Blame it on Tim Taylor. ABC's "Home Improvement" may have ended its eight-year run, but in real life, there seems to be no slowing the craze for all things domestic.
Blame it too on Russell Morash. Two decades ago, he decided to make a TV series about the work going on at his Massachusetts home. "This Old House," which just started its 21st season on PBS, is the oldest show of its kind.
It also has spawned numerous home-renovation series. There are now enough of them to warrant an entire cable network, Home & Garden Television (HGTV), which airs both new series and former seasons of shows including "This Old House."
HGTV is available in many suburban locales, including Fairfax, Montgomery, Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties and the city of Alexandria.
Morash is modest about acknowledging that his good idea launched what seems like a thousand shows with titles such as "Hometime," "Home Again," "About Your House," "Gimme Shelter" and "Handyma'am."
"To be statesmanlike here, when we started out it was very difficult to do this kind of television, because in those days we used a much different kit of equipment," he said. "You had cameras that didn't work like those today and it was a big deal to take this equipment into the field. But now technology has made it easy from a technical standpoint."
Editing in those days, Morash said, meant cutting the video with razor blades and patching it with cellophane tape. Now, home improvement shows can be made much more efficiently -- and affordably -- by using mobile lighting, multiple cameras and wireless microphones, as well as sophisticated editing machines.
"The other part of it is that the shows are inherently interesting because they are very visual," said Morash, who also produced Julia Child's cooking shows. "So much of television is no more than shots of people's faces."
But "This Old House" reveals the expert labor it takes for a painstaking home renovation -- done in sequence. "We like to penalize the viewer for blinking or looking away," he said.
And, he added, "This Old House" viewers have come to know and depend on the cast -- Norm Abram, Steve Thomas and Tom Silva.
"We have achieved a sort of status in people's minds, as have soap operas and other family-oriented programs, that the viewers have a relationship with the cast of characters."
But the show wouldn't succeed without drama. The first of two houses picked for this season of "This Old House" (airing Sundays at 9 a.m. on MPT; Saturdays at 11 on WETA) is the burned-out home of carpenter Dick Silva, Tom's brother.
"My God, what a story! He lost everything," said Morash.
Former seasons of "This Old House" air on HGTV, along with "The New Yankee Workshop" and "Victory Garden," all produced and directed by Morash. Although these PBS shows have "primed the pump" for the home-show craze, he said, HGTV offers much more than repeats.
On HGTV, viewers can aspire to become their own interior decorators or home sellers, or stick with smaller tasks such as turning an old vase into a lamp or planting a winter window box. If this cable channel does not have the cachet of "Martha Stewart Living," it has broader ambitions. The numbers indicate that the interest in home shows is growing: HGTV, launched in 1994, is now in about 57 million homes. And there are a lot of hardware-store advertising dollars supporting it.
Watching HGTV can be addictive. Burton Jablin, the channel's programming vice president, explained that the goal is to offer information, ideas and inspiration -- "the three I's. And to do it in a way that respects viewers' intelligence."
The result "might just be that they move their furniture around, or do some planting," he said.
With 24 hours of niche programming, the challenge is to remain innovative. So in developing new shows, Jablin asks, "What have we not done that we can do?" And the network's specials are a way to avoid retreading tired ground.
"Specials are so much fun because there we have a lot more leeway on subject matter," said Jablin. "Viewers will say, `Okay, I can watch that for a night.' "
"Sitcom Style," airing Sunday at 9 p.m. and hosted by Barbara Eden, looks at the funky furniture in "Dharma & Greg's" apartment and at a fish tank housed in a vintage TV on "Caroline in the City." Other specials will visit soap stars' homes and the annual national hardware show in Chicago and focus on the holidays.
The network boasts that all of its primetime shows are original. Last week's HGTV debuts included "New Spaces," which follows transformed rooms; "House Hunters," showing people going through the process of finding a home; "Design Basics," a practical primer on design and decorating; "Curb Appeal," suggesting small changes to enhance the look and increase the value of a home; "Lofty Ideas" on cool city loft homes; and "Treasure Makers," which explains how to recycle junk into usable items.
The crown jewel, though, is "Restore America With Bob Vila," airing Sundays at 10 p.m. In the series, Vila chronicles historic renovations throughout the country, not unlike his former job as host of "This Old House." This week's episode visits sites across California; next week's destination is Washington state.
Jablin is proud that HGTV, in its sixth season, has "gained enough stature that Bob Vila, who's never done a cable television show, chose to do this with us."
Meanwhile, Vila's "Home Again" series continues in syndication, airing Sundays at 11 a.m. on WJLA.
HGTV is building a new Knoxville, Tenn., production plant with studios not only for HGTV but for the Food Network and a new Do It Yourself channel, not yet on Washington-area cable services. The DIY Web site (www.diynet.com) offers directions and plans that correspond with the televised projects.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans spend a staggering $651 billion a year on home and garden projects. There is new enthusiasm for older urban neighborhoods, such as Dupont Circle and Capitol Hill in Washington. The District offers a $5,000 tax credit to first-time home buyers; and in August, the U.S. Senate passed a measure that would create a tax credit of up to $20,000 for the rehabilitation of homes in historic districts.
People spend money on improvements at home no matter how the economy is doing, Morash believes.
"It's inflation-proof, it's depression-proof, it's economy-proof," he said. "In many cases our most valuable possession is our house -- and if not the most valuable, it's what we worry about the most, what we care the most about, our most proud possession. Yet, unless you are a professional fixer-upper, nothing is clouded with as much mystery."
But the renovation projects on "This Old House" remain, for the majority of viewers, out of the question financially. The folks who have their houses redone on the series foot the bill for the project and the labor, but these are not people who worry about money.
Three seasons ago, a Microsoft employee who retired young wanted his Milton, Mass., house overhauled. Last year's transformation of a San Francisco church into a home included the addition of a private garage -- which meant altering the public street -- to the tune of $30,000. And last season's Key West house renovation had a budget of $300,000 -- after the purchase price.
"We've covered our share of upscale renovations," agreed Morash, "but we aren't even kissing distance to the top. I can't sell Formica cabinets to our clients. My beloved wife uses a five-year-old dishwasher from KitchenAid -- and that is considered middle of the road now, when the Swedes have this item that costs $1,200. So there's a higher level of expectation.
"Also, everything costs more. The other part of this is increased regulation, enhanced building codes unheard of in the history of America. You can't just go in today and apply for a $15 building permit and see the building inspector once or twice during the process -- they come back repeatedly to check on everything."
Morash admitted that the show hasn't featured enough city homes and hopes to do one next year in downtown Boston.
What does the future hold? As HGTV offers specialized programming, as well as instructions at its www.hgtv.com Web site, Morash looks beyond that:
"I think the day of broadcasting is nearing an end. And broadcasting will give way to programs on demand. Just as we use the Internet now to buy a washing machine or a camera, you will be able to find footage, possibly from my program, for you to note how it's done and what it costs and so forth. It will make this information even more useful."
Good thing Tim Taylor retired when he did -- otherwise he would never get a thing done.