Food shows are the new staple of television, across languages and channels. With such a ‘hungry' audience, are we ready for 24-hour food channels? Shonali Muthalaly on the taste of things to come…

“Dear Sirs,

I really enjoy watching Highway On My Plate. Please convey my regards to both Rocky and Mayur… Please keep a check on their cholesterol levels too. Also, I would like to invite Rocky and Mayur to my house in Goregaon (East). My mom prepares some of the best Chicken Sukha, Kori-Roti, Dal and Rice and one of the best Medu Wadas (Mangalorean style) and even Malpuas. Here is my address… ”

Letter from Ashwin Poojari to NDTV Good Times.

“I think Indians are more passionate about food than anyone in the world,” says Rocky Singh, who, along with Mayur Sharma, hosts ‘Highway On My Plate' (HOMP) on NDTV Good Times. “My grandfather would divert his car 30 km just to pick up a sweet he loved. That's 60 km up and down… Food evokes a deep subliminal response among us.”

Indians are getting increasingly involved with television food shows and their hosts. Over the past decade, viewer demographics in India have changed drastically, expanding far beyond devoted homemakers studiously attempting their first beetroot cutlets. Food programmes are elbowing cinema-based shows, news and reality TV out of the way. The MasterChef television cooking game show franchise is the most obvious example. Saurabh Yagnik, General Manager and Senior VP, English Channels, Star India Pvt. Ltd., says, “MasterChef Australia has been one of the most popular shows on our channel.” He says the first two seasons broke all records for the prime time 9 p.m. slot and went on to become the number one reality show on an English GEC (General Entertainment Channel).

“Masterchef picked up popularity almost immediately when it started two years ago The TRPs are pretty good. Also the amount of sponsorship it's generating,” says Sujata Dev, Co-chairperson of the Media and Entertainment Committee, ASSOCHAM (Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India.) A trend watcher, she states that while food shows are definitely increasing, this is still a fragmented market. Not the best environment for a 24-hour channel on food. “That will take two or three years. Programming will be important. How interactive can it be? Can you get a recipe on demand? Can you find the ingredients? The little things matter. In the US, you can watch a show and place an order for home-delivery of the ingredients.”

Changes have, after all, come with disconcerting rapidity. In 1980, we just had Doordarshan. Hong Kong-based Star TV introduced five new channels in 1992. Now, there are 500 channels in India, and another 100 waiting to go live, followed by the launch of HD channels, according to a recent report by Deloitte Haskins & Sells.

Growth ahead

Today, there are about 125 food shows across channels, all fighting for their piece of the pie, states a report by Wharton Marketing. It adds that, according to TAM (Television Audience Measurement) data collated by Zee TV, the average Indian viewer spends eight minutes per day watching some form of cooking show. Since the Indian television Industry is growing steadily it stands to reason that food-based progamming will grow, provided it find ways to stay relevant in a rapidly changing environment.

Much of the current enthusiasm has been fuelled by imported shows. Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific launched TLC (formerly Discovery Travel & Living) in 2004, introducing the country to a slew of famous hosts and Chefs, from Antony Bourdain to Jamie Oliver. Rajiv Bakshi, Vice President Marketing - South Asia, Discovery Networks Asia Pacific, says “food programming is in the DNA of TLC”. Stating that their dedicated food programme band – Chew! has been a “runaway success”, he says “cuisine is an integral part of lifestyle programming.” Bakshi says they launch more than 10 food series every year.

Deepak Shourie, Director, BBC Worldwide Channels, South Asia, says their ‘Good Food' block, which airs on weekdays from 12 noon, is among the top performing series on BBC Entertainment. In an attempt to provide programming that is fresh and provocative, BBC is introducing shows like Boys' Weekend, combining travel, food and reality programming in one glossy package. Stating that food is currently “a popular genre for both programming and viewership,” Shourie says the Good Food block is being extended by one hour, and will soon premiere ‘A Taste of My Life' and ‘Hairy Bikers Ride Again'.

Meanwhile, Indian producers and hosts have a steadily increasing influence. Chef Sanjeev Kapoor, host of ‘Khana Khazhana', which began in 1993 and is India's longest running show on TV, is one of the country's best known faces. His simple, instructional, studio format is a world away from most of today's food programmes which almost rival Bollywood dance sequences with their fanciful settings and exotic locales. He says his success is “because of the simplicity. Audiences connect with me as a teacher-next-door.”

