Glimpses of the Good Life Flood Airwaves

If you're craving the "champagne wishes and caviar dreams" of 1980s television you'll likely find comfort in the lineup of current shows modeled after Robin Leach's Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

MTV has Cribs, which takes viewers through music stars' not-so-humble abodes. E! boasts Celebrity Homes; A&E has House Beautiful. And Home and Garden Television offers the At Home With ... specials about star's houses, as well as thematic programs like TV Moms at Home, Soap Pads and Model Homes.

Across cable airwaves, producers and programmers are satisfying viewers' insatiable curiosity for how the other half lives.

"In a very basic way, these voyeuristic reality shows play off one of TV's biggest strengths: The ability to take people places they can't otherwise go," said Adam Buckman, television columnist for the New York Post.

It certainly helps that celebrities have realized it's a savvy career move to let fans into their lives. Take the craze over The Osbournes, which originated as an episode of Cribs.

And the list of stars letting the public in has grown. Models like Frederique, Beverly Johnson and Madison Michele all appeared on HGTV's Model Homes special; sitcom actresses like Seinfeld's Estelle Harris and The Jeffersons' Isabel Sanford were featured on the channel's TV Moms at Home. Cribs has starred Mariah Carey, Babyface and Tommy Lee, among others.

The turbulent economic times seem to fuel the obsession with the superrich — and the popularity of shows about them.

"It's interesting to see how other people with more money than me live," said Joseph D., 30, who asked that only his last initial be used. "I want to see what it's like on the other side. I'm addicted." He watches celebrity-home programs at least once a week.

And although the prosperous '90s are gone, some people are still hopeful that the opulence they see on the tube is within their reach.

"It's motivation," said Cristina Barden, a store planner from New York who watches some of the programs. "People look at it and go, 'That's what I'm going to do with mine some day.' It's validation of the American dream."

Economics also factor into programmers' decisions to air these shows, since they tend to be popular and relatively cheap to produce.

"It's a formula for success," Buckman said. "Television today more than ever is looking for inexpensive shows that will score high in the ratings."

Experts and viewers say the appeal of the shows extends beyond the fascination with celebrity culture — and into the current obsession with Home, Sweet Home.

"Domesticity is hot," said Buckman. "Home improvement is one of the biggest consumer segments right now. It's insane."

It's especially captivating to see how those rolling in the dough do it. The house-tour shows provide that window.

"They allow us to see what millions of dollars can buy," Buckman said. "And if you've ever been involved in home renovations, it's extremely interesting to see how people tile their bathrooms, arrange their kitchen cabinets and landscape the grounds."

HGTV chooses stars who have been intricately involved in the interior design of their houses so that viewers can come away with decorating ideas they can apply themselves.

"Our approach is a little different: We tour the home and hear their design philosophies," said Michael Dingley, senior vice president of programming at HGTV. "We try to have some sort of takeaway for the viewer."

He remembers one show in which a film director watched how houseguests moved around his living room and then arranged the furniture to accommodate the natural flow of people traffic.

"You think, 'What a great idea,'" Dingley said. "Our network is all about providing viewers with inspiration and information pertaining to the home and garden. This is just another vehicle."

Part of the draw is undoubtedly escapism — and exposure to all the wild home design options and technologies that megabucks can buy.

Celebrities have shown off eye-popping features like rooftop swimming pools with breathtaking ocean views, outdoor kitchens, shower heads with waterfall-style cascades, beds with retractable TV consoles, and dressing rooms large enough to section off clothes by type or color (Mariah Carey has one).

"It must be nice, let me tell you," said Barden. "'Calgon take me away' to the nth degree."