Setting The Screen

Yolanda Zappaterra surfs the channels of cable and satellite television to see how design is helping to increase viewing figures

One huuuuundred and eighty. No, darts isn’t the latest trend to hit the drinking dens of Shoreditch in London, but the game’s prime number does happen to be the number of cable and satellite channels currently crowding the UK’s airwaves. Which, of course, means a huge increase in the amount of channel branding and screen graphics work required, and, even better, more opportunities for creative diversity and solutions to service such an expansion.

As Mark Dodd, director of creative services for wholly owned channels at Flextech, explains, ‘Because most of the cable and satellite channels are genre-led niche channels, defining and distinguishing themselves through branding is crucial.’ Additionally, points out Brian Eley, executive creative director at Lambie-Nairn, ‘With cable and satellite channels the programming tends to be acquired, so the brand has to work extremely hard to achieve distinctiveness, and money can be extremely tight.’

But while the budgets may not be making the pages of outraged redtops any time soon, there is cause for cautious optimism. And working with smaller channels needn’t be all doom and gloom, as Noah Harris, creative director at Static 2358, has found. ‘Every small channel we have worked with has been extremely professional, and there’s a passion and enthusiasm for the project that often makes it more fun to do than some larger channels,’ he says.

On top of that, Harris believes more targeted niche offerings mean designers can create concepts aimed at a more specific audience. e e James Quayle, head of strategy at Lambie-Nairn, goes even further: ‘The on-air presentation systems are going beyond a simple dissemination of information to a real brand experience, and some channels are going as far as building content values into what were traditionally seen as little more than bumpers.’

This innovation, the ability to keep branding from turning into the US-style morass of what Harris calls ‘mass-produced glossy monolithic brands that have little thought behind them and all look the same’ is crucial in capturing the attention of the brand-aware British TV viewer, whose loyalty is no longer to any particular channel but to the programming. And while detractors might claim that tiny budgets impede that, both out-of-house groups Lambie-Nairn and Static and in-house creative heads at BSkyB and Flextech agree that budgets are usually appropriate to the channel’s offering. ‘Take something like Trouble channel,’ explains Dodd. ‘That was created in-house as a purely graphic solution, which is obviously cheaper than live action sequences. But the key factor is that the solution fits the audience perfectly because it can respond quickly to the needs of a young media-savvy audience that expects to see constant innovation,’ he says.

Static’s Harris has also found that ‘many of the smaller niche channels are aimed at a younger [at heart, in some cases] audience which is more receptive to different ways of doing things and experimentation in branding’. But he has a word of warning for designers working in this niche area. ‘Some might just go for the “hero ident” option, meaning that all other areas of the brand are left to those in the edit suites to create what they like. It is vital for any solution to have brand guidelines. Sure, every channel brand needs to be given the freedom to experiment and evolve, but without basic design rules the whole thing falls apart.’

Lambie-Nairn was well aware of this when it branded PlayUK, the Flextech/ BBC channel that uses a strong graphic solution to brand its youthful output of comedy and music. ‘The brief was to give the channel a degree of ‘fashion-proofing’ by avoiding the kind of imagery that dates,’ recalls Eley. ‘It was a lengthy process. We looked for at least two other routes before there was a conceptual leap that really worked. After that, it was a case of having a good director (Paul Owen at Lambie-Nairn) and making sure that the idea didn’t get diluted.’

It’s to the brand’s credit that you can watch the idents and stings a lot (and with programme and channel reinforcements at least twice in every ad break, viewers have to) without tiring of them.

Similarly fresh is Jonathan Yeo’s work on Sky One’s branding. As senior designer of Sky One Creative Services, Yeo and his team work hard to maintain ‘the distinctive photographic/ editing style that’s closely associated with the Sky One look’. The current on-air presentation package, he says, ‘illustrates the personality of the channel and provides navigational information in the form of continuity menus. The approach was a relatively simple, live action one, that Sky One has adopted for the past three years, because people relate to live action, and as a great deal of sponsorship spots require live action. A theme throughout this particular set of idents is “reality with a twist”. This was explored through various scenarios and through building in messages such as “flammable material”. Integrating them physically into the shot scenes added to the playful nature and sense of fun.’

