Spaces,” cable’s most-watched home improvement show – loves that description of his new series, “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” which makes its weekly debut Sunday (8 p.m. EST, ABC).

“Exactly! That’s just what it is!” says Pennington, who tends to talk in a way that demands exclamation marks and italics. “The challenge is just insane. And I love it.”

Where programs like “Spaces” concentrate on redoing a couple of rooms, “Home Edition” remakes an entire house in just one week. That includes taking the home down to the studs, moving walls, rewiring, redoing the plumbing, rethinking the interior design and coming up with fresh landscaping. In one upcoming episode, the “Home Edition” crew even adds a second story to a house.

“It’s hard to look around and not see that America has a bit of an obsession with home improvement,” says Tom Forman, a former CBS journalist who is the show’s executive producer. “You can’t drive down a street without seeing a Home Depot or Lowe’s. You can’t turn on cable TV without seeing a home improvement show.

“So we sat in our office and said, “OK, what’s the prime time network TV version of that?’ And the answer was, for one thing, it’s bigger and we’re going to do more, and what we do is going to mean more.”

By that, Forman is referring to other aspect of “Home Edition” that sets it apart from other home improvement shows: The families whose homes are picked for a remake have fallen on tough times.

“We’re going to go out and find families that don’t just have an ugly house but really deserve this and really have a story to be told and really need this renovation,” Forman says.

“We’re looking for people, for families, who have reached a place in their lives where design could make a difference.”

In Sunday’s episode, for example, the “Home Edition” crew renovates the home of the Woslum family. The father, Trent Woslum, purchased a fixer-upper as his family’s first house but, shortly afterward, his California National Guard unit was called to duty in Iraq. That left his wife, Dawna, and their three sons living in a house desperately in need of work.

Dawna Woslum and her sons were sent off to a seven-day vacation at Disneyland while Pennington and his crew of five other designers -plus a construction crew that reached as many as 150 workers – attacked the house. To say the “reveal” – the moment when the family comes home – is teary and heartwarming would be putting it mildly.

“I’m standing outside the house at the end with 120 construction guys around me and I’m crying,” Pennington says. “And I’m thinking, “This is not what I signed on for. What am I doing? I’m crying on television.”‘

The cynics in the television audience may wonder whether “Home Edition” cheats a bit and houses really aren’t renovated in just a week. But Forman and Pennington both insist that the work is done within that time frame.

“I want to be able to go into house where I can say, “I think we can do it.’ And then we find out,” Forman says. “With every one of these, I nearly have a heart attack because we’ve bumped right up against our deadline. The family really is coming home just as we’re finishing the house.”

Nor do the producers and designers do a lot of advance work.

“We really do show up the first day and figure out what we’re going to do to the house,” Forman says. “But the designers do do some “pre-thinking.’ I tell them the family’s story and they have a sense of what they’re getting into. So they know what the kids like, what they don’t like. They can start thinking about themes for rooms and what they might want to do.”

Forman does admit the show stretches reality in one regard: “I’ve learned how lucky we are to have the city on our side and have a building inspector assigned to us 24 hours a day. Because you can’t do what we do without some flexibility in the world of permits, which they’re generous enough to give to us.

“It is the one place we cheat a little bit, and it is the one thing you can’t do at home.”

While “Home Edition” does focus on the emotions of the renovations – and that includes the designers’ often-testy relationships – Forman and Pennington insist viewers can come away with useful information.

“That’s one of the things I wanted to make sure of,” Pennington says. “I don’t want to just be: “Wow! You can build a house in seven days!’ We want to make sure we show something along the way.

“We try to give you a lot of stuff you can use. That’s what I would want if I was watching the show: What kind of material are you using? How much did it cost you? How long did it take you? Can anyone do it at home?”

Forman declines to say exactly how much “Home Edition” spends on the houses except to say that “it is hundreds of thousands of dollars in added value to the home.” Enough added value, he adds, that the show provides the families with an attorney to deal with the tax implications.

(One reason “Home Edition” can afford the more costly renovations is that, according to the New York Times, Sears, Roebuck and Co. is paying more than $1 million for product placement involving such Sears products as Craftsman tools, Kenmore appliances and Lands’ End home furnishings. That makes parts of each episode look like a Sears infomercial, a definite downside to an otherwise entertaining and even uplifting show.)

The families often seem overwhelmed by the changes made in their homes, particularly touches such as the scale-model of Dodger Stadium built in the back yard of the Woslum home in Sunday’s episode. But Forman suspects that some things the designers do will be changed once the families settle in.

“As the designers try to push the design envelope, you get some raised eyebrows every once in a while,” he says.

“And I bet if we go back a year from now, you’d see some walls that are now painted orange repainted white.”

For information on “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and applications to be on the show, go to http://abc.go.com/primetime/xtremehome/. The series is taking applications for future installments of the show.



EXTREME MAKEOVER: HOME EDITION

8 p.m. EST Sunday

ABC



(c) 2004, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

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Ty Pennington

AP-NY-02-12-04 1025EST



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