Back down to Earth

By David Hastings

BBC One globe

David Hastings on the replacement of the BBC globes with something very different

Back in January 2001, rumours started to circulate about the future of the 'BBC balloons' - various media reports claimed that the short balloon sequences used as the station identification for BBC One were due to be dropped.

The reason given was that they didn't fit in to the image that was planned for the revamp of BBC One - something "warmer" is apparently needed - along with the other three channels later in the year.

To summarise, BBC One is to become a more entertainment-driven channel, inheriting much of the programming that fits into this category from BBC Two. BBC Two in turn will become more serious; youth channel BBC Choice will metamorphose into BBC Three, and BBC Knowledge will be renamed BBC Four.

So it seems that when these changes take place later this year, BBC One will change fundamentally in character as a result - but will the changes really require a completely new way of presentation?

It could be possible that the identity for all four channels has already now been finalised in preparation for the changes taking place later this year. But, on the other hand, it could just be a PR exercise to gauge public reaction to them as part of the review and also to get people talking about the channel - and in that respect they have succeeded on both counts.

Looking at the on-screen image of BBC One from a historical perspective, there have been six major changes in on-screen identification since the introduction of the first BBC globe in 1963.

This first incarnation had the BBC rhombus logo (which had been phased in from 1958 but was not widely used until October 1960) in the bottom-right hand corner in a similar style to the BBC Schools Pie Chart which had been introduced three years earlier. When the first globe was introduced there was no BBC-2 at all - BBC-1 was still known simply as BBC-tv.

The next major change came in 1969 when colour was introduced; the globe was kept in a new psychedelic style with a change of caption that proudly announced "BBC-1 COLOUR". As time progressed, there were further, often minor, changes in terms of the type of globe, the colours used and the captioning style. More significant regional variations have been introduced at times for Scotland and Wales - particularly relating to the caption and colouring used - Wales, for example, has had yellow and orange globes and only in relatively modern times has taken the name ‘BBC-1' like the rest of the network.

At various times, the "BBC" lettering used with the globe and in captions was often in a different font from the main BBC logo - and in today's age of televisual corporate uniformity this is quite hard to imagine.

The main BBC logo remained more or less fixed throughout this period as rhombus lettering albeit with or without rounded corners. As for the globes themselves, they were mechanical with the backdrop colouring added electronically when used from the 1969 version onwards.

Despite a relaunch as a see-through, non-mirrored globe in the 1980s and as a smoky, dream-like globe in 1991, the globe has always remained recognisably just that - a globe. On 3 October 1997 this was to change when the idea of using a globe was finally abandoned after 34 or so years in favour of a whole new style for 'BBC ONE', as it was now officially known.

The BBC as a whole now had a logo that consisted of capital letters in squares, apparently so that it would look better on the forthcoming digital services and on computer screens. Gill Sans was the typeface introduced for both the logo and for on-screen captioning. The font was picked because it was apparently clear and forward-looking, whilst at the same time drawing on the BBC's history.

What was more radical though was what had happened to the familiar globe as the hallmark of BBC One - a large hot air balloon as a ‘globe-like' centrepiece symbol for the channel had now replaced it.

Various short films were made in a variety of locations throughout the British Isles, depicting the balloon floating above different landscapes, which enabled the BBC to provide variety as well as illustrating the fact that the BBC covers a wide variety of locations both in the UK and abroad.

Later balloon sequences have been developed both for general use such as skateboarders, bungee jumping, and a market at Kingston-upon-Thames. For occasions such as the 1999 Eclipse, the 2000 Olympics, and Christmas special versions have been produced, but some of the later sequences use computer-based image processing to put the balloon in places where to fly a genuine balloon would be costly, tricky or impossible.

There is certainly a genuine BBC balloon, though, and the real thing can be seen at various balloon festivals held at Bristol and Southampton.