Kapoor says food-related TV became especially popular over the last two or three years, which is why he decided to launch ‘ FOODFOOD', his 24-hour food channel. “There was never a lack in demand, it was rather that the supply was not there,” he says, “We are always a bit scared to do something new.” FOODFOOD turns one in January 2012. “We reach over 70 per cent of the TV viewing market in India. Is the country ready? I say that we are just a few years late. There is no competition as such in this particular area… once a food show or a recipe starts, people put down their remotes, take a note book and pen in their hands and watch.”

It's not just about recipes. “FOODFOOD is a food and lifestyle channel. We estimate 50-50 per cent men and women viewership across 40 million households.” Hence, programming is widely varied: Besides Sanjeev Kapoor's ‘Kitchen', there's ‘Firangi Tadka', ‘Health Maange More'and ‘Filmi Dabba,' a peek into lunch packs of Bollywood stars. “We are in the process of creating our own brand of celebrity chefs ,” says Kapoor, “There was a vacuum which is now being filled.”

He says that his shows get more viewers than most international shows because they are tailored for Indian audiences. The Indian market appreciates unpretentious, unfussy programming. Despite its deadly blend of histrionics and Bollywood, ‘MasterChef India' hasn't had anything close to the effect of the Australian, and now American, versions. On the other hand, innovative, home-grown shows like HOMP have created a large, loyal pool of diehard fans. Rocky says they're constantly getting e-mails from viewers inviting them home to dinner. He and Mayur were originally hired by NDTV Good times for one season in 2007. “We were told to keep ourselves free for a month and half. This is our fifth year!” says Rocky. He adds, “The concept of India is becoming relevant in people's minds. There's a huge interest in the food. And the food in India is fantastic. Even the most basic Indian kitchen has between 10 to 15 spices.” Their first book, based on the show — Book Highway On My Plate: The Indian Guide To Roadside Eating has sold 30,000 copies and is on it's 8th print run. “In Kohima, Nagaland, we were stopped every 1,000 yards for pictures. The same thing happened in the Rann of Kutch.”

Broad appeal

Homemakers are not the only audience. With their combination of macho ruggedness and exotic glamour, food-based programmes are tailored to cut across sex, age and geography. They are aspirational, combining cuisine and lifestyle for the new India, where Spanish tapas are as likely to be served at cocktail parties as mini samosas. With recipes available on the Internet and cooking methods demonstrated on You Tube, producers and hosts have to find ways to create unique products that draw viewers, and stand out from the clutter.

Model-turned-Chef Aditya Bal's hook is his combination of charm and earnestness. With ‘Chakh Le India', he travels to unexplored, forgotten pockets of the country. Indian viewers have an undying interest in simple, accessible food — on the streets and in homes. After over 100 episodes, Aditya says he's still surprised by the enthusiasm. “I wasn't anticipating this kind of reception… people even watch the repeats!”

He says ‘Chakh Le India' is popular because it's both a travel and a food guide. “It's leisurely. It's relaxing. It's nice to watch something apolitical in this day and age,” he states. Shows like this change the way people cook, and eat. “They become more experimental with their own food — step out of their comfort zones.” As for the competition? “It's going to grow. That doesn't worry me — there's enough space. I have been travelling three years in India and there's still a lot more to cover.”

Of course, every local channel also has its clutch of food stars. Chef Jacob Sahaya Kumar Aruni, who hosts ‘Aaha Enna Rusi' on Sun TV, says that it was tough to find a niche. “There is so much competition, Mallika Badrinath's very respected, and there's the popular ‘Sunday Samyal', in which an old lady cooks and sings,” he says. His solution was to take his cameras and kadais outside. “I was inspired by Antony Bourdain and Keith Floyd.” When no one was willing to take the risk, he decided to fund the ‘Aaha Enna Rusi' himself, taking a bank loan. “People were watching TLC, and saying “why isn't anyone doing Indian regional food. There's so much variety.”

He's now become famous as the man who cooks on trees. “I climbed a coconut tree and made a mutton curry on top. A tree climber helped us, and the camera man was on a neighbouring tree,” he says, adding with all seriousness that each recipe is connected to the respective tree. “On a mango tree I made Prawn Mango Chettinad.” He's also cooked in a river, made fish curry in a fish market and cooked prawns in a boat. “By the third week TRPs were double what was expected. By the 6th we were reaping profits.” This also means he's become a celebrity chef. “My privacy is totally gone. People come forward and bless me on the roads,” he chuckles, “They say, be careful when climbing those trees!” Though what makes him really happy are the cooks he inspires. “Viewers write to me and say, if I show them a recipe on Saturday, it will be their Sunday lunch.”