In pieces 

5 October 2015

When Channel 4 introduces a complete overhaul of its ‘flagship’ channel with new on-screen idents and presentation, the television world sits up and takes notice for good reason. Channel 4 has always had strong presentation; the merest thought of the 1980s conjures up flying coloured blocks forming a ‘4’ logo that has remained essentially unchanged since 1982 even if presented in different forms over the years. Even the 1996-99 ‘circles’ era of Channel 4 presentation, originally considered a failure and replaced fairly quickly, is now thought of with higher regard.

And given how well-received the presentation package Channel 4 introduced at the end of 2004, including one of its idents (Tokyo) winning a prestigious Promax award, its successor has a lot to live up to, especially given the uncertain position Channel 4 now finds itself as its future is being debated.

Channel 4’s new look came as a complete surprise in an era when press releases are normally issued days in advance of any major changes; indeed even most of Channel 4’s staff were unaware of what was happening until recycling bins suddenly appeared for disposing of existing pre-printed stationery mere hours before new on-screen elements were introduced on-air at 9pm on 29 September 2015. (A brief glimpse of the new style appeared earlier the same day by accident at the end of Hollyoaks.) Clearly this was something introduced at very short notice, either to catch rivals off-guard or because it was waiting for an opportune moment dictated by circumstances, political or otherwise.

Developed by 4creative, the new presentation package consists of a mix of brightly-coloured animations using various forms of block that often resemble Cuisenaire rods used as a teaching aid in schools, as well as live action-style computer generated sequences featuring block-style crystals in some form. Stacked blocks can form a programme menu either during programme end credits or separately as part of other promotions. Also new are two custom-developed fonts in eight different weights: Horseferry, featuring quirky serifs for a distinctive look, plus a more conventional-looking variant named Chadwick.

At least to begin with there are six idents in total; four live action-style idents that purport to tell a ‘story’ involving crystal shapes which can form the Channel 4 logo but don’t actually do so (not at the present time anyway), plus two idents featuring blocks moving around on a plain background. One of the block-based idents features blocks rotating at regular intervals in the style of a clock, whilst the other is a special ident featuring yellow blocks plus two round ‘eyes’ moving around on a sky-blue background for introducing The Simpsons.

The timing of the new look cannot be coincidental, coming merely a day after it was announced that Channel 4 chairman Lord Burns is to step down in January and five days after what appeared to be a leak of privatisation plans for Channel 4, therefore it seems obvious that preceding events were a significant factor in unleashing its new ‘flagship’ channel identity at very short notice, most likely planned as a last-ditch charm offensive in order to show the world that Channel 4 is still worthy of the public broadcaster tag. Because given what appears to be hostility towards keeping Channel 4 as a public-owned corporation at this point of time, it needs all the charm and innovation it can muster.

But does Channel 4’s new look work and will it ultimately make any difference to its public standing? In my opinion, a new identity is exceptionally unlikely to persuade any government minister at this late stage that Channel 4 is still unique enough to warrant special treatment, at least when considered in isolation, and it remains to be seen whether or not Channel 4 executives can convince ministers that the good aspects of its schedule (hour-long weekday news bulletins at 7pm, drama, some of its documentary content, etc.) outweighs what appears to be the sort of highly-derivative programming other channels churn out as purely commercial ventures. Because if commercial channels like Channel 5 can have a public service remit then Channel 4 could theoretically behave similarly as a private entity.

Personally speaking I think that Channel 4’s new look is fantastic. It’s incredibly well-produced, immaculately conceived, bold, brave, decidedly different and tremendously ballsy; it takes real cojones to believe that public recognition of a channel’s logo is such that you can now get away with showing its component pieces as opposed to the finished article, with viewers still conceptually understanding what you really mean. It’s like BBC One’s 2002 dance-and-movement idents on steroids, this time with added logo elements and minus any form of other visual channel identification apart from the DOG logos on HD and +1 services.

But before we get too carried away by all of this, there’s a problem, and a massive problem at that. Channel 4’s newly-refreshed identity would have been perfect for the channel circa 1998 when its output was still hugely varied and sometimes extremely upmarket, eg. over three hours of opera (4 Goes to Glyndebourne) shown in peak time as part of one day’s schedule in June of that year. But nowadays the main channel schedule’s stuffed full of frequently-repeated offerings usually catering for a much more down-to-earth audience: Come Dine With Me, George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces, Gogglebox, Grand Designs, Location Location Location, Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners, The Changing Room, etc. – not necessarily ‘unworthy’ as such but certainly much more mainstream fare compared to Melvyn Bragg trying to create a Sunday newspaper with the help of four contributors.

Your average Come Dine With Me viewer may not appreciate the subtlety of 4creative’s decision not to directly include the Channel 4 logo in its new idents: “We didn’t want to tell people what channel they’re watching. We wanted to tell them why they’re watching it in the first place”. Such a left-field approach may currently be at odds with Channel 4 as it stands, but we must also bear in mind that viewing habits are steadily shifting towards online and mobile consumption of so-called ‘content’ where in many cases programme ‘brands’ like Breaking Bad are steadily overtaking those of broadcasters and production companies. As long as your average viewer can watch Breaking Bad they don’t care where they get it from, whether it’s Netflix, Spike TV, a Blu-ray box set or even pirated downloads for that matter. This is a multi-platform age, with Channel 4’s home page now dominated by its recently-introduced All4 online viewing portal; everything else takes a back seat including the programme guide for its traditional linear channels.

It’s perfectly possible to argue that Channel 4 management’s perception of who views its channels is somehow at odds with reality, though conversely we could interpret Channel 4 as simply overplaying its ability to innovate in recent years. Certainly the change of funding arrangements from being supported by ITV franchises to selling its own advertising had a major effect on its programming because it now had to directly justify schedules to advertisers as opposed to having a guaranteed income to broadcast whatever it wanted regardless of ratings.

By pushing its identity into the realm of the abstract, Channel 4 is trying to build a strong case for its unique position at a crucial juncture, namely remaining in the public sector whilst still being funded by advertising (a distinction that many viewers are still unaware of), though time is quickly running out and room for manoeuvre is distinctly limited. It’s going to take much more than a bold conceptual statement to save Channel 4 as it stands.

You Say

1 response to this article

Kevin Tennent 6 October 2015 at 1:37 pm

Interestingly enough, I believe Channel 4 had moved into profit and was paying a levy to ITV in the mid-1990s before the relationship was severed.

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