Tuned in

Oliver Bennett switches on to television channels’ tactics that keep you watching as they broadcast a branded message

Fifteen years ago, it was easy. Four channels: two BBCs, one ITV, Channel 4, all clearly distinguishable from each other. But now, in the digital and deregulated multichannel era, television channels are everywhere, and with this expanded marketplace comes an increasingly tangled undergrowth of brands.

There are something close to 300 TV channels today: a mass of televisual product hoping to be seen. Small wonder that competition has become intense.

As a result, contemporary TV companies talk much about branding and design: a language that didn’t need to be spoken by an earlier generation of television executives. Broadcast consultant Alastair Burns pointed out recently that broadcasters were late to develop brand marketing because they all ran virtual monopolies. ‘As the competition [intensifies],’ he wrote, ‘the need for television channels to adopt a strong brand identity with appeal to a specific target audience is becoming evermore important.’

BBC Broadcast director of creative services Andy Bryant agrees. ‘In this multichannel world, people’s attention spans are far shorter, so you need to engage them with branding before they change channels,’ he says. ‘The onus is on strong creative ideas that identify the audience of a programme.’ Against this background, shortform television spots such as channel idents are increasingly fêted in their own right. BBC1 gained yards of publicity with its block-leaping Rush Hour short film/ ident, for instance.

Branding is critical to the new broadcasting, much of which targets interest groups. The BBC3 identity, created by Lambie-Nairn, is aimed at the channel’s target audience of 25to 34-year-olds. The consultancy is currently developing a series of stings and idents to bring the logo to life.

Some channels are born with a strong identity, such as National Geographic, which grew from the well-known magazine. Its televised live event at the pyramids in Egypt a few weeks ago generated much coverage, supporting the brand as a serious global concern.

‘People sometimes confuse our documentaries with others like Discovery,’ says Simon Bohrsmann, deputy general manager of National Geographic channel. ‘What we’re trying to do is create a media environment that people remember as distinctly us.’

Guy Slattery, the head of on-air for National Geographic, says it is vital the 140-year-old company branding is maintained, albeit in conceptual form. ‘The border, the yellow colour and the logo of National Geographic has been around for 144 years,’ he says. ‘It’s sacred to us. But it doesn’t need to be domineering – we have some use where it is quite subliminal, through the use of yellow and black, alongside clean, high-contrast imagery.’

As Bohrsmann says, the channel ‘knows what it is’, and the programming supports its brand proposition. ‘We won’t do 100 Great Car Crashes, or some of the stuff other documentary channels put on,’ he says. ‘We wouldn’t suddenly use the colour pink in our titles. But we can allow some flexibility.’

Recent stings for National Geographic’s series Riddles of the Dead and The Shape of Life illustrate how the brand can work in a vibrant way, while paying homage to its historic values. It also shows an increasing emphasis on the branding of programmes and series. Bohrsmann says they are ‘trying to breed series’ brands’, rather than rely on the one-off documentaries for which the channel is famous.

Any casual observer of the television market can see that the need for standout is particularly acute now that several channels have either been put on hold or have closed since the optimism of a few years ago. Wellbeing (a joint venture from Granada and Boots the Chemists) and food channel Taste (Carlton Communications and Sainsbury) both went down, for instance, despite strong backing. Other much-vaunted channels like The Automotive Channel, tour operator Thomas e e Cook’s travel channel and Ministry of Sound TV haven’t yet set the world alight.

Still, communications companies want in on the television act. It has been mooted by BT that it could become a television broadcaster, and Classic FM is planning a TV channel. Revenues for these channels are provided by subscriptions, transactions or a mixture.

If they are to succeed, they will need to work hard and that can mean being more adventurous. According to Bruce Dunlop, creative director at programme branding specialist Bruce Dunlop and Associates, ‘You’ve got to dare to be different in order to be noticed. After all, it’s a very tough market these days. You have to find your piece of ground, and then let people know you’re there.’

Dunlop launched the on-air look of ITV1, unveiled this week, in which four coloured blocks represent the type characters ‘ITV1’. It is designed to become a flexible branding device for all ITV media and merchandise. ‘You’ve got to look further than the “bug” or what we call the Dog, meaning digital on-screen graphic,’ says Dunlop.

Universal Studios Network UK has clearly worked hard towards the success of its two channels, the Sci-Fi channel and The Studio. Last year, The Studio won two gold awards at the Promax TV creative awards for its Film Moi spots, and this year Headfuck – a bizarre series on the Sci-Fi channel – is shortlisted.

‘There’s so much clutter in television at the moment that it’s difficult to gain attention,’ says Tor McLaren, USN director of channels. ‘You have to do it by stealth. It’s not just bunging a logo on to the screen. Too many people in the business think branding is an add-on, whereas it is really about the whole product.’

As a Kemistry spokesman says, ‘Broadcasters fall short with branding when they don’t recognise their programmes as an inherent component of the identity’. Indeed, if they don’t use those programmes to pump up their channel, then they have lost a chance.

‘Look at the way Channel 4 and E4 have capitalised on Big Brother,’ adds Dunlop. ‘You can’t lose sight of an opportunity like that, particularly when a programme gets really big.’

McLaren believes that the best way to communicate the brand values is to create original programming, and also to make sure that the short forms – the ‘interstitial’ material, to use the jargon – is going in the same direction, by creating meaningful context.

For instance, the Sci-Fi channel’s Headfuck has resuscitated the TV career of David Icke – the ex-sports pundit turned otherworldly guru – as a presenter in an amusing ident-cum-introduction. ‘We’re aiming to take science fiction away from being a geeky genre,’ says Adrian McGarrigle, Sci-Fi channel manager.

‘Spaceships and aliens are not what it’s about. We’re re-positioning science fiction into a different realm, in the same way that Hollywood has done.’ As a result, the number of female viewers – not traditionally followers of science fiction – has shot up.

The Studio, which shows old films, is performing a different kind of branding job. The Film Moi segments took actors such as Ben Kingsley and Christopher Ecclestone, asking them to expound on their favourite movies: Kingsley’s spot on Wings of Desire won the Gold in last year’s Promax for Best Promotainment, and the latter is on this year’s shortlist.

Another USN ident is The Magnificent Seven, and begins with Saul Bass-style film title typography, before taking the viewer through seven defining moments of a theme: the seven greatest movie punches, for instance. ‘It’s a warm and friendly approach to the branding,’ says Sue Dhaliwall, channel manager of The Studio. ‘It treads a line between highbrow and populist.’ The point is personal engagement, which, you could argue, is the key to all successful TV branding.

The Promax Exhibition and Awards for screen graphics take place on 2 and 3 November

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