Food has always been an interesting topic of conversation. But till recently, barring the odd recipe page or TV programme, the media wasn't too sold on the concept. The rage of today is a far cry from the '90s when a Tarla Dalal or Nita Mehta cookbook could be spotted on bookstore shelves or a 30-minute Khana Khazana could be seen on Zee. In December, last year, Khana Khazana launched itself as a 24-hour food channel.
"Even as we speak," says Anurag Bedi, business head, Zee Khana Khazana, "there are more than 125 food shows across all television channels in India." Two other dedicated food channels like FoodFood (a venture between the Malaysia-based Astro All Asia Networks and Turmeric Vision, TVPL, the TV company owned by Sanjeev Kapoor and his wife, Alyona) and Real Global Broadcasting's Food First, were launched in quick succession early this year.
What has triggered this extensive discussion of food as a genre? Especially, when it doesn't guarantee that advertising revenue will follow.
Hunger, the best sauce.
People want to know more about cuisines, recipes, nightlife, food promotions, alcohol and parties. "They want to know about everything that satiates their hunger for information related to food and gives them the options to splurge better," says Sumit Goyal, editor-in-chief, Food and Nightlife Magazine.
The increasing power of affluent youth, a change in lifestyle and the rising upper middle class families who have the money to spend are influencing the desire to know more about food and related its trends. "The increase in nuclear families in urban India has been a factor, too," observes Prabhakar, head, CMS Media Lab, a Delhi-based agency that monitors content across media. "Indians are hospitable and take extra care to make sure that the guests have been served the best - and a large variety - of good food," he says.
Food is competing with cinema and cricket as an entertainment option. "Food has become experimental. It has discovered fusion," says Karthik Lakshminarayan, COO, FoodFood. As the middle class' earning power rose, dining out became an inseparable part of their lifestyle. It provided people the opportunity to enjoy whatever limited leisure time they had in their hectic life with their families. They also wanted to know about as many options as possible.
The rise of the mall culture, expansion of tourism and the growth of restaurants exposed Indians to the culinary delights that lay across the state - and national - borders. "When information on all subjects is exploding around us and so much specialised media is created and consumed - why would food, our most basic need, be left behind?" asks Mythili Chandrasekar, senior vice-president and executive planning director, JWT.
According to a white paper released by NRAI - the National Restaurant Association of India (in 2010) - the Indian restaurant industry is growing at a rate of 5-6 per cent. The revenue is estimated to be Rs 43,000 crore (organised and unorganised). Specialist outlets have opened up everywhere. The menu on the table speaks Lebanese and Chinese, among a liberal sprinkling of other cuisines, both global and regional. Once their taste buds are kindled, people are curious to learn more about a particular kind of food. "This curiosity pushes consumers onto various media platforms. It also influences media to craft out specialised content that can feed consumer demand," says Juhi Dua, online editor, Femina.in.
As entire families flew in and out of newer pastures, the adventure included gastronomical exploration too. Says Ashwini Yardi, head programming, Colors, "They experiment and experience new cuisines and look at ways to relive them back at home." This influences them to explore the media space to know more leading to a push in food as content across platforms.
As people started swearing by globally popular shows such as Keith Floyd's cooking shows on BBC and Martin Yan's Yan Can Cook, the conventional stereotyped definition of food changed to something adventurous and exciting.
Out of the closet
Food left the kitchen and moved into living rooms. From brief cookery episodes on programmes like Surabhi (a cultural show on Doordarshan) back in the '80s, Zee took this category to new heights.
In 1993, it launched Khana Khazana with Sanjeev Kapoor - India's earliest celebrity chef. It became one of the longest-running shows (19 years and 900 shows) on Indian television. Avers Paritosh Joshi, CEO, STAR CJ Network India, "TV added new layers of possibilities. Men began to enter the kitchen." According to Bedi of Zee Khana Khazana, an average Indian woman spends three hours cooking and an average TV viewer watches food shows for eight minutes every day.
The genre underwent an evolution in format too. Food on TV was no longer restricted to just stand-and-stir shows. There was street food, restaurant-oriented, regional-oriented, religion-specific and festival-specific formats that cropped up one after the other. Channels were on their toes with fresh ideas as quickly as possible.
Colors, for instance, has launched the fourth edition of its food reality show, Kitchen Champion, with celebrity chef Gauti. Shopping channel STAR CJ Alive is not just selling products that include kitchen appliances but also explaining the usage of such products through cooking. International formats such as Hell's Kitchen, Top Chef and Masterchef Australia have served to heighten interest. "The shows carry the essential flamboyance of food programming," says Joshi. Channels such as TLC bring alive the food experience right from the market place through shows like Rachel Allen's Bake and Nigella Feasts. Indian TV channels are slowly beginning to discover this art.
So much food, so few ads
Food-oriented media platforms face an unusual problem when it comes to ad revenues. One hardly sees much media spend in this niche. According to estimates, the food category (including ready-to-cook foods and masalas) spends just Rs 65-80 crore on advertising. Add noodles and that figure goes up by Rs 35 crore. Figures for retail food outlets' and restaurants' advertising are not available. But the restaurant business, for instance, is local and restaurants would hardly advertise on global platforms. So, what sustains the media that specialises in food as its primary content?
The organised F&B sector is worth Rs 20,000 crore. Some observers believe that the huge potential for food-based content across various media platforms will only attract more advertisers as food producers and providers need space for branding. "The more the category is talked about, the more it will occupy top-of-mind space among consumers. Eventually, this will translate the category from a regional and local to a national conversation," says Rameet Arora, senior director, marketing, McDonald's India.
Food has a wider target group compared to categories like fashion or lifestyle. Ad revenues will come from conventional advertising by brands targeting 25+ females. The category lends itself to product placements, since almost 50-60 per cent programming is based in a kitchen set.
Food shows on a channel command undivided attention from the viewer and are 'sticky'. The viewer is in 'learning mode' and is open to information. She (or he) also tries to emulate the professional chef on TV in the hope of achieving similar results at home. "Any recommendation from the 'food guru' is naturally accepted. Therefore, placement on a food channel becomes a seamless fit," says Lakshminarayan of FoodFood.
Industry players believe that ad revenues for print, especially in the long term, would be similar to a fashion glossy. This is because the reader who picks up a glossy to know how to look good would also read a food glossy to know how to eat right and where to do so. "It makes for a clutter-free environment to gain high RoI," says Goyal.
The web's biggest advantage is that it can create a direct connection with the consumer. "A significant populace embraces new media and web-based networking to search for ideas for eating out 'recipes' in terms of search show a steady climb," points out Manisha Tripathi, business head, Real Global Broadcasting.
The hunger will grow
Food as content is set to spread its wings further. "Cooking is an intimate art. The challenge is to make it as engaging, interactive and entertaining," says Arora.
This could be an uphill task, especially for TV. While international formats can be introduced, they have to be adapted and modified to adhere to Indian tasks. The West and India are poles apart. Literal adaptations of formats can prove to be dangerous. Cracking the right format can only lead to more action in this theatre.