Indian television has found a new script. After a staple diet of cinema-based programs, family entertainment and reality shows, viewers are now getting a taste of channels dedicated solely to food.

In the past few months, three dedicated food channels have launched; each with the premise of offering entertainment centered on all things edible. “Given that India is a nation of three billion-plus meals a day, it is a foregone conclusion that food is a center-stage item in the country and deserves the kind of coverage it is getting,” notes Harish Bijoor, a brand strategy specialist and visiting professor at the Indian School of Business  in Hyderabad.

Ritu Dalmia, a celebrity chef who hosts her own show, Pressure Cooker, on NDTV Good Times, a lifestyle channel launched in 2007, points out that food shows are among the most popular in India and the world over. “There is a ready audience of homemakers that wants to watch these channels,” she says.

According to Prashant Agarwal, joint managing director at Wazir Consultants, a retail consultancy firm, the audience for food TV is much wider. “Conversations among executives who travel around the world inevitably include snatches of who ate what and where, [creating] an opportunity for food channels to offer the experience of the internationally-acclaimed chefs to the local populace.”

Indian television is no stranger to food-centric programming. Among the first really popular series was Khana Khazana (loosely translated, a treasure or treasury of food) introduced 17 years ago by Zee TV. Hosted by chef Sanjeev Kapoor, the show became a great hit. Riding on the popularity of the show, Kapoor went on to become the most celebrated face of Indian cuisine. Kapoor now has a food channel of his own.

But why has it taken so long for dedicated food channels to find their way to Indian audiences? “The onset of digital television and direct-to-home television is now rapidly changing the way TV is being consumed in the country,” notes Rajiv Bakshi, vice-president of marketing for India at Discovery Networks, which started airing cuisine-based shows on Indian television in 2004. “The cost of technology is declining for consumers, so it makes it possible for broadcasters to serve audiences niche channels at a cost-effective rate.”

There are socio-economic reasons, too. With rising affluence in India, there is growing aspiration for a better lifestyle. Food, which has always been central in Indian society, is finding newer expressions. This is reflected in myriad ways: new products from food and beverage companies; an increasing number of restaurants, including a slew of global food chains; high-end grocery stores offering a premium shopping experience and wider availability of exotic foreign food.

“Food is now more than just a basic item or a processed, packaged and aggressively branded product or service [in restaurants]. It has gone beyond [that],” Bijoor says. “Many of us eat more with our eyes than with our mouths. It is this socio-physical reality that is spurring food channels forward. A big chunk of people who watch these channels are of an older age profile. The point is simple: If you cannot eat it all anymore, salivate and watch it being made and eaten.”

The first dedicated food channel has come from the Zee stable. Going by the same name as the country’s most popular food show, Khana Khazana, the channel was launched in December 2010. “Being the undisputed leader in the food genre for the past 17 years [we felt] it was high time to take a step ahead and therefore we launched India’s first 24-hour food channel,” notes Anurag Bedi, business head of Zee Khana Khazana.

What’s on the Menu?

Apart from the reruns of Khana Khazana episodes and original Indian content, Zee’s food channel airs international shows like The Hairy Bikers’ Cookbook, Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is, Ching’s Kitchen and Chopping Block.

But Khana Khazana wasn’t alone on the table for long. Barely a month later, in January 2011, chef Kapoor launched his own food channel in association with Malaysia’s Astro Television. Called Food Food, Kapoor launched the network with much fanfare, even appointing former Bollywood superstar Madhuri Dixit as the channel’s lifestyle ambassador.

According to Kapoor, who owns restaurant chains Yellow Chilli, Options and Sanjeev Kapoor’s Khazana, “Food in India is synonymous with entertainment; people meet and bond over food and discussions over places one can go and eat. All our celebrations center on food. My channel therefore offers an ultimate lifestyle destination for Indian foodies who want to make some quick, easy, balanced meals, as well learn about interesting world cuisines. It has been my dream of having a channel like this ever since I started my career.”

