How-to Series Offer More Than Blueprints

When did tiling the bathroom and organizing the closets become interesting television fare? It happened when middle-class America started flocking to Home Depot and became too busy to devote their TV-viewing time to mere entertainment.

And the explosion in targeted niche cable channels helped that boom along.

Do-it-yourself TV is becoming hot and its hosts transforming into celebrities as they dole out the dirt on the closets and bathrooms of Aspen and the French Riviera, along with those of suburbia.

"Before, television was purely escapism,'' said Burton Jablin, senior vice president and general manager of Home & Garden Television. "Now, we like to use the phrase informational escapism."

HGTV's daily lineup might include a segment on using a clothes washer to spin lettuce, as well as tips on freeing stuck doors or what to look for in a $17 million Malibu villa.

"People are saying, 'I want something that is not only entertaining but provides me some extra benefit,'" he said. "You can escape in someone else's world, through decorating and gardening, but you're also getting something out if it, an inspiration or idea."

A long time ago,
French Chef

Julia Child and handyman Bob Vila made the mundane fun on public television. Then, along came Robin Leach and his syndicated series of millionaire house tours,
Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous


In the '90s, Martha Stewart fused the two together, and brought a hint of glamour to the do-it-yourself realm. Cable has since followed her lead, serving up a large, varied menu of how-to and lifestyle programming.

Some of these series give the audience advice on what to do here and now, while others give pointers of a more aspirational nature.

In that respect, these shows aren't unlike high-fashion magazines. They give their viewers a peek into a world of products and services that today are financially beyond their reach.


At present, there are cable shows devoted to every room, every meal and nearly everything that can go wrong with food, hearth or hair. TV shows can help plan a vacation, spice up one's love life, throw together a wedding, shop better or dress like a millionaire.

Aspirational shows serve up the most extravagant beauty and design solutions, peppered with advice on more modest recommendations.

"We say we offer beauty from lipstick to liposuction-from the very complicated procedures that can change the shape of your body to an action that is simple, but helps you create your own expression and makes you feel better, look better and live better,'' said Marta Tracy, senior vice president of programming for Style. That net was launched in 1998 as the fashion and design spinoff of E! Entertainment Television.

Americans are every bit as interested in solving real-life decorating or culinary quandaries as they are in learning the outcome of an English murder mystery. That's evidenced by the very existence of Food Network-which launched in 1993 and now boasts 53 million subscribers-and Home & Garden Television, 11 years old and in 65 million homes.

Domestic inspiration also comes from Style; the nature-and-science oriented Discovery Channel; and the female-focused Lifetime Television and Romance Classics. Scripps

Networks, parent of HGTV, Food Network and the Do It Yourself network, next year will launch Fine Living, a network and Web site devoted to luxurious dining, transportation and the design choices of the very wealthy.

Scripps officials said they want Fine Living to appeal to not just to the rich, but to those who "aspire" to their lifestyle.

Spanish-language Galavision has added
En Casa de Lucy

to its weekday morning schedule. Billed as the Latina answer to Martha Stewart,

continues the network's block of empowerment shows for women.

Cable's instructional shows are eye-catching enough to keep household chores from looking dull. The ones that showcase exotic locations and extravagant spending try to make that kind of lifestyle accessible. Style, for instance, helps us learn to find gems in flea markets and antiques malls with
Rachel Ashwell's Shabby Chic

The network also covers fashion runway shows from the perspective of an insider (supermodel Paulina Porizkova) and trend commentator Jane Buckingham shows viewers how to glean a single important accessory or color choice from a line of couture.

On Food Network, the audience can fantasize with the no-expense-spared competition

or follow along with Italian chef Mario Batali.

Cable programmers often schedule how-to shows early in the day and the more fanciful, story-oriented programs in the late afternoon and in primetime.

"All our programming is aspirational," said Eileen Opatut, Food Network's senior vice president for programming and production. "In daytime and part of our weekend day, it is very much how-to, but our prime time is what I would called food-themed programming.

"We think the aspirational should always tell a story that has something to do with viewers. It is comfortable and confidence-building."


Food Network's recipe show
Two Fat Ladies

is comfort viewing for anyone who has ever broken a diet.

There are daytime shows devoted to sweets and to ethnic cuisine.
B. Smith with Style

serves up useful tricks of the trade; Martha Stewart also has a home on Food, as does superstar chef Wolfgang Puck.

Evenings offer more shows with a more general appeal, such as
Calling All Cooks
, in which participants discuss old-time recipes and the memories they evoke. Other programs acquaint viewers with the deep-sea divers and ostrich farmers who make the far-off connection to our more exotic meals.

On HGTV, the daytime schedule is heavy on such shows as
Smart Solutions
, which offers creative antidotes to cleaning and storage headaches. A new daytime series,
Our Place
, provides a half-hour of home decorating suggestions.

Primetime delivers
This Old House

and the 13-week
Dream House
, encapsulating a year and half of home construction.
House Hunters

follows would-be homeowners along the stressful journey to their purchases.

"It sounds like it's boring, but it's a cliffhanger,'' said HGTV's Jablin. "We have a need for the informational and the step-by-step shows, but for the most part, for the last few years we've been lifestyle- and story-driven.''

During the day and on weekend mornings, HGTV's prime competition comes from Discovery Channel and The Learning Channel.

"Some people talk to me about the Home & Garden network and I say we dated them by a year," said Chuck Gingold, senior vice president and general manager of daytime programming for TLC and Discovery.

The Christopher Lowell Show

Lynette Jennings
, Discovery puts its own stamp on the obsession with the home.

Lowell is a flamboyant host who walks homeowners through redecorating projects, while Jennings travels the country and visits the impressive homes of interesting people. But both inspire by soothing viewers, according to Gingold.

Discovery also offers
Home Matters
, a studio show that tackles cooking, gardening and crafts. These series, like those on the rival networks, are largely host-driven, a factor that makes as much of a difference as the content.

On each of these shows, the domestic gurus grab their audiences by selling something different from their counterparts, just like Macy's and Nieman Marcus.

"I couldn't be more different from Martha Stewart," said Colin Cowie, celebrity interior designer, party planner and host of
Everyday Elegance with Colin Cowie
, the breezy entertainment and travel program on Romance Classics.

"She's a maniacal perfectionist. I'm the furthest thing from that. I don't believe in perfection. Setting those high expectations is a set-up for failure."

Cowie, a warm and humorous host who is as much the entertainment as the hints he proscribes, plans an itinerary through South Africa for his audience, details his sister's tea party and his own five-ingredient entrées. His food and his way with gift wrap may be far superior to our own, but the information is simple enough to equip us with something we can use.

In December, Lifetime Television will premiere
Operation Style
, in which design expert Bradley Bayou "saves the day-one lifestyle crisis at a time." He and a panel of experts will provide advice to solve one woman's actual entertaining or decorating predicament-on a low budget and with a tight deadline-from start to finish.

Time will tell whether there is really room for all these Mr. and Ms. Fix-Its, but executives at all the networks involved agree the genre has plenty of room to grow.

"These are the television versions of magazines, whether it's the food magazines like
Bon Appetit

or shelter magazines like
Architectural Digest
," said Kelly Abugov, who heads up primetime program development for Lifetime. "We're fulfilling the same kind of interest, and I think these programs are here to stay."