An advantage of working with small channels keen to explore new ideas is the ability to take unusual routes. ‘A good example of the creative freedom this can allow is the brand Static created for National Geographic,’ says Harris. ‘The adventure channel was squarely aimed at a youth audience and carried the exciting end of National Geographic’s output – free-sports, adventure and so on. The brief carried quite cliched suggestions for visual treatments of the brand, which we felt would be dismissed by the audience and blend into many of the channels surrounding it. We took a very graphic route based on architectural forms which, combined with footage supplied by the National Geographic, matched the excitement and energy of the channel’s content,’ he says.

What’s made the whole explosion of graphic solutions so visually exciting and diverse – not to mention cheap – is, of course, the technology, whose accessibility has in turn driven the move towards in-house teams. Desktop tools such as Adobe’s After Effects integrated with programs like Illustrator and Photoshop enable media owners to acquire branding for very little outlay, especially if they do so in-house.

‘Channels have become wise to the fact that spending thousands on lengthy motion control shoots and hour upon hour of Flame-time is not necessarily going to give them a successful brand. As long as the concept behind the brand is strong and the design team works closely with the presentation department, there is no reason why a beautiful and functional brand cannot be produced on a couple of Apple Mac G4 machines and a digibeta,’ says Harris.

‘Now that graphic design courses have started to push motion graphics as an essential part of the curriculum, there are a growing number of very talented designers who, armed with a DV camera and an Apple Mac, can not only understand the needs of channels, but also conceptualise and produce work of a very high standard,’ he continues.

Given this DIY superiority, why go out of house at all? Dodd, as both client and supplier at Flextech, believes their propositions and skill sets are different. ‘Three quarters of our branding work is done in-house. Obviously in-house teams can work to very competitive budgets and much tighter timelines, if only because they can work with the client daily and slash the times of signing-off processes. But there are other advantages, key of which is understanding the brand because they live and breathe it everyday. Without the preconceptions and wariness that an outside consultancy might have, they’re also more likely to take a gamble.’

Yeo at Sky agrees. ‘On a good in-house team there should be a complete overall perspective, which an outside group would generally lack. For general channel support we don’t always need to cost jobs individually. Our budgeting for the channel is spread over a period of time with specific allocation for re-launches/ specials, so within this we are able to balance out the more expensive with the less expensive projects.’

But both see the role of outside groups as integral to their channels’ branding. As Dodd says, ‘Using them taps into huge talent and expertise, and it’s useful to have the objective viewpoint sometimes. In-house resources sometimes might not be able to offer support creatively or in terms of resources/ equipment,’ adds Yeo. Understandably, Quayle goes further. ‘As the brands have established themselves, it has become easier for people to pick up on and execute ideas that are on brand, hence reducing the reliance on external support. This works well for operators who are maintaining the status quo of a brand and its on air presentation, but often leads to incremental and organic evolution of the brand proposition – which can leave a channel behind as the market is so dynamic around them,’ he says.

Given the jittery economic climate and the growing competition for our eyes, hearts and trigger fingers from increasingly sophisticated home entertainment areas such as onand off-line gaming and broadband websites, we’re likely to see consolidation and contraction in the ‘cabsat’ scene soon, but we’re equally likely to see the need for more and more integrated, pan-platform design skills that cover not just interactive and enhanced TV, but also navigation, Web and print advertising, logos. Basically, what Eley calls ‘a greater need for on/ off-screen synergy.’

So while on-air graphics aren’t likely to go off-air any time in the not to distant future, you might find brushing up your letterhead skills invaluable not too far down the line. m

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