DIY shows get top ratings but it's the 'Omigod-what-have-they- done-to-my-house' factor that keeps the viewers watching, says Emma Cook
While design snobs may sneer at the merest mention of rag rolling or, quelle horreur, stencilling, popular television has embraced such industrious activities with gusto. You can't turn on the TV these days, it seems, without some effervescent presenter telling you how to achieve sponge-effect duck-egg blue floorboards with half a can of old car paint, or a trompe-l'oeil mosaic out of a bit of silver foil and a couple of loo rolls - all for under a tenner.

This January the ever-popular series Changing Rooms, where two teams transform each other's houses in 48 hours with a pounds 500 budget, returns for a third run. Nestling snugly somewhere towards the top of the BBC's ratings for consumer programmes - it was even ahead of This Life at one point - it is now switching from BBC2 to a new BBC 1 prime slot. House and Gardens it clearly ain't, but that may be just one reason why the programme does so well. Just as popular television skillfully demystified the once esoteric art of haute cuisine, so interior design on the small screen now seems as simple as sticky-back plastic.

Following the "Here's-one-I-prepared-earlier" formula, the BBC seems prepared to run an ever-expanding roster of similar programmes with suitably plucky titles such as Change That, which is intended to "Inspire viewers to jazz up their junk and transform the tatty and tired into timeless treasures." In the run up to Christmas, Good Living saw Jane Asher giving tips on such things as how to transform a house into a Christmas grotto. Home Front tackles such challenges as mosaics made easy and how to produce a four-poster bed in a weekend. Channel 5 is catching on with its DIY games show Period Rooms, in which couples have to rush around at dizzying speed converting a spartan studio room into an authentic Edwardian kitchen or a Victorian doctor's study.

These programmes may brim over with handy hints but that's not what makes some of them such good viewing. Forget the rarefied settings of Conran, Space and Wallpaper and enter the arguably more satisfying world contained in an episode of Changing Rooms. Instead of feeling inadequate because you'll never get you're hands on an original Knoll table, you can feel smugly complacent watching some neighbour stencilling a wild cherry frieze on their hapless mate's sitting-room wall or covering kitchen surfaces in silver foil.

As Michelle Ogundehin, features director at Elle Deco, says, "I find the programmes quite fascinating. But I can't really believe everybody watches them for aspirational reasons. It's a sort of snapshot of popular culture and an excuse to have a peek inside other people's houses. It taps into an innate nosiness in all of us." Linda Clifford, executive producer of Changing Rooms agrees. "We all like to look inside each other's houses." So much so, she's busily working on a new series for ITV in January called House Hunters in which contestants view three different properties on the market and then estimate their asking prices.

Not that it's a particularly new formula. Caroline Atkins, editor of House Beautiful, believes that television has successfully lifted an approach that magazines have relied on for years. "We deal with real people's homes in the way that television is now starting to. It used to be terribly elitist. House Beautiful went out to reach the ordinary homeowner who doesn't have an Adam's fireplace hidden away behind the plaster," she explains. Ten years ago she was working on Homes and Gardens. "There, it was all about design tricks for the cognoscente, if you like. Now, they wouldn't touch rag-rolling with a barge pole - or a roller. But when we started House Beautiful, techniques like that were all completely new to our readers." Television shows such as Change That and Changing Rooms are taking them to an even wider audience.

As well as fulfilling that endlessly successful Blue Peter-meets-The Generation Game criteria, home-centred programmes reflect deeply Nineties concerns. More so than the televisual interest in cookery, which tends to assume that the viewer will be entertaining many other guests. Home improvement and decor, on the other hand, is a more introverted, rather less interactive occupation.

Ogundehin describes it as a form of cocooning. "It's about seeing the home as retreat because people are so stressed out at work. It's concerned with what's going on inside your four walls. It's less about keeping up with the Jones and more to do with the inside of your home." Clifford agrees. "Maybe it is people turning in on themselves to enhance their life. Also, after the Eighties, people got scared of moving properties - they want to stay in one place and make those surroundings as pleasant as possible."

The self-conscious Nineties involves more than a lick of paint and a trip to Sainsbury's Home Base. In January, Channel 5 are taking the whole "house as haven" theme one step further with HouseBusters, which will combine interiors with - it was only a matter of time - New Age wisdom. A team of psychics and Feng Shui specialists will peek behind the doors of some of Britain's problem homes, advising occupants where to position furniture and how to keep bad spirits at bay (garlic by windows).

It's hard to imagine it encroaching on the success of Changing Rooms, probably because it won't replicate the schadenfreude factor that truly appeals. That compelling moment, for example, when Carol Smillie guides a couple into what was once a neutral, off-white sitting room only to find it transformed into faux 19th-century country manor house, complete with pastoral wall paintings. "Do you know how much I paid to have these walls smoothed down?" joked a recent contestant, while his wife screamed with surprise at the sight of so much rustic Tuscan-style rag-rolling. "It's the 'Oh-my- God-what-have-they-done?' factor," enthuses Clifford. "It's getting people to react to lilac, for instance, and how it looks on their wall." As far as the viewer is concerned, the more "distressed" the reaction, the better.