Completing the circle

By David Hastings

BBC One has a new set of idents to replace the widely criticised "dance and movement" series. How do they stack up?

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Anyone who has the vaguest interest in television presentation would have been aware of the controversy that surrounded BBC One's "dance and movement" idents when they first appeared back in April 2002; indeed even some people who normally had no interest in television presentation whatsoever were moved to complain about them, and the BBC were still receiving dancer-related complaints months after they were introduced (which was perhaps unprecedented).

It's arguable that the shock of the new - namely the removal of a well-loved and iconic globe symbol used since 1963 - was partly responsible, but in this particular case there definitely seemed to be something additional above and beyond merely a reactionary stance. The dance-based idents may have been the most controversial ever to be used for any of the UK's five main TV channels, with maybe the exception of Channel 4's short-lived successor to the original (and classic) flying blocks '4' ident (which ironically also featured circles).

Channel 4's "four circles" was derided by many people at the time to such an extent that the whole package was junked in less than two years (virtually unheard of up to that point), but in retrospect it was a clever concept that was just unfortunate enough to be the followup to a classic ident therefore it was ultimately doomed from the very beginning. And like Channel 4's circle idents following on from the famous flying blocks, the BBC One dance idents were following on from the popular balloon idents, though the balloons did have their detractors (Lorraine Heggessey regarded them as being "full of hot air" which seems to be a rather obtuse interpretation).

So what exactly was 'wrong' about those 'dancers'? The short sequences had high production values and their use of locations was imaginative, but there were two fundamental problems relating to their usage.

Firstly there was a degree of 'forced emotion' about them which sometimes didn't exactly suit the character of the channel's programmes; it's no good telling viewers that your channel is supposed to be vibrant and multicultural when much of the programming turned out to be exactly the opposite. This criticism inevitably also extended into the "political correctness" aspect of a few of these idents; in particular the wheelchair basketball team ident was (perhaps unfairly) targeted because hardly any of the actual programmes featured disabled people.

The dance idents also force-fed the concept of BBC One being purely an entertainment channel, which often ran contrary with the more serious content that a 'general purpose' terrestrial channel normally offers in addition. (Note that this happened during an era when the likes of Panorama were consigned to a post-watershed slot, amongst other things.) Plus the use of red as a theme colour for the dance and movement sequences is meant to signify warmth, but at one point red was liberally applied to trailers in the form of a backdrop therefore one possible impression was that of 'red overload' (probably becoming too hot to handle!) as a result.

This whole concept of 'dance' perhaps dates back to that now long-shelved notion of BBC One being a predominantly entertainment-based channel, plus at that time it may not have been beyond the realms of probability that the branding was perhaps going to be reinforced at a later stage with the use of a permanent on-screen logo (a bug or DOG - 'digitally originated graphic' in BBC-speak) at some point; certainly a DOG was used for a short while for digital broadcasts but was scrapped after many complaints, therefore like the 'entertainment channel' plan this never actually materialised.

But what was perhaps the most contentious aspect of these idents was the absence of any definable logo or symbol that stood out from this "dance and movement" identity. It seems fairly apparent that Lorraine Heggessey (and the Lambie-Nairn agency) at the time didn't seem to feel that this would be an issue, because these idents relied on abstract concepts such as the colour red and the notion of movement in order to convey the branding message. The BBC One logo was in a box positioned in the bottom-left corner of the screen, but that was also the case for channel promotions and trailers which could equally be seen on other BBC channels therefore the channel identity was in grave danger of being diluted as a result.

Perhaps the whole problem was that they tried to cram both a message relating to a channel's character (warm and entertaining) and a branding message into a few seconds of airtime; ideally speaking a channel ident should be about identity first and foremost, which has now become even more important with more channels to choose from. Indeed you have the conflict of having less time to convey a branding message coupled with the need for the particular message to be stronger.

Will the dance/movement idents ever be reappraised in a more positive light at a future date? It would be foolish to give an unequivocal answer, but given the fact that these idents seemed to break tried and tested branding rules (to varying degrees) at least on paper, they are likely to be judged as a brave attempt at originality but ultimately doomed to failure.

Ignoring whether or not they effectively branded the channel (surely that's what idents should do first and foremost), it has to be said that some of the dance-based idents actually did work really well in an emotional sense; the ballet ident in particular was beautifully arranged and the music was surprisingly moving if heard in full. The skateboarding ident was also worthy for having a reflective piano-based arrangement which seemed curiously at odds with the action sequence being shown but both sound and vision still seemed to work well together.

