Radio with pictures 

1 January 2002

BBC wings corporate symbol

To the younger viewer exploring traditional television presentation styles for the first time, much on to do with the start up may seem slow moving.

The television graphic styles now come from a very different era. A static caption on screen for several minutes on end is unusual today but was a staple of television graphics from the fifties to the early eighties. The arrival of 24 hour television in the late eighties introduced a frenetic pace that had not been seen in British television before.

It is important to understand that the influential differences between then and now were both technological and financial. There was much screen time to fill and the main tools of presentation departments were graphic designers working on paper and card, stock music from libraries, occasional specially commissioned pieces of music and expensive graphic moments on film, which once created would have to be re-used many times to justify the outlay.

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In the absence of computers, microchips and modern mixing desks, it was necessary to put together graphic imagery for television presentation that could be used again and again without irritating the viewer. This fitted well with audience expectation in the fifties when these practices were first developed. It was the era of the predictable ‘catch phrase’ in radio programmes, of anticipation – knowing ‘what was coming next’ in regular broadcasts. A country used to ceremonial and formality took to the idea of a regular station signature tune with bold moving graphics, repeated several times daily for years on end as ‘no less than they would expect’ from an institutional national broadcaster.

Cost was an important element. There were no budgets for fresh graphics on a daily or weekly basis. Time had to be filled. Copious quantities of announcers appearing in vision, clocks shown for thirty seconds at a time and programme menus shown over music – were regarded as part of the full theatrical presentation that an evening of television entailed. The announcers were regarded as friends of the family – television viewing being an overwhelmingly family based, group activity in the thirty years after the war. Having the same faces in your living room night after night, and not too many strangers or relief personnel, was considered good manners by the TV companies who saw themselves as guests, on sufferance in your home.

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Modern style trailers were outside the scope of many presentation budgets when commercial television started in the mid-fifties and accordingly, straight clips of programmes of perhaps 30 or 60 seconds in duration served as the only promotional material available. Topped and tailed by an announcer and a static slide they were regarded as thrilling titbits of delights yet to come.

Some companies specialised in backstage gossip about the stars and their future television engagements and on some stations the announcements in vision could be presented in a conspiratorial or gossipy style. It was more the aim of the presentation departments to promote the awareness of the television company name at corporate level, than the actual output. The channel you were watching would get more plugs than the programmes.

IBA electronic test card

It is the ‘filling of space’ in the absence of sophisticated equipment that comes across strongly as being different from today. Broadcasting hours were limited by government and schools programmes apart, most weekday schedules did not begin until almost 5pm. A full day of test card and music is unimaginable today – but television then was packaged as an evening activity, and daytime broadcasting was almost seen as vulgar and over the top. Certainly politicians and the establishment wanted television tamed.

There is almost continuous movement on screen today. It was not always so at a time when television was seen as mainly an extension of radio using a theatrical style. Would less patient viewers get the urge to ‘fast forward’ during the three minutes of caption with music during the part of each start-up routine preceding the company symbol? I would hope not, as this would lose the corporate flavour of the whole glorious rigmarole!

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Liverpool, Sunday 21 July 2024