The colour of news has changed says Jonathan Bufton
There are many reactions that can be made to changes in television presentation. They range from general praise (see Central's cake, C4's blocks and BBC 4's innovative idents) - to general indifference (see the current Channel 5 idents, the ITN News Channel and the ITV1 hearts).
However, once in a while something comes along where the overwhelming reaction is "No! What the hell are you playing at?" Previous recipients include Channel 3 North East (formerly known as Tyne Tees) and Yorkshire Television's first colour frontcap. Usually these examples come after something either particularly good or well remembered. On 29th April 2002, BBC News 24's graphics were added to this group.
As a part of the BBC News generic image, News 24's music, graphics and overall look had been widely praised by the sort of people who praise this kind of thing since their inception in the autumn of 1999. The music was funky - the 90 second "countdown" has been a popular internet download since it was first played out in full in early 2000 - and the graphics were neat, logical and made sense.
Whereas previously the name and details captions had hovered around the clock, not particularly fitting in with each other, now they interlocked and worked together in a well-thought out building-block principle. The clock sat in the bottom left of the screen. If needed the "LIVE" logo sat on top of that. Any further captions then flashed up in the standard "bar" fashion would then be the same height as this little block on the left of the screen.
But it didn't stop there - the colour scheme of purple clock and astons, beige title bar and yellow writing complemented each other perfectly. They weren't too intrusive - indeed when watching in widescreen most of the left hand side of the screen was empty. After a while the "Breaking News" DOG that had previous resided in the top left hand corner was integrated with the main block at the bottom - an example of good graphic design.
Apart from the URL DOG, News 24's graphics were among the best designed in television history. But then all that changed. In an item in Media Guardian's Media Monkey column a News 24 editor was reported as