So why would the BBC contemplate replacing the globe again so soon? Firstly, no matter how popular something is, if it doesn't do the job it was intended to do then it is effectively no good at all.

Those balloons may have performed their job admirably back in 1997 but if BBC One is to be fundamentally repositioned along with the other channels, the balloons as they stand would tend to suggest 'old general purpose BBC-1' and not the shiny 'new entertainment-driven BBC-1' image that the BBC now wants to portray.

Of course, at this stage nobody outside of the BBC knows what changes will actually happen (if any), but it may be possible to make some educated guesses based on what other broadcasters have done since 1997, and what the BBC have done themselves to various programmes. ITV introduced a new corporate look towards the end of 1998.

This attempts to reconcile the conflicting requirements of maintaining a corporate image of ITV as an entity whilst preserving some of the individuality of the various franchises, therefore it may follow that the BBC may be planning something similar across the four channels to differentiate them but link them together 'as part of the BBC'.

Some evidence to support this way of thinking comes from three sources: firstly the rationale used by ITV to introduce their ‘hearts' is based on the increased competition from numerous branded channels now available on digital services.

Secondly, the BBC has in the past hinted that it may introduce a permanent on-screen graphic 'bug' or DOG (digitally originated graphic) on all channels at some point - like the '5' in the top left hand corner on Channel 5 - but it will only be the BBC logo and not the channel name as currently with BBC Choice and Knowledge, which seems to suggest a desire to unify BBC digital channels.

Thirdly - and perhaps the most compelling evidence - the BBC has introduced a corporate look for all its news services from the regional programmes (rolled out last year) right up to BBC News 24; the title sequences use similar animations, graphics and music as well as many of the regional studio sets having a very similar layout to the national news.

Whether the BBC's desire to be 'corporate' remains resolute whilst under the overall control of Greg Dyke remains to be seen, but any changes made should be the most visible by far made to BBC Television since he was appointed last year, and it would be difficult to justify disparate images for four 'new' channels after making a strong case for unifying the look of the news services.

So whatever replaces the balloons is likely to be more entertainment-orientated as well as being flexible enough to accommodate the new role that BBC-1 is being asked to play.

Animations that are more complex than a simple spinning globe seem to be currently in vogue; something for an entertainment channel needs to be vibrant and distinctive, instantly identifiable at any point in the sequence, has to work well for both 'normal' and 'widescreen' formats as well as fitting in to a general proposed image (if one exists).

One idea would be to have different short sequences for different programming categories such as "makeover" shows, soaps, and light entertainment, but there would have to be a "miscellaneous category" as well.

But whatever the outcome, the successor to the balloons will have an uphill struggle to convince critics and balloon lovers as to their worth.

BBC Globes on-screen

Black and white BBC globe

An early appearance for the globe in black-and-white days. Also used were a version in a white square; white square plus dark border; and a "watch strap" effect.

First mirrored BBC 1 globe

The logical progression for the globe was into a "modern wonder of the world" version - in reality it was done with mirrors, but the look sums up BBC-1 for everyone over the age of 25.

BBC mirror globe with blocky font

Bigger and bolder in the mid-1970s as the mechanical globe gets the best typeface used yet - direct and memorably blocky, the font brooks no compromise.

BBC mirror globe with curly fontBBC1 Olympic ident

Less good is the late 70s/early 80s version of the type face (used on both BBC networks).

BBC 1 Computer Originated World BBC 1 COW, with subtitles

Michael Grade becomes controller of BBC1 and the new Computer Originated World appears.

Swirly BBC1

A new version. Barely recognisable as a globe for most of the animation and dismissed by most presentation enthusiasts. In reality, an instant classic and a great way of extending the 'range' of the idea.

BBC One Wales balloon

The final version of the globe. A balloon in red-and-yellow. Clever, infinitely adaptable, and loved by presentation enthusiasts. About time it was replaced by something inferior, then.

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System in general.

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Article ©2004 David Hastings

Compilation ©2004 Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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