Clocking off

By Ian Beaumont

Ian Beaumont on how clocks were used on-screen

Since the early days of television, the clock has been an integral part of presentation. In the early days, a model of the Houses of Parliament at Westminster was used to tell the time in scheduled timecheck slots.

Nowadays you only see an analogue clock face on BBC-1, Channel and very occasionally on BBC-2. Why is it that clocks have gone so out of favour? What was so wrong with using a clock as a presentation device?

Clocks have been incredibly useful in the world of branding. The BBC Television Service in 1953 had a clock designed to match the look of the new identity that had been created, known as the BBC Television Symbol, but these days affectionately known as the "Bat's Wing".

In those days as well, the Greenwich Time Signal was used alongside the clock on the BBC, and that didn't have the extended last pip that arrived in the 1970s.

But clocks weren't there just to tell the time. They were there to reinforce the station image, or branding, as it likes to be called today. TSW had a great clock throughout its licence period that strongly reinforced the visual identity of TSW by using having the outside of the clock attached to the ‘blue river' part of the logo.

Not just that either, but the clock was completely done in the corporate colour scheme. Shades of green, the blue exterior of the clock, and of course, white, on a black background. Even the 1989 ITV Corporate ident scheme had a clock to fit the look. In fact, the clock looked better than most of the regional identities that had been created for the 1989 corporate look.

Clocks came in all kinds of funny designs with a lot of extras in some cases. A 1960s Southern clock was digital display only, no analogue clock face, and that took up the whole screen.

The BBC in the early 1960s dabbled with a digital display only clock, although this didn't seem to last very long. Mid-1960s Rediffusion London used a clock with both an analogue clock face and a digital display. So did the Westward colour era clock. In the mid 1980s, Sky Channel had a two clocks on screen side by side, one showing the time in the UK and Ireland, and the other showing Central European Time.

Most companies in the mid-1960s, including famously Granada and ABC, had special Christmas clocks that were all dressed up for the festive season. A late 1970s clock for RTE2 also made use of some space down the left hand side of the screen to display programme listings for the evening ahead.

So why has the clock all but disappeared from our screens? What has made it go out of favour with today's broadcasters? Well, it could hardly be incorporating it into the various looks. After all, it wouldn't be very hard to incorporate a digital clock, a clock with an analogue face maybe trickier, but Carlton's look certainly could incorporate an analogue clock.

One idea that's been put forward is the fact that digital signals take longer from studio to screen because of the encoding and decoding processes that they have to go through, therefore any clock put out from the studio would go through about a 3 or 4 second delay before being received at the consumer's end.

Whilst in technical terms it is perfectly correct, the fact that most clocks disappeared before digital television was seriously considered by the industry would seem to suggest that that was not the main reason. Also contributing to that is the fact that Yorkshire TV had a clock as late as 1999, when DTT was over a year old, seeming to suggest that the technical argument is not the real reason.

Could deliberate policy decisions have led to the downfall of the clock? It's not a concept that's beyond the realms of possibility. Could it just be that clocks were regarded as old fashioned by broadcasters? Again, not beyond the realms of possibility.

The fact is though, that we just don't know why the clock has fallen out of favour. And although a technical argument about digital encoding and decoding might be appearing to be keeping it off our screens now, the fact is that the clock could be just what is needed to help television back on its feet in times of recession and falling quality.

It does get so boring watching idents every time. A clock would have the same effect now as it did in the past. Not just tell the time, but also to help reinforce a brand and also add a bit of variety to the presentation of a channel.

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Article ©2004 Ian Beaumont

Compilation ©2004 Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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