tuck in n What chance does a new TV channel totally dedicated to food have of impressing the grocery industry with its positioning and viewing figures? Simon Mowbray reports on the plans at UK Food It's a tried and tested formula. New TV channel gets together a load of old broadcasts and recycles them for the viewers' pleasure once again. Funny thing is, it works, too, with UKTV among those to have built its reputation on such a gameplan. The station's immensely successful UK Gold, for example, is a leading light in the world of satellite and cable entertainment, attracting millions of viewers with a selection of telly favourites such as soaps and sitcoms from yesteryear. It may be money for old rope, but the company has put the initiative to good use, now running seven channels, (eight with UK Food) including the enduringly successful UK Drama and UK Style. In fact it was the latter, says UKTV chief executive Richard Emery, which inadvertently gave birth to the company's latest baby, UK Food, as viewers claimed they wanted more from the table than the modest 10% of food based items on the menu at Style. "Style has been an enormous success in the three years since launch but it contains very little food content, concentrating instead on home and garden," says Emery. "However, the food items were very popular and it got us thinking about dedicating a whole channel to food. "There was no food channel on the satellite platform so there was a gap in the market. We started researching the idea further and 12 months later we were in a position to present a proposition to Sky. "They were extremely positive about it and then the real work started in closing a deal for distribution." Those negotiations are now signed and sealed and the newcomer goes on air from noon on Monday, November 5, to almost six million homes via satellite and cable providers Sky and Telewest. The channel will not be on ITV Digital, but negotiations with cable giant NTL have the potential to open up a market of millions more viewers. However, no matter how many homes the newcomer has the potential to reach, the real question will be how many will be switching on. The key will also be how to hold on to them once they do. UKTV is confident it has the answers to both and insists that its mixture of old and new programming will win it a legion of loyal fans. After launch day, 12 hours of programming will be on offer from 7am to 7pm, seven days a week, including a daily one-and-a-half hour live show fronted by former TV-AM presenter Jeni Barnett from 12.30pm on weekdays. But despite the ambitious live show, Emery admits that much of the day's programming will initially be taken up with repeats borrowed from other channels, although the way UKTV is structured often puts it in a position to get the best of past programming. Set up three years ago as a joint commercial venture between Telewest's content division Flextech and the BBC, UKTV has first refusal on all BBC programming although it has to cough up the going rate for them and it does not have access to licence payers' money. Even so, in the world of re-runs, it often has the pick of the bunch and also bids for programmes from other terrestrial channels. Out of a £40m annual budget, less than half goes on commissioning new programmes. Already signed for the launch of UK Food are some seasoned favourites, including Jamie Oliver's The Naked Chef, Masterchef and Nigella Bites. But despite UKTV's successes with re-runs on its other channels, will this strategy really work on UK Food too? After all, many of Jamie's loyal fans will already have seen the series, bought the book, splashed out on the T-shirt. Emery is adamant it will. "The thing about satellite and cable TV is that you can't just have new programming because people won't find it," he says. "You have to entice viewers with programmes they already know and love and then give them something else on top. Another approach is bringing in American programming, but that is not what we are about." However, there are also new programmes which have been specially commissioned for UK Food and, on paper at least, they actually look rather good. They will also make up 50% of total programming in the long run, which is a significantly higher rate than on any other UKTV channel. This, it seems, is where the UKTV think tank may well have come up with some real winners. Pick of the bunch has to be Delhi Belly, presented by Goodness Gracious Me star Sanjeev Bhaskar who takes viewers on a spicy journey through the world of Indian cuisine. On location in Britain and India, Bhaskar explores how some of Britain's favourite Indian dishes made it to Blighty and how true they may or may not be to the original version. But it's not the only one with potential. Cupid's Dinners also looks a good bet to get viewers coming back for second helpings. This one sees three boys and three girls paired off to prepare a romantic dinner in a posh London penthouse apartment. But the real point of the voyeur-style show is for the audience to find out which couples find love and which ones simply can't stand each other. Channel editor Nick Thorogood, whose impressive pedigree includes producing Good Morning with Anne and Nick and working with US chat show host Jerry Springer on his UK projects, is confident that UK Food has the right mix of programmes to attract and keep viewers. "The fact that half of our programmes are being made for us gives us huge scope to try out things that are genuinely new and different," he says, before adding that the live programme could also become a hotbed for debate on the latest food issues. "If there's a food scare story like foot and mouth, BSE or salmonella in the morning's papers, we'll be asking what it all means for the consumer and trying to get to the bottom of it. "I hope that our live programme will be a forum where people will address the real issues about food and get some sensible answers. There will also be regular phone-ins and consumer news," he says. So, more than just a cookery channel then. But why should manufacturers and retailers, whom it is hoped will help the channel fill its legal maximum of nine minutes advertising in every hour on air, share the optimism and invest their cash? After all, the precedents aren't good. Sainsbury and media group Carlton's joint Taste TV initiative went belly up recently within months of launch, while the terrestrial channels already seem to be jam-packed with food programmes, especially the BBC, on which there are no marketing or advertising opportunities anyway. Carlton is soldiering on with its Food Network channel but it can hardly have relished its failed venture with Sainsbury. Emery insists that UK Food will be different. "For a start, we don't have a tie-up with a single sponsor," he says. "In Taste's case it was the tie-up with Sainsbury which immediately alienated all the other supermarkets. "We haven't done that and have no intention of doing so. But that doesn't mean there won't be opportunities for the right partners. For example, programme sponsorship is something we may be keen to look into." However, the timing isn't great, he admits, with advertisers clearly tightening their belts under the economic slowdown. "It's a strange period because advertising is not buoyant and that has affected us before launch. But in our experience these things change when our channels go on air and people get a feel for them." However, Emery insists UK Food is not only after the big corporate bucks and that there will also be opportunities for smaller advertisers who may not have the means to advertise on terrestrial channels. But before any order books are likely to be filled, Messrs Emery and Thorogood both have a more pressing matter to worry about ­ viewing figures. They know that how many bums you put on seats is what counts at the end of the day. That's likely to be what the grocery trade is waiting to see, too. n {{FEATURES }}