THREE months after its much publicised launch, Channel 5 hit the headlines again in May, this time for its record 5 million viewing figures for the England/Poland World Cup qualifier. But, as we all know, this hasn’t been typical for the channel which has been plagued with tuning-in difficulties and an average 2.7 per cent viewing share. Against this background, how is its colourful identity and branding standing up in this crowded marketplace?
Channel 5 may be the fifth terrestrial channel in the UK, but it still has to compete with dozens of cable and satellite channels, each with its own branding. In this respect, TV is becoming more like the supermarket shelf, where standout and “shelf shout” are critical to success. Just like a fmcg (fast moving consumer goods) brand, Channel 5, through its promotional campaign, and the pre-launch use of its identity, had to encourage trial. On-screen the identity had to stand out as something different and convey to the viewer the spirit of its programming.
The Channel 5 logo, designed by Wolff Olins, with the 5 sitting in a circle, a colour palette of five bars, and simple, clean typographic approach, underpins its positioning of “modern mainstream”. The simplicity of the colour palette has helped the channel make a success of its pre-launch branding on cabs, poster sites and listings sections of newspapers and magazines. Forty-eight sheet poster sites have sold the programming with lines like “Doubtfire without the drag”, “Happiness is an uninterrupted Hamlet” and my favourite – with Tom Hanks holding the Oscar – “He never thanked Trevor McDonald.” All carried the elemental colours that were to be seamlessly translated on to the screen.
When the channel eventually launched, the colours played an important role. As a constant theme they ran throughout the programme links, and even between the ads with a speed stripe of the five colours running horizontally across the screen. In my opinion, the branding has been mould-breaking in execution and implementation, and the advertising, by new agency Mother, witty and with great impact. But as we all know, the product has yet to deliver.
Let’s think back to the early days, over a decade ago, when Channel 4 was the first new UK TV channel to go on air since BBC2 started in 1964. The new channel was to have an eclectic mix of programming. The Channel 4 identity, designed by Martin Lambie-Nairn, was developed to exploit the medium of television to the full, and provide a flexible branding device. In what was then a unique step, all of the programmes were made by independents, and this delivered uniform product quality. Both on-screen identity and the programming it represented were excellent.
The Channel 4 logo has moved on with its familiar circle device dubbed Connections. While Channel 4 obviously needed to progress, as all brands do, it has lost much of its saliency and impact with the new identity. The old identity was so radical and challenging that, shortly after it launched, it was pastiched as the smiling face of a Hamlet cigar smoker in a TV ad – which went on to win the Lion D’Or at Cannes. Unlike the old identity, Connections lacks the opportunity for wit.
If you look at how the Channel 5 identity interfaces with the individual programmes, there is definitely a design overkill. In particular the Channel 5 news is overbranded, wallpapered with logos all over the newsreader’s backdrop. This is needless, as the multicoloured strip which introduces the news is enough to make the point. Even the studio sets of chat shows and magazine programmes are colour-coded to echo the five-colour palette of the brand. While Daytime on Five may reflect the modern lifestyle positioning of this programme with fresh colours and lively imagery, the twisting highly airbrushed 5 idea has been over-exposed and, quite frankly, looks tired and dated.
Sadly, after a few weeks on air, it has become apparent that Channel 5’s generally good on-screen identity is not representative of its programming. Overall, the branding is a visual success. However, a great piece of branding, no matter how many awards it has won, or how much it is talked about, simply won’t succeed if the product doesn’t deliver. Getting the positioning of a TV station right is a difficult job, and one is reminded of the constant re-jigs that GMTV went through before it settled down in its present format.
Just three months prior to the launch, Channel 5 dropped London group Ortmans Young International from its on-screen identity project and commissioned Californian consultancy
Silver Hammer to create logos, identities, in-show graphics, network and corporate promotion. We have seen how consistent and memorable the branding across all media can be – sadly the viewing figures indicate that the programming has a long way to go.