Love/hate five 

1 January 2003 tbs.pm/1859

Channel 5 has been the channel the newspaper critics love to hate. Its cheap programming combined with limited transmitter coverage has resulted in a poor reception in more ways than one, and the very nature of its programming (famously comprised as mainly consisting of films, football, and that f-word that implies sex) has led to a decidedly downmarket image.

In some respects this was a rerun of what had happened fifteen years earlier with Channel 4. At the time the channel was slated for similar reasons though Channel 4 managed to avoid being typecast as downmarket through virtue of its wide range of intellectual offerings.

Sunday 15 September this year was the date when the channel’s new look was formally introduced at the start of a repeat showing of “Saving Private Ryan” that evening. This was a little earlier than had been previously announced, but what had been very unusual for a modern terrestrial channel was that elements of the new look had gained an unexpectedly early outing in the shape of the first terrestrial television showing of the same film a week earlier.

One of the new idents was used before the film along with a new-style caption for the film itself used in the commercial breaks, though the old ‘five colours’ motif was still showing between adverts. Whether this early outing for the new identity was intentional or not remains unclear; it could be that it was an accident or deliberately done as part of an appraisal of the new look, or less likely it could simply have been to avoid making two sets of captions for the one film.

So what exactly does this new look consist of? First, the most obvious change is the new logo – Channel 5 is no longer a ‘channel’; its name and logo is now simply ‘five’ (as a word) which is essentially the same as what the BBC has done with its television channels by replacing the number with a word in its logos (BBC One, BBC Two, etc.). The word is in lower case – presumably so as to appear ‘non-threatening’ – and the new corporate font used for both the logo (which arguably isn’t a logo as such, since it is simply a word displayed in a specific font) and for captions is interesting because the letter ‘i’ has no dot, making it look both contemporary and visually distinctive.

On idents, captions and trailers, the ‘five’ word is displayed on the left hand side of the screen and is either vertically centred or positioned slightly below this point, and usually appears on the screen with an animated effect from left to right that is very similar to the way Channel 4’s “4 in a box” logo appears in its idents and trailers.

Indeed, the whole of Five’s new look has much in common with Channel 4’s current identity, from the new format static end-caption used for some of its productions (the ‘five’ logo on the left with production credits in a column on the right) to the “now and next” information featured on certain idents. Plus some trailers have the ‘five’ logo appear and disappear early on, which is again similar to Channel 4’s “4” logo in a box.

And talking of idents, Five has a whole new set of idents as you would expect. They are straightforward in nature and won’t win any prizes for sophistication, but they are functional and effective. They of course all feature the Five logo which appears in the customary left position, and vary from the plain variety (just a blue background) which is used before news bulletins and other serious programmes, the simple (an example being a closeup of a patch of grass), as well as the more elaborate – examples being a man throwing a frisbee in a park, a man climbing down into a swimming pool, and two women embracing (they are obviously pleased to be meeting each other!)

All the ‘action’ idents feature audio so you can hear what is going on, and it is interesting that the idents that feature people never show the faces of the people involved; the camera showing a low view from the chest downwards, which means that the viewer is more of a distant observer as opposed to being an intimate part of the action. Plus there is also a “now and next” ident that’s very similar in concept to the Channel 4 equivalent (a plain ident with text listing the programme about to start and the next programme) but also features still pictures taken from both programmes arranged horizontally on the right side of the screen with text below them, unlike the Channel 4 version which has plain lines of text arranged vertically on the left side.

Another point about the idents that is worth mentioning is that additional information which is sometimes featured with the ident on other channels (eg. ‘Subtitles’ and the website address) is not featured on the new idents as was the case previously; ‘Subtitles’ is displayed at the start of the programme and the new website address, www.five.tv, is featured on trailers, not the idents. Trailers usually have text that moves into position from the top and bottom of the screen whilst the logo itself moves in from the left to meet up with the text; all text is displayed using the new Five corporate font as used for the logo, giving a unified look which again is similar to Channel 4’s identity.

There is another very significant change in the channel’s new look, and it is something that is now absent. A feature of the channel since its launch was the 5 logo permanently displayed in the top left hand corner of the screen during most programmes, but this ‘feature’ has now been dropped with the change of look – presumably the intention is to bring the channel broadly in line with the other four terrestrial channels in this respect. It should also be noted that from almost the beginning until not so long ago, Channel 5 was also carried on analogue (Astra) satellite where there is no electronic programme guide so the requirement for a logo of this nature was more important than it is now.

The five coloured stripes have also been banished to the history books in preference of using five different sets (shades) of five colours which are individually used as part of the new look; an example of this can be seen in the new animation of the ‘five’ logo that appears between each advertisement, where the ‘five’ is displayed in a different colour each time it appears. Using colours in this fashion is a good idea because different colours can (and do) represent different ‘moods’ – everyone has their favourite colour, and not cluttering the screen with more than one colour helps to keep the appearance simple and unfussy as well as avoiding the risk of ‘colour clash’.

Promotional advertisements such as posters have been used to promote programmes such as “Michael Jackson’s Face” using the new image, and they use the catchphrase “see five” – which sounds the same as “C5” (Channel 5) – separated from the rest of the text using a vertical line, which is the same device as what Sky has used in the SKY | ONE logo. Such advertisements enable the channel to advertise its programmes to viewers who wouldn’t normally watch the channel, and the poster not only promotes the programme in question but introduces people to the new look. Having said that, it isn’t immediately obvious (to the uninitiated) from the poster that “see five” is the same as what was Channel 5, and I suspect this is intentional in order to try and shake off the old image the Channel 5 still possesses in the minds of many people.

Today’s television marketplace is more competitive than ever with new channels launching and little-watched satellite channels closing down on a regular basis, so it is important to have a strong brand and not to confuse the viewer with conflicting signals about a channel’s character. When people think of terrestrial channels they tend to think of the BBC, ITV and (perhaps) Channel 4 first, and established brands such as Sky and UK Gold/Granada Plus figure highly for non-terrestrial alternatives, so Five has to win over viewers from both sets of channels. Dawn Airey, the mastermind behind Five’s gaining audience share has now been lured to Sky in order to improve its original content and it’s very likely that Sky will either launch a free-to-air general entertainment channel using parts of Sky One combined with new original programming (in other words, a direct competitor to Five) or alternatively try to takeover Five when the Communications Bill becomes law. However, RTL/Bertelsmann is unlikely to relinquish control of Five without a fight since it has abandoned any expansion plans relating to ITV in preference to supporting (Channel) Five.

So what can we conclude from Five’s new look? Given the uncertainty surrounding the medium- to long-term future of Five, it needs to improve its standing with viewers in order to establish itself as a regular and credible alternative to the four major terrestrial channels as a matter of urgency. This new look offers a straightforward, memorable and attractive branding solution which admittedly isn’t hugely risktaking – it simply can’t afford to at present – but is pleasing to look at and effective in its approach without resorting to elaborate gimmickry.

The branding appears to heavily influenced by Channel 4’s current presentation style, which in turn is combined with new ideas such as using different colours and the radical step of dispensing with the on-screen logo which shows how seriously its desire to be compared with the existing terrestrial channels. The new look may be derivative to an extent, but it is easy to argue that if existing channels have worked hard to perfect their branding, anything that is going to be effective will have to be similar if there is only one theoretical “perfect solution” – and a perfect solution is something that Five desperately needs. Now all that is required is some decent programming to match this shiny new image; in one respect it is a pity that Five couldn’t have delayed its new branding until more high quality programming becomes available so that it can fully live up to its new promise.

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