Two Little, two late 

24 May 2004

A revolution occurred in BBC-2’s presentation – apparently – when the famous ‘2’ idents were replaced by… other ‘2’ idents. But why, asks David Hastings

On Monday 19th November 2001 the presentation of BBC Two changed. Yes it did. Honest. For ten years BBC Two/BBC-2’s programmes were preceded by all manner of weird and wonderful animations which were well loved by both presentation enthusiasts and the ‘general public’ (who apparently normally don’t pay much attention to the bits between programmes) alike.

They varied from the wacky to the surreal and featured everything from paint being poured sideways onto a giant 2 to a gorilla that played with a ‘2’-shaped banana. Everyone (it seemed) had at least one favourite – my personal favourite was the one known officially as ‘Predator’ which featured a giant ‘2’-shaped Venus fly trap that pops up to swallow a smaller ‘2’.

The joy of these animations isn’t just visual; it’s also the accompanying music and sound effects that made these idents special. No repetitive bland synthesised corporate jingle was used; all the channel branding was visual and highly effective, and that alone was sufficient to carry the all-important message relating to the channel’s character, which is the single most important message, that channel branding has to convey.

Indeed it is possible to state in no uncertain terms that the channel’s current reputation for innovation and entertainment would be weaker today if the branding used over the last ten years had been less effective, which is an extremely powerful testament to its effectiveness. BBC-2 has been perhaps the strongest branded UK channel of the last ten years.

The animations survived the October 1997 transition to Gill Sans text for the BBC logo and were then adorned with the text during the explosion of recent years, which served to emphasise the flexibility and basic soundness of the basic concepts used.

Ten years is a very long time in television history, and with certain digital satellite channels now changing their image in a matter of months as opposed to years, the BBC-2 animations were in comparison almost of Jurassic vintage.

Some animations had been retired and new ones introduced such as the aforementioned ‘Predator’ but the basic look and feel remained relatively unchanged. So an inevitable problem rears its head: if the image of BBC Two needs to be updated, how do you follow a winning formula?

Using the maxim “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, the ‘new look’ for BBC Two was introduced on Monday 19 November 2001.

The changes? Well, apart from a new set of animations (four have been counted so far with more inevitably to follow) and caption changes (the BBC Two text now appears within a purple box in the bottom right corner) the basic concept is exactly the same.

Well, almost, since there have been some subtle (and not so subtle, but easy to overlook) changes made not just to the basic idents but to the overall channel presentation.

The basic idents themselves have been ‘freshened’ with the aforementioned new animations such as a giant ‘2’ bouncing slowly around the place and a ‘2’ which has robot arms that come out to rotate a blank purple square to reveal the BBC TWO text, and white and yellow colours contribute to an overall new look. Peripheral information such as ‘’ and ‘Subtitles’ has been made exactly that – it has been banished to the top left and right corners of the screen respectively.

The purple box may look like a refugee from ‘Changing Rooms’ but helps make the BBC TWO logo text stand out, and another fundamental change made to BBC Two presentation is the use of the same purple logo box on trailers.

Prior to this the white BBC Two logo was just placed on the picture in the bottom centre of the screen, hence there was the problem that it became invisible if the background was also white (the text had to be made black if used on promotions with a prominently white background).

This has an effect of making BBC Two trailers (regardless of the BBC channel they are shown on) stand out and look different, but have the side effect of breaking up the corporate ‘sameness’ encountered when showing a set of trailers promoting programmes on various channels shown one after another (all other BBC channels still currently use the same corporate logo style for promos that has been used since 1997.)

But apart from tinkering with the captions, the overall effect relating to the idents is superficially an evolution not a revolution, and is no more a progression than the aforementioned ‘Predator’ and ‘Gorilla Tantrum’ animations were compared with ‘Paint’ (the first animation ever shown) and ‘Diary’.

The purple box logo, like Channel 4’s current logo, has been designed with a view to make ‘credit squeezing’ easier. It being in the right side of the screen means that it can appear in that position during the end credit sequence of a programme (with the credits on the left side) with additional information above the logo.

I personally haven’t seen this done yet but it has been apparently planned for this and the new and consistent positioning of the logo makes it easier.

So apart from the idents and trailers, what else has changed? It’s better to instead ask the question “what’s missing?” since it appears that the short animations that were sometimes used before promos on the channel seem to have been dropped, ostensibly (I guess) to allow more time for the promotions.

Modern television seems to be about making more time for promoting more programmes – a good example of this is Channel 4’s axing of the ‘black space’ between advertisements.

BBC Two doesn’t have advertisements so it has no black space to drop, but it had those brief animations before trailers which occupy time and aren’t essential for the smooth running of the channel, so their future was looking shaky from this viewpoint.

The downside of this is that BBC Two’s programme junctions start to look more like those of other channels, that is just the basic structure of a programme being followed by one or more promos followed by an ident, then the next programme. Another item of presentation that has now vanished altogether from the channel is that of the on-screen clock used as an ident.

The BBC Two timepiece was very rarely used anyway – it only got used either when a news bulletin was scheduled to start ‘on the hour’ (usually when a programme change took place on BBC One that required the news to shift to BBC Two) or (even rarer) was used at closedown, but more recently an extended standard ident was used instead – indeed in the last couple of years months could go by without the clock ever being used.

Opponents of the use of a clock cite the digital delays caused by various platforms (satellite, cable, terrestrial) rendering the clock two or so seconds inaccurate, along with the fact that there are numerous other sources of the correct time available for setting clocks and watches nowadays.

In my opinion the clock still serves a useful tool in presentation by creating a calm atmosphere before the tension of a news bulletin, as well as reminding viewers how accurate the channel’s timekeeping is (especially compared with certain other channels – the “ITV News At Ten” has been nicknamed “News At When”).

What conclusions can we draw from all of these changes? It can be safe to say the recent BBC Two changes have been more evolutionary than revolutionary.

The animations may have changed for a initial set of four that are humorous (they made me laugh when I first saw them) but at the moment apart from the fish tank ident there’s nothing really suitable for preceding serious documentaries – a possibly small oversight that will surely be rectified given time.

These animations may be pleasant but one small aspect about them that worries me in the first batch is that they try to be too self-consciously humorous and that the joke may wear thin given repeated viewing.

Also, I have long term doubts about the channel evolving presentation-wise down a similar path that Channel 4 is heading; at the moment BBC Two appears to be turning into a hybrid of BBC Two 1997-2001 and current Channel 4 minus the ads, which is neither original nor inspiring.

Channel 4’s current presentation is okay but BBC Two’s presentation was so much better, and it seems to me the case that BBC Two is starting to follow the commercial path of Channel 4 to an extent.

Another lost opportunity has occurred in the branding of BBC Two’s daytime schools/educational output – BBC Two has the separate “The Learning Zone” during the night and Channel 4 has special idents for its ‘4 Learning’ output, so special daytime idents for BBC Two’s schools broadcasts would have been the icing on the cake as far as branding goes.

There is also no clock to fall back on for news bulletins, so the news will have to be preceded by a fishtank or similar.

To conclude, BBC Two’s new image may keep the channel ticking over for the next few years or so, but these changes probably won’t last nearly as long as ten years (like before) and I have personal concerns about the future of the distinctive quality image that the channel has carefully cultivated over time, given the quasi-commercial direction the recent changes seem to hint at in terms of the overall presentation.

I hope to be proven wrong on these fears, but nothing at all radical in terms of the channel presentation has emerged as part of the November changes.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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