COOKING shows are the newest recipe for TV success and profit.These shows tap into China's rich and varied cuisine, exploring new dishes, explaining ingredients, demonstrating techniques and recipes, and suggesting dishes and places to dine, both in China and around the country.
The shows are cheap and easy to produce, light-hearted and accessible to everyone, and there are many profitable spin-offs and by-products.
In Shanghai alone, around 10 cooking shows are broadcast, both local and produced by China Central Television and regional satellite TV channels.
And Chinese young people, who mostly grow up without having to cook for themselves, are taking a special interest.
Kevin Fan, a 30-something IT professional and a food enthusiast, gets tips for dining from these shows. He finds it fast, convenient and a good way to stay up to date with the latest food trends. He also picks up some easy recipes that he and his wife try at home.
"Food and emotions are tightly connected," Fan says. "Delicious food creates a sense of contentment and fulfillment. Making them on our own is more fun."
He and his wife are fans of "Hot and Scrumptious," which premiered in 2006, among others on Channel Young.
The five or so shows on that channel are among the most highly rated and popular among young professionals.
Last year, Channel Young food shows generated more than 150 million yuan (US$23.8 million) in advertising, and it's a huge growth area. Food TV ranks No. 1 in attracting advertisers, more than fashion and style shows. Food shows accounted for more than one-fourth of the channel's advertising revenue, according to director Bao Xiaoqun.
"Despite the economic slowdown, food shows still attract a lot of advertisers in the fields of condiments, sauces, kitchenware and beverages during the commercial breaks," Bao says. "The shows have a loyal fan base who are no less enthusiastic than fans for shows featuring stars and celebrities."
The rising popularity of food shows is attributed to China's rich food culture, the shows' light-hearted themes, flexible business model and low production budget. Cooking shows cost far less than entertainment shows featuring celebrities, according to Bao.
During the Spring Festival holiday, a Channel Young documentary series on food and travel titled "Delicacies on a Journey" drew considerable attention and many young people called it a practical guide for travel and dining. In each episode of "Delicacies," a veteran chef describes regional specialties and how food and culture influence each other. The chef also prepares his version of one specialty.
Another popular show is "The Food Trump Card," a weekly chef's competition on Channel Young. The average viewership rate over the past year was around 2 percent. According to producer Xu Nan, many housewives telephoned to ask where to buy hard-to-find fresh ingredients featured on the show. Seeing another commercial opportunity, Channel Young opened a food stall on the Nanjing Road Pedestrian Mall selling the ingredients featured on the show from around the country.
"Compared with other programs, food shows find it easier to develop flexible, varied and sustainable ways to generate revenue," Xu says. "Advertising is definitely not the only way to make money."
Xu says he is considering establishment of a local restaurant ratings system similar to the Michelin Guide. Points or stars would be awarded to local cuisine based on flavor, preparation, presentation and the originality and "personality" of the dish.
He then would hold an annual feast featuring some of the best dishes from around the city.
"Food shows offer a lot of business opportunities for both TV producers and restaurants and caterers," he says, noting that some shows offer dining coupons. He says the show cooperates with some restaurants in creating healthy dishes.
In many Western countries being a fine chef is an esteemed profession, like medicine or law, but in China chefs, even highly trained chefs, have low social status, Xu says. He hopes cooking shows will help change that perception.
Still, producing a successful food show is challenging.
"The difficulty lies in turning all these lifeless ingredients into vivid sequences that can stimulate the appetite," Xu says.
"Unlike foreigners, Chinese never focus on just the dish; they care a lot about the dining ambience. That means we have to demonstrate how popular these dishes can be, by showing crowds in restaurants and steaming aromatic dishes and cooking pots."
In addition to developing original shows, local TV producers want to bring successful foreign TV cooking shows to China. To attract local viewers the programs need to be localized and take Chinese taste and style into consideration.
On Dragon TV, the Chinese version of the hit cooking reality show "MasterChef" created by Franc Roddam will broadcast its final contest in early April. The winner gets one million yuan (US$160,183) to pursue his cooking career. The four top finalists will have a chance to take a nine-month course at the training centers of Le Cordon Bleu Hospitality Management and Culinary Arts Institute in France, the UK, Canada and Australia.
The first season debuted last year from July to October, and the second season is now running.
During the first season in 2012, Western food was the major theme, but now around 80 percent of the dishes that contestants must prepare are Chinese. The episodes are keyed to Chinese traditional festivals, folk culture and customs.
"All we have is a kitchen, not a stage, and that's a big challenge," says Yang Ping, producer of the Chinese version of "MasterChef."
There's no singing and dancing and the cooking process can be boring, long and tedious, so Yang says the show emphasizes the contestants' improvement, the fierce competition among them as well as the emotional stories behind some dishes.
The "MasterChef" franchise is produced in more than 35 countries and often earns at least US$100 million a season, Yang says.
Profit comes mainly from ads, product placement, chef training lessons and the opening of new restaurants.
"The Chinese version likewise has huge potential to develop by-products," she says, adding that the show is working on a practical cooking and recipe book.
China Central Television and regional television channels are also developing food programs.
'A Bite of China'
The second season of the hit documentary series "A Bite of China" produced by CCTV will finish shooting by the end of this year. Unlike the first season that focused on presenting regional dishes, the second season will provide audience interaction online and through microblogs. Viewers can recommend their favorites, share home recipes and cooking tips when the show is broadcast next year.
The Travel Channel's weekly food game show "Delicious Life" invites both celebrity and ordinary families to compete in a light-hearted contest.
Professor Wu Gang, a TV expert from East China Normal University, says people like food-related shows because they are accessible to everyone.
"Delicious cuisine is irresistible to almost everybody," Wu says. "These days very few young people are good at cooking, so these programs can generate interest in cooking and in China's food culture."
In food shows, it's always difficult to express flavor in words, so professional judges are essential and their comments are important, he says.
A long-standing favorite is "You Are the Chef," an English program launched on ICS in 2002, and still one of the most popular shows. Australian host Heidi Dugan gets together with a professional or a famous chef to discuss food and create attractive and mouth-watering dishes.
This year the program will not only host a cooking competition, but also launch a cooking class. Each month the program recruits audience members to participate in its cooking club and learn to prepare a dish with instructions from professionals or famous cooks in Shanghai. It's planning shows around Women's Day (March 8) and White Valentine's Day (March 14), highlighting romantic deserts and a steak set menu.
Another popular food-related program on ICS is the restaurant investigation show "Independent Inspector."
"A principle of our show is that every site must undergo a secret review by an anonymous inspector, a critic or gourmet in the field," says He Jian, the show's producer. "Their comments are never only positive. The audience is encouraged to get involved in the program by sending their recommendations of restaurants to be reviewed."
Major food shows broadcast in Shanghai
"Hot and Scrumptious" Channel Young, daily, 7pm
"The Food Trump Card" Channel Young, Saturdays, 7pm
"MasterChef" Dragon TV, Wednesdays and Thursdays, 10pm