Also the "Christmas specials" seemed to work better as distinctive channel identifiers in the sense that they were based around a distinctive symbol or unusual backdrop, though the BBC did get some flack for using the same ident featuring children in reindeer costumes two years in succession.

So in conclusion relating to the BBC's brave dance and movement idents, they were exquisitely produced by and large (though inevitably some looked better than others), but the whole dance-and-movement concept was perhaps more suited for a shorter term use as a channel promotion; the sequences certainly had a certain feel about them which rightly or wrongly tended to suggest this.

The dance and movement idents were finally withdrawn on Saturday 7 October 2006, with a final montage sequence of the commonly-used idents being shown (minus the Haka rugby ident which supposedly had been retired earlier), ending with the Ballet ident leading into News 24; a special effort compared with the last showing of the balloon ident. Later that same morning a whole new look was introduced for BBC One which picked up on an old theme but given a whole new contemporary twist - circles.

Following on from the dance and movement idents should be a relatively simple task since those particular idents may not have worked their way into the public's consciousness to the same degree as either the balloons or any of the globes, and given the hostility previously shown towards these dance idents, any successor should in theory be welcomed with open arms whether or not they turn out to be as iconic as some of the channel's previous identities.

Even so it's incredibly difficult to devise a new identity package for a major TV channel which is the reason why consultancies such as Red Bee Media are paid lots of money (in this case over a million pounds); the penalty for failure can be high, especially when considering the tough competition provided by other channels, and even more so given the fact that the money is sourced from the licence fee.

Some critics have said that the BBC could have used the money that was spent on new idents to safeguard jobs within its news department instead whilst reverting back to the use of a spinning globe; that point of view superficially appears to have a fair deal of merit. However it has to be said that the BBC has had a rough time recently in terms of public perception therefore the requirement to portray the image of a 'modern broadcaster' against the competition is judged to be of great importance (especially when you consider the likes of Channel 4's idents), plus the total cost of the overall identity package is relatively small given the number of times the idents will be shown as well as compared to programme budgets.

Red Bee Media is a young company that mainly consists of ex-BBC staff since it was created from a BBC department. However Red Bee is completely independent of the BBC and has done extensive work for other broadcasters both in the UK and abroad such as ITV plc and RTÉ (to name but two); it was chosen from a shortlist to produce the BBC One identity package and was also responsible for creating BBC Four's optical illusion-based idents.

Whilst researching television identities as part of the initial planning for the new idents, Red Bee Media's staff looked back at BBC Television branding prior to the introduction of the globe, and the common theme that seemed to emerge was the circle motif. A circle is a very common feature for both test cards and tuning signals since it provides an obvious check of whether a television receiver is displaying a perfectly proportioned picture; if the circle looks more like a rugby ball then the picture is either too stretched or squashed and needs to be adjusted accordingly.

Basing the new identity around the concept of a circle not only subconsciously recalls the globes and balloon idents but also supposedly intends to suggest a theme of 'togetherness' relating to the channel; certainly the action of having objects circling the channel logo does loosely signify a 'group' mentality, though whether this intention will actually register with any of the Great British Public waiting for EastEnders to come on remains to be seen. However such ident packages are generally intended to be long term projects, and impart more of a character as opposed to a blatant marketing message (which is left for programme trails and other presentational devices).

BBC One controller Peter Fincham has said that since BBC One doesn't use "permanent branding during programmes" (ie. a permanent on-screen channel identification logo, or DOG - digitally originated graphic - in BBC-speak, as used by nearly all of the digital-only channels), as a consequence the branding inbetween the programmes has to be strong in order to make up for not using a channel brand DOG. However he doesn't appear to be a fan of such on-screen logos and he has said that he won't introduce such a logo unless he is forced into doing so.

Prior to September 2002, a clock was almost always shown just before news bulletins but was hardly ever shown at other times; the use of a clock was quietly dropped altogether with the introduction of the 'dance and movement' idents. (Rumour has it that a clock was developed for use with the dance ident package but a decision was made to discontinue the use of a clock prior to the package introduction.)

