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Designing TV

How Steve Edelman built a television dynasty in . . . Corte Madera



Even the clutter looks good in the headquarters of Edelman Productions in Corte Madera. There's a definite style to the hundreds of crazy-office-party photos taped casually on a long stretch of padded cubicle walls. There's a decided dash to the way audition tapes fill floor-to-ceiling shelves adjacent to the receptionist's desk. There's a distinctive élan to the array of objects, both functional and decorative, perched on desks and cabinets throughout the maze of offices. And there's an impressive high-tech edge to the stacks of equipment that define the production and editing areas.

This is a local television production company, but there's nothing bare bones about it. The place has an informal atmosphere, but it's extremely organized. It's also infused with a sense of style and presence, which is appropriate, as the majority of Edelman Productions' shows are created for cable's HGTV and do-it-yourself networks, with a focus on design.

If it has to do with spiffing up your home, inside or out, Edelman has a show about it.

Founded in 1993 by former reporter, anchorman and syndicated-show host Steve Edelman, this company is a classic illustration of how the industry has moved away from L.A.- and N.Y.-based television shows to a variety of regionally based producers hustling to fill the huge demand for niche cable TV content. The shows created by Edelman Productions highlight extremely personable hosts presenting design information in a clear and coherent fashion.

"It's the difference between an article in Time magazine about design and an article in a more sophisticated design magazine," Edelman explains. "If people come to a design channel on a regular basis, they care more, they know more. The fundamental and important thing is interesting, unusual design information."

As the head honcho of a company dedicated to helping Americans beautify their domiciles, Edelman's innate sense of style has nurtured a wide range of shows. His company's shows currently airing on HGTV include Color Splash, Curb Appeal, Designed to Sell, Decorating Cents, Design Remix, Double Take, FreeStyle, House Detective, Landscape Smart and Sensible Chic, plus three new ones that recently premiered, Sleep on It, Get It Sold and Find Your Style. Edelman's series on the DIY network include Bathroom Renovations, Fresh Coat, Home Transformations, Weekend Handyman, Wood Works and Kitchen Renovations.

A law school grad who chose to work in television instead, for 12 years Edelman hosted the syndicated Good Company show out of Minneapolis with his wife, Sharon Anderson. When their show ended in 1994, he was 49 years old and determined to be his own boss. His timing was perfect.

One of his series ideas was snapped up by the then-fledgling HGTV network, which had just debuted. At the same time, technological advances made television cameras incredibly portable, letting Edelman's crews film almost entirely in the field. Accordingly, they brought their cameras into people's homes and to retail stores, wholesale warehouses, artisans' workshops, furniture factories—anywhere that home design is happening and real.

"It's a demanding business," Edelman says. "If you're going to be current, if you're going to compete, you've got to be on the cutting edge not only with people and ideas but with equipment and your willingness to be flexible."

As soon as he could, Edelman relocated from Minnesota to California. The company started with a small office on the second floor of a two-story building in Corte Madera. Today Edelman Productions is the largest cable TV production company in the Bay Area. It occupies most of the building, but use of the overall space changes depending on what's in development and what's in production.

"It all morphs according to who's shooting what, when," explains Sally Wilson, Edelman's executive assistant, as she leads a brief tour of the company's space.

Downstairs is the "cage," a lot room that secures the gear each production team will use during a day of shooting. It's all color-coded, so each crew gets exactly what it needs. One employee works full-time just keeping things organized.

A day of shooting yields anywhere from 10 to 20 raw tapes, which are immediately brought back to the office. "They're a precious commodity," Wilson smiles. The tapes are digitized and logged, then carefully edited. Edelman Productions has one editing room downstairs and four upstairs. They operate on a 24-hour schedule, with two editing shifts and one digitizing shift daily.

Edelman oversees it all, brainstorming concepts for new shows and pitching them to the networks. He also serves as executive producer, helping to fine-tune the first episodes of each new series. It's a task he enjoys.

"It just one of those things," he says. "I can watch a TV show and I can say that's good, that's bad, change this. It's almost automatic. It's just natural. It's effortless."

It's also a vital skill for the company, Wilson says. "He can look at a show and give them five comments that make it perfection."

Edelman glances across his Corte Madera office, checking the time on a trio of clocks sculpted in rusty metal. He had the hands painted red, making it easier for him to see the time on all three clocks. From a design perspective, the addition of the small bit of red works perfectly, "popping" the smooth glossy color on the hands against the rugged metal of the three clocks.

It's also highly functional, because in addition to its Marin County headquarters, Edelman Productions now has offices in Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. In all, the company has some 150 employees, and the trio of clocks lets Edelman know the time in each office, so he knows when he's calling.

And on a wall just down the hall from his office, there are printouts of pictures and bios for the employees in all four offices, so people in Marin know what the folks working in the other offices look like, and vice versa. It's one of the ways that Edelman stays in touch with what's happening and keeps everyone else connected as well.

"I'm very involved in the hiring of people, because I think that's fundamentally important," Edelman notes.

The idea for a television show can come from a concept, like one of Edelman Productions' newest series, Sleep on It, where potential buyers get to spend the night in a home they're almost certain they want to purchase. Edelman thinks it's a "killer" idea.

"It's only been on four times, but it's been doing big numbers [in the ratings]," Edelman enthuses. "Who knows, that show could actually start a trend."

Shows are also developed around someone with both design or DIY skills and a warm, friendly personality that comes across well on television.

"There is no formula," Edelman says. "We find individuals who deserve to have a show wrapped around them."

But Edelman Productions isn't limited to just interior design or do-it-yourself shows. It created three shows—Spa Chef Diet Challenge, Ultimate Kitchen and Ultimate Restaurants —for the Food Network. And it even produced two programs for the History Channel. The first was Tactical to Practical, which highlighted items that started as military projects and evolved into consumer products, such as Humvees, GPS and night-vision goggles. The second program is Man, Moment, Machine, which combines rare archival footage, eyewitness interviews, expert opinions, re-enactments and computer imagery to focus on individuals who employ new technologies at pivotal moments in history.

If those topics seem far removed from choosing paint colors, it's because they are.

"The truth is, we make two different kinds of shows," Edelman explains. "We make shows that are primarily geared to women and we make shows that are primarily geared to men. I think it's rare that a company will do shows both for the History Channel—which has been nicknamed Hairy Armed TV—and for HGTV."

The common denominator is quality, a clear format that engages viewers. Really good television, Edelman says, has a hypnotic quality.

"It requires a certain energy that draws you into it on a regular basis. Otherwise you just kind of float away. In order to keep your attention on that little box—which is now becoming a bigger box—you have to create things that draw you into the set. I call that hypnotic. It's got to be engaging. You can call it anything you want, but it has to be immersive."

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