Back to 1982 

1 January 2002

David Hastings on C4’s on-screen personalities

Back in 1982, the launch of Channel 4 was a very major event. Nowadays a company can launch a UKMoreRepeats channel and it would barely be noticed, and even the publicity surrounding the launch of Channel 5 in 1997 had often more to do with the hassle of retuning TVs to avoid interference than the channel itself.

But back in 1982, an addition of a fourth channel to the three channel selection that nearly all viewers had access to was a significant news story in itself.

The history of planning for a fourth channel in the UK goes back at least as far as when BBC-2 launched in 1964 – the ITV franchises wanted it in order to compete on equal terms with the BBC, but the advertisers were against ITV having too much dominance in the commercial TV market.

After many years of discussion with little action resulting, the Conservative Party won the 1979 general election and the Labour-backed OBA (Open Broadcasting Authority) community channel proposal – although popular with the electorate – being ditched in favour of something more commercial, though the end result was something of a surprise, being more of a compromise solution in order to placate the various parties.

Channel 4 launched barely eleven months after the previous ITV franchise changes had taken place and TV-am would launched not long afterwards, so this fledgling channel had to make an impact using very limited resources. (Indeed the ITV franchises supported Channel 4 for many years.)

It was independent of ITV (so avoiding the dominance feared by advertisers), but it also had a public service remit that helped to allay the fears of the ITV franchises. Not only was it a new channel, but Channel 4 signalled a fundamental change in the way television had operated in the UK (arguably since the launch of independent television in 1955) in that nearly all of Channel 4’s programmes were produced by small independent production companies as opposed to large companies, and this would lead to fundamental changes within the UK television industry.

New technology meant that TV programmes were cheaper to make than ever before, so anyone with production skills could make their own programme – the new mantra was “small is beautiful”. For someone used to watching ITV, Channel 4 was a culture shock, and not just for the wide range of programmes either.

Channel 4’s presentation could be described as being very typical of the early 1980s era, which was a period of transition between the ‘old school’ of formality and the ‘new wave’ of computer generated graphics and less formal styles that were just starting to become prevalent.

The new ITV franchises of 1982 (Central, TSW, TVS) all had logos on black backgrounds, and Channel 4 followed suit with its first and most famous logo – a ‘4’ made up of different brightly coloured blocks on a black background.

A black background was popular because these logos were conceived with the intention of being computer animated (although not were), and the primitive computer graphic systems of this era found it easiest to manipulate graphics on a black background.

Normally the blocks would ‘fly’ into position from the edges of the screen, forming the logo (at closedown the process ingeniously happened in reverse) to the accompaniment of a jingle that was (appropriately) four notes.

These four notes were also used as the main motif of a much longer composition entitled “Fourscore” which was composed by commercial music writer David Dundas (who had a hit with “Jeans On” back in 1977), and these four notes at the time were the shortest length of music to be copyrighted. Fourscore was played in its entirety with a visual montage of clips from various Channel 4 programmes when the channel launched on 2 November 1982.

There was an interesting mixture of old and new relating to Channel 4’s general presentation, at least when compared with the existing BBC services and ITV.

Viewers used to seeing ‘pre-programme idents’ on ITV (animated or static production company logos that preceded programmes) would have noted that they were absent on the new channel, but there were a wide range of weird and wonderful production company names (such as Diverse and Illuminations) responsible for making Channel 4 programmes (as listed in TV Times) alongside contributions from existing ITV franchises such as Thames and Yorkshire.

It was deemed that it would save these independents the cost of making a front logo for their programmes as well as being “not strictly necessary”. Channel 4 also tried in-vision continuity (with an aspidistra plant in the studio) but this was soon restricted only to openings and closedowns before being dropped altogether (resurrected nowadays from T4). In-vision continuity was gradually falling out of favour with most TV companies generally from 1982 onwards with a push towards a less formal approach.

To begin with, Channel 4’s programming was restricted to evenings only (the ETP-1 “IBA:CH4” test card was a common sight in the daytime), and the launch itself was almost stopped by an actors’ union strike that meant that initially commercials could not feature people in-vision (so to speak).