A reason why a clock is no longer used is supposedly to do with the slight time delay that occurs with digital transmissions, though this delay has been subsequently reduced with technological improvements at both the studio and receiver sides of the transmission chain and is arguably not of great importance. However it's a great pity that a clock is no longer shown since the circles theme seems perfect for the use of a round clock face, and none of the idents (at least those used from launch) seem really suited for serious programming.

One sometimes-overlooked feature of idents is the accompanying music or short jingle. The brief for the BBC One idents was to have music that still sounds relatively fresh when heard for the thousandth time therefore the approach adopted this time is to have arrangements that are complex and highly textured in order to achieve this intention; the alternative might have been to use a simple three or four note theme but this level of simplicity seems to be out of vogue at this particular time.

More to the point, are these circle-themed idents really effective as idents? Some might complain that a circle is too simple and perhaps maybe a relatively indistinct concept for use as a logo/symbol, though it's the way the circle appears in the first place (together with the BBC One logo) that makes the difference. Also it should be noted that the circle theme is reinforced with appropriate animations at the start and end of promotions, which gives the impression of a theme culminating in the final animation as used in the idents themselves.

Another possible question that might be raised relates to whether using specific themes for the new circle-based idents (hippos, kites, motorbikes...) is actually just repeating the same mistake that the previous dance-orientated idents made in terms of tokenism? Some of the idents certainly lend themselves to specific applications (and they will be shown before appropriate programming), but ultimately the circles just form out a sequence of events in a similar manner to bits of hedge/breeze block/bales of hay are being used to surreally create the Channel 4 logo as part of that particular channel's contemporaneous idents.

Indeed the 'events' that lead to the circle being formed are somewhat reminiscent of the 'heart'-based idents that were introduced in 1999 to some ITV regions, in that what appears to be a real-life event causes a shape (heart or circle) to form, whether it is a succession of kites forming a circle or two fairground ferris wheels forming a heart shape. Out of the initial batch of idents launched for BBC One's new look (there are more planned to follow), only the Surfers ident doesn't carry the circle theme right through to the end, though this does provide a touch of individuality which somehow proves that the effect hasn't been computer generated or heavily edited to provide a desired effect.

Although most attention has inevitably been focused on the new idents, they are only one part of the new look that the channel has adopted. Programme promotions now display the white 'BBC one' logo superimposed in the bottom-centre of the screen - the same position as used during the era of the balloon idents, though this logo now initially appears with a simpler version of the circular animation effect used elsewhere. However the channel's logo now becomes larger and moves to the centre of the screen for the end of programme trails and for the idents themselves, which is a departure from the static BBC ONE logo position adopted from September 1997 at the time of the balloon idents introduction.

One fairly obvious theme which continues on from the era of the dancers is the same use of a tomato shade of red as a backdrop towards the end of the each programme promotion as before, though this time the colour fills the screen in a swirl together with accompanying circle animations in white and a darker shade of red providing a complimentary 'shadow' effect; the BBC one logo moving to the centre of the screen - initially as a larger, darker red 'shadow' before appearing slightly smaller in white - together with programme details displayed above it. When the promotion makes use of 'THE ONE' to watch slogan, 'THE one' replaces the 'BBC one' logo at the beginning of the promotion.

Also the 'BBC one' logo can occasionally be seen in a red box just like it was during the 'dancers' era, though this particular use is restricted to cross-channel promotions and certain promotional still captions. This raises an interesting issue that BBC One now has an identity package that appears to be a mix of both old and new elements, as well as now breaking rank with what was a reasonably consistent style that once applied across all of the BBC's UK TV channels, though BBC Three had previously introduced non-standard sloping 'THREE' text which was then followed by BBC Four subsequently moving its logo in a box to the centre of the screen for its new idents and promo style.

The merits and demerits of having a rigidly consistent corporate standard across TV channels are open to debate - the BBC brand may arguably be strong enough not to require rigid cross-channel conformity - though ITV introduced inconsistencies in its ident logo positioning when it had previously introduced new idents across its channels in 2005 (which had also been conceived by Red Bee Media).

Overall it has to be said that the 'circles' identity for BBC One seems to work consistently well and is a distinct improvement in terms of traditional branding compared with what went before; the idents themselves may not be witty or require masses of brainpower to interpret but there again that sort of thing would be inappropriate for a mainstream channel such as BBC One. And the channel's presentation package works relatively seamlessly as a whole, which is more than what can be said for several other channels at the time of its introduction.

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Article ©2006 David Hastings

Compilation ©2006 Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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