Boom-banga-bong

By Jonathan Bufton

Bang Bang bum-bum bum, bum-bum bum, bum-bum bum...

It's hard to believe that such a textual description is of the music bed used in a news programme, least of all by the BBC. But the line above - the BBC News headlines music - was first heard at 1300 on 10 May 1999, and it was the start of 17 months of rebranding to produce an image that has been praised so much that it seems strange that only two years ago BBC News was being accused of stuffiness and inaccessibility.

Corporate images are nothing new to the BBC - the style using a circle made up of horizontal lines, dubbed "the Chinese lantern", was seen across all standard BBC News bulletins in the early 80s. There was also alignment with the regions - Nationwide and especially Sixty Minutes gave the regional news programmes similar studio sets to the national news magazine show. However, the failure of Sixty Minutes led to this pioneering approach being abandoned until very recently.

Understandably, the BBC were very wary of making the same mistake with the early-evening news again, so when Sixty Minutes finally got the axe in September 1984 the Six O'Clock News was launched with a distinctive theme tune and studio set, completely different to the regional news and other BBC News programmes. The replacement of News After Noon with the uninspiringly named One O'Clock News in October 1986 led again to a unique image for the programme. So much so that by 1988 the only evidence left of the "lantern" titles was in weekend bulletins. A corporate look had been chipped away at until there was nothing left, and in October of that year the theme of the re-launched Nine O'Clock News was used at weekends. To make things more confusing, the theme to the One was now used for all daytime summaries, and later those at daytime over the weekend.

Clearly things were getting a little bit confused, and with satellite and cable television on the horizon something had to be done. The 1993 re-launch of BBC News saw all programmes adopt the same style, but with subtle differences. Each had a giant glass sculpture of the BBC crest in the titles sequence, but the positioning changed with each bulletin - on the Nine it was a lot darker than on the One to reflect the time of the programme. The individual theme tunes remained, as did the history-affected times they were used, but were all arranged by an orchestra so seemed to be from the same stable. There was one big problem - the embrace of virtual reality graphics at their height meant that by 1998/9 they were accused of being dated, and also rather daft. Did anyone believe the studio was that big, and that they'd got such a big glass thing in there?

This brings us up to the present. On 10 May 1999 the BBC's domestic bulletins at 1300, 1800 and 2100 (and also daytime and weekend too) were all revamped at the same time. Each featured exactly the same theme tune, and came from the same studio, but each featured its own distinctive title sequence (featuring either a large spinning number representing the time of the broadcast or a spinning globe for other bulletins). It was a refreshing breath of fresh air, as was the new Six, which now included regional opt-outs for headlines and increased incorporation into the main broadcast following the elections for the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament the previous Thursday.

One only had to look over to "the other side" to see how lucky we had actually been. ITN - sorry, ITV News - had desperately revamped their programmes following the hasty scrapping of News at Ten, and the new, oddly timed broadcasts were accompanied by yet another re-orchestration of the News at Ten theme - branded, with bongs, across every bulletin, presumably to squeeze every last drop of goodness out of News at Ten. That fact that the only time any bongs would be sounding was at the start of the 2300 programme seemed to escape them - and adverts pushed back that till 2305 as well.

Meanwhile, the success of BBC News' recognisably, authoritative and aesthetically pleasing new image gave the green light for the department to roll out the branding across all other BBC News programmes. The first to change, on 4 October 1999, were the regional news programmes in the three devolved nations - Newsline, Wales Today and Reporting Scotland. These all had their own special title sequence and theme tune, but all in the recognisably BBC News style. In addition an experimental two English regional programmes - Look North for North East and Cumbria and Newsroom South East also adopted a theme tune (but unique title sequence) which would eventually be used across all English regional news programmes and on UK Today from late October 1999, as BBC News 24 adopted the corporate look.

The adoption of the look by News 24 was a major step, giving the successful branding a 24-hour presence. From about March 2000 all other English regional news programmes took the style to their own broadcasts, with the entire set being completed in June that year. Around this time BBC World, the BBC's international news and factual programmes channel began to use the style too. Although this has only been seen and heard by UK viewers twice on domestic broadcasts (during BBC News 24 off-air periods in June 2000 and March 2001), it has been enough to establish it as one of the best. The music beds used during advert breaks for non-commercial operators is particularly good, making the amount of variations of the theme in existence seem unlimited. S4C's Newyddion, made by BBC Wales, even managed to infiltrate the style to a commercial channel.

The branding entered its final stage on 2 October 2000, when the new Breakfast programme was launched and the whole BBC News operation changed to widescreen. Once again, the recognisable style had been retained whilst modifying it for a different (or half-asleep) audience. This particular arrangement is very well judged, because the problem with the 1993 application of the theme to Breakfast News was that it was just too pompous, loud and big for that time of the morning. It was lost in June 1997 as the programme adopted its own, much better judged identity.

This brings us up to the present day. In little more than a year the entire output of the BBC News department was re-branded in the beige walls, silver desk, window-with-view image. It has undoubtedly improved the service - ratings for the Six are higher than ever, the One gets higher ratings than it's ITV counterpart and the moving of the Nine to become the Ten has been remarkably successful for both BBC News and ITN, disproving political finger wagging around the time. BBC News 24 has gained ground over the last 18 months as the integrated look reminds viewers that they're "in safe hands", and, perhaps most satisfying of all, the regional news is now more important than ever, with a branding matching it to the mainstream news programmes and incorporation into all the main bulletins.

How bizarre that a national channel with regional opt-outs is now more committed to regionalism than a regional channel with networked programmes. As part of the BBC's Ten O'Clock News proposals the regional news was doubled in length and incorporated into the actual programme. ITV proposed to leave it where it is - 2320 - an hour after the main news finishes.

So what have we learned? Yes, branding does matter. Yes, regional news does matter. Yes, you can do something without "viewer demand" and feel it has been worthwhile in the end. But above all, everyone prefers bums to bongs...

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Article ©2001 Jonathan Bufton

Compilation ©2001 Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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