This, combined with low viewing figures, meant that there was an initial shortage of suitable commercials as well as advertisers. Channel 4 was national in terms of programmes shown but regional in terms of advertisements shown, so ‘prosperous’ areas such as the South had at least some commercials to show (whatever happened to “Uncle Wong”?) as long as they didn’t feature people.

But many other regions showed “Coming Next” captions instead – some of these were imaginatively animated (for example, a ‘4’ logo would slowly be drawn by ‘scribbling’). Most captions (as well as the station clock) had a black background, which together with the logo formed the basis of the look of Channel 4 for many years to come.

The ‘flying blocks’ logo was often parodied (an example being a commercial for Hamlet cigars) and a static (already formed) ‘4’ logo was also used, but the basic logo and concept remained the same even if it gained embellishments such as a special coloured background (for example) for Christmas.

It is astounding to consider that Channel 4’s original ‘blocks’ ident and general presentation style (with minor modifications) survived right up to October 1996, which really showed how hugely successful the Channel 4 branding had turned out to be. And it was a very tough act to follow.

Its successor was sadly perhaps the most derided of Channel 4’s identities and had a very short lifespan in comparison (around two years) as a result, but in retrospect it wasn’t too bad in isolation.

The ‘4’ logo was now all white and had become smaller and appeared in one of a pattern of four circles which were overlaid on the picture.

The jingle had been dropped in preference to using sound effects and voices, and the visuals featured a ‘live action’ sequence (unusual for terrestrial channels in 1996) that was initially out of focus but came into focus at the end, which helped to emphasise the logo.

This was all very arty and clever but lacked the directness of its long-lasting predecessor, and this hastened its inevitable downfall – this identity was effectively doomed as the ‘fall guy’, though its successor (a variant of which is still in use) isn’t really that much better.

Channel 4’s current look has evolved from what replaced the short-lived ‘circles’. The ‘4’ logo (still monochrome) became a little larger and now appears inside a single solid white square. A pattern of vertical lines moves from left to right across the screen on a variety of backgrounds (an early version used what appeared to be lights inside a tunnel) whilst the ‘4’ square appears in the centre right hand side of the screen. The background animation has changed more than once and various new promotional tools such as “now” and “next” information as well as the more recent end credit promotions (ECP) have been introduced using this style.

To the channel’s credit, other channels have copied various elements of Channel 4’s current presentation. For example, (Channel) Five and the new ITV1 look have adapted elements of the presentation, though Channel 4’s current overall look is more workmanlike as opposed to attention-grabbing; solid but not hugely memorable visually.

It is arguable that Channel 4 has become more competitive and less public service-orientated in recent years, and this has been reflected in the fact that it has tended to ‘play safe’ in terms of the nature of its programming.

Making the channel responsible for its own advertising has obviously had a profound effect on the channel as a whole. Ten years ago Channel 4 was more akin to BBC Four crossed with BBC Two, but nowadays imports, soaps and Discovery Channel-style documentaries have swamped the schedules, and (Channel) Five is now viewed as being its main competitor.

The Simpsons may be a good quality import, but I’m saddened that Channel 4 paid out so much money for the rights – the channel has a public service remit and the money could have been better spent on arts and other documentaries.

The channel’s presentation has reflected this shift towards a more commercially-orientated schedule, with increasing reliance on the aforementioned split-screen end credit promotions, though the channel’s new controller Mark Thompson has pledged to give the core channel a much-needed shake up.

The addition of E4 and various FilmFour channels plus ‘attheraces’ has certainly broadened Channel 4’s outlook, but the priority is now to restore Channel 4 back to at least some of the glory it once had.

Let us hope that Channel 4 does indeed become something more than just a ‘Five’ clone, because if it doesn’t it will be unfitting for the channel which was once the height of innovation. There was no secret to the success of its original and well-loved identity.

It was simply the fact that Channel 4 had a simple and bold logo combined with both traditional and forward-looking presentation techniques, but, more importantly, it was this combined with the mix of innovative and popular programming that gave Channel 4 credibility and a generally good reputation.

People watch television for the programmes, but if you have decent programmes combined with decent presentation, that surely is a recipe for success since one goes hand in hand with the other. Channel 4 would be wise not to forget that simple formula as it celebrates its 20th anniversary.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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