Prime time slots are crowded with foppish designers, avuncular engineers, opinionated architects and diabolical builders. We find out what the attraction is, what the programmes are like, how they've changed the perception of building – and how you, too, can get your phizog on the box.
These days, Britain's couch potatoes are spoilt for choice when it comes to building projects to gawk at. A quick glance at your television listings will tell you that programmes related to construction and architecture are as popular with television executives as cooking shows were a couple of years ago and wildlife documentaries a decade ago.

Aside from the stream of home makeover shows and exposés of rogue builders, there are also in-depth investigations like Grand Designs and historical studies of buildings and architectural styles. Next week a BBC series entitled "Restoration" will attempt to give buildings the ephemeral fame of Big Brother contestants, with viewers invited to vote to save one of 30 identified by English Heritage as at risk. And next year, an even more ambitious programme entitled (inevitably) The Regeneration Game will investigate the process of restoring life to the rundown town of Castleford in West Yorkshire.

So why have buildings and construction suddenly become prime-time viewing? "Everyone uses buildings, so people can relate to them," says RIBA press officer Abigail Scott Paul. "Architecture is about form, so it looks good on television. And producers like process, where you can see things happening. So seeing how houses and other buildings get designed and built fulfils quite a lot of their requirements."

The televisual qualities of the built environment are not lost on the channels and their producers. Channel 4 has taken a particular interest in design-related shows, as its director of programmes, Tim Gardham, explained in this year's RIBA annual lecture in April. "In architecture, television finds a terrain that is absorbing and enriching," he said. "Television is very good at the evocation of scale – a building, a landscape, a dramatic moment – and at showing the intricacy of how something works. Good television thinks big, but deals in details."

But if all sectors of the building industry – except perhaps quantity surveying and construction management – are basking in unprecedented coverage, producers seem habitually to typecast some sectors as villains and others as heroes.

The Stirling Prize has done us nothing but good, and it has been watched by an increasing number of people each year

Tim Gardham, Channel 4 director of programmes

Top of the pops are architects, now fully absolved of being brutalist dictators. Indeed, since 2000, they have rejoiced in their own Oscars, the Stirling Prize, which is be staged by Channel 4 in Bristol in October. And in most, though not all, programmes about completed buildings, such as Grand Designs, the architect is portrayed as their prime creator.

The RIBA is only too happy to help producers set up programmes. So much so that in 2000 it created a broadcasting advice panel and devised a marketing strategy.

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"We progressed from being reactive to being proactive," says Roula Konzotis, the RIBA's communications director. "We sold the idea of the Stirling Prize to Channel 4. We argued that architecture was worthy of an equivalent to the Turner Prize for art and the Booker Prize for literature, which were both widely broadcast."

And the Stirling Prize has brought dividends for Channel 4, too. "It has done the channel nothing but good; it has been watched by an increasing number of people each year – more than I ever imagined – and has helped define the sense of social purpose that has to underpin Channel 4," said Gardham in his RIBA lecture. In other words, architecture is regarded by the Independent Television Commission, which Channel 4 has to keep sweet, as a good cause.

Round the corner from the RIBA at Portland Place, the atmosphere at the Construction Confederation headquarters on New Cavendish Street is much gloomier. "The past 18 months have been a rough ride for the building industry," says communications director Kurt Calder. "All the programmes about rogue builders have tarnished the building industry.