Corporate manslaughter 

1 January 2002

On New Year’s Day 1982, viewers in the Midlands awoke to find a new name on their TV screens, as Central Independent Television replaced the region’s surviving original contractor, ATV, by order of the Independent Broadcasting Authority.

Twenty years later and the Central name has in turn disappeared, this time at the behest of its owner since the mid-1990s, Carlton. Carlton’s logic in junking the name was simple: watching programmes made by Carlton on Central left viewers feeling confused. The solution was therefore obvious: it, along with Westcountry, must be rebranded as Carlton.

But, were viewers really confused?

As a child growing up in the late 1970s, I had a choice of both ATV and HTV West, yet I never felt confused as to which station I was watching. Neither did I see frontcaps from other ITV companies and think that my local station had somehow been replaced by one from Leeds, Manchester or elsewhere.

Supporters of Carltonisation will no doubt point to the fact that there were only three channels to choose from, but there was also no teletext identifier or EPG to help viewers differentiate between channels – an historical status quo.

Whilst Carlton’s claim of confusion is debatable at best, even with the added element of the ITV branding, instead of simplifying things, Carlton can actually be seen to be doing just the opposite, especially with their habit of promoting regional programmes as being on “ITV”. But if I tune in to watch these programmes on HTV West, I’ll find something different as they’re only being shown on Carlton Central. Confused? Well, not really, but I would be if I was a dim-witted as Carlton seems to think its viewers are.

Personally, I think that the rebranding reflects Carlton’s corporate nature far more than a desire to save viewers from any confusion. After all, this is a company that routinely repackages acquired programming such as the Rank film library or ITC’s television archive as Carlton programmes, despite the company having had no input whatsoever in their production.

A cynic might even conclude that extending this policy to Central and Westcountry helps divert attention away from Carlton’s own shortcomings in London. After all, what better what to disguise the fact that your flagship franchise is nowhere near as good as its predecessor than by claiming programmes from another major ITV company as your own?

So Carlton is now able to include the likes of “Inspector Morse” in the list of “Key Programme Titles” on its website, along with the claim that both “audiences and broadcasters alike recognise the calibre and wide appeal of the Carlton brand.”

But do they? Whilst it’s very easy to indulge in a bout of Carlton-bashing, it’s doubtful that many viewers would share Carlton’s assessment of its programmes, especially the ones emanating from its London franchise.

Apart from the dubious value of the Carlton name itself, one of the worst aspects about the rebranding exercise was that it was fundamentally flawed.

Although this wasn’t the first time that an ITV company’s on-screen name had changed, most of the other major changes can be seen to have been based on logic. Associated-Rediffusion becoming Rediffusion London reflected the company’s changed ownership and the desire to present a more contemporary approach. And Harlech and Ulster’s adoption of initials can be seen as attempts to avoid being tied to a specific geographic or political part of their transmission areas.

Yet Carlton’s dropping of the Central and Westcountry names only really makes sense if it is the first stage in renaming the entire ITV network, both locally and nationally, as Carlton. This strikes me as highly unlikely – even if Carlton were the major partner in a merger with Granada, would it really make sense to ditch the long-established Granada and ITV brands in favour of one that has only been around since 1993?

And if the possibility of a single ITV company adopting the name Carlton was unlikely back in 1999, it is even more unlikely now given the plunge in Carlton’s share value – presumably the brand doesn’t have quite the same appeal with investors as it apparently does with viewers.

Other recent developments within ITV have confirmed that this scenario is unlikely to occur. On 11 August 2001, ITV was renamed “ITV1” and now heads up a family of ITV channels. There seems little point in wasting time and money on this exercise if, in a couple of years time, the network is renamed Carlton, Granada or something else entirely – the ITV name is here to stay regardless of the channel’s future ownership.

As part of the consolidation of ITV ownership, Carlton now owns HTV, yet unlike its stations in the midlands and the south west, it has been allowed to retain its own identity. Has Carlton finally seen the error of its ways and we see the return of the Central and Westcountry names?

Not according to Carlton. The reason why HTV hasn’t been rebranded is that within the next couple of years ITV will be a single company and all regional identities will be scrapped (although this fails to explain why Carlton went to the trouble of giving both HTV regions new idents earlier this year). However, it’s more likely that whilst they might get away with replacing HTV West with Carlton, trying to rebrand HTV Wales would both a political hot potato and a public relations disaster for a London-based company.

But even if a single ITV company abolishes all regional names entirely, there will still need to be some way of differentiating between one ITV region and another, unless Carlton and Granada can persuade the ITC to let them remove every trace of regionality from the network.

Even though three ITV regions already have the same name, this differentiation already occurs. Many television listings refer to either “Carlton Central” and “Carlton Westcountry” or simply use the old names, while the recent launch of ITV1 on Sky Digital has seen the on-screen return of the pre-1999 names, albeit only on the EPG! Clearly there’s more life in the old names than Carlton would have us believe.

Twenty years ago, viewers in the midlands woke to find a new name on their TV screens. It’s just a shame that despite Carltonisation being even more flawed now than it was back in 1999, the most innovative ITV company in terms of presentation throughout the 1980s and early 1990s will have to leave the celebration of its own birthday to one whose idea of a strong on-screen identity mostly revolves around use of the Gill Sans font.

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