The third channel in this category is Food First from Real Global Broadcasting, part of the Alva Brothers group of companies. The group includes Miditech, a 17-year-old television and film production company regarded as one of the pioneers of reality TV shows in India. Alva Brothers launched Real TV as a general entertainment channel a couple years ago, but the channel was not successful. The company is now hoping to fare better with its food channel and also plans to launch dedicated channels in other genres.

Channel heads claim that their niche food channels have had an enthusiastic response. “Ours is a subscription-based channel available only on digital networks. Despite this, within a month of launch we had over 100,000 subscribers and this number has been increasing steadily,” says Bedi of Zee. Bedi, however, is tight-lipped about the current number of subscribers. Declining to give any numbers, Kapoor, too, says that the response to his channel has been overwhelming.

Industry observers, however, point out that these channels will not have it easy. There are around 125 food shows across all the existing 450-plus channels that are also fighting for their piece of the pie. 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. Attracting and holding the viewers’ attention will not be a cakewalk.

A case in point is the much hyped MasterChef India, a culinary competition series based on the U.K. and Australian formats. The show, hosted by Bollywood mega star Akshay Kumar (who was a chef before his acting career took off), did not live up to its promise. “The show was less about food and more about getting the drama and histrionics right,” chef Dalmia notes. “I believe that’s why it did not connect with the audience.” Others say that the show was a poor copy of the original and simply failed to entertain.

With histrionics and Bollywood failing to tickle the palate, what are the ingredients that will hook the viewers? Industry players are betting on the combination of strong content and a generous dose of entertainment. Pointing out that recipes can easily obtained from cookbooks and food magazines, Bakshi says to survive in this genre, “the channel owners will have to come out with entertaining content.”

Kapoor believes in following the global trend: “Food channels abroad started off by being focused on food. Now they have veered more toward lifestyle. At Food Food, along with food shows we will also have game shows, travel shows, reality shows and lifestyle shows [based around] food. We will keep making original programs stressing quality of content.”

Not Always a Sweet Deal

Until now, niche channels have had a mixed run in India. Industry observers say that the most popular among these are the news channels, followed by some religious channels. “The Indian viewer can never be glued to one channel or even one type of channel. Channels dedicated to say, science and technology, are likely to have limited success,” according to Ashesh Jani, a partner at Deloitte Haskins & Sells.

Jani, though, is optimistic about the prospects of food channels. He notes that these channels are entering the landscape at a time when the Indian television industry is growing at a strong rate. According to the PricewaterhouseCoopers Indian Entertainment and Media Outlook 2010, the Indian television industry stood at US$5.5 billion in 2009 and is expected to grow to US$10.1bilion by 2014, a compound annual growth rate of around 13%. Jani notes that if the food channels can whip up an interesting menu of program offerings, they can partake of this growth. “There is more scope for these channels to succeed as opposed to general entertainment channels,” he says.

The key for food channels lies in their ability to attract advertisers. Kapoor explains the business model: “Food channels create a category. Then they are monetized via advertisement sales, subscription revenues and sponsorships. Such specialty channels give advertisers a playground to park their funds.”

The PricewaterhouseCoopers report notes that the food and beverages category accounts for around 14% of the advertising on television. ISB’s Bijoor points out that in India, there are more than 21,000 brands of foods and beverages. “Therefore, it is obvious that these [food] channels will be able to attract the attention of targeted and focused marketers,” he says. Zee’s Bedi adds that technology has eased the process of cooking and a lot of cooking equipment is available in the market, but lacks visibility. “These channels are a good platform for showcasing the salient features of such products,” Bedi says. “From table salt to the oven, everything is an advertising opportunity here.”

The interest of advertisers in a particular channel depends on its popularity with viewers, which drives higher advertisement revenues in terms of volume and rates. While promoters of the food channels are unwilling to share information regarding investment figures and break-even, analysts estimate that the investments required by these channels is in the range of US$15-20 million and that they will take around four-five years to achieve break-even.

According to Bijoor, the main challenges ahead for food networks “would be the ability to stand out from the clutter of other channels, the ability to create new properties that are unique and the ability to churn up celebrity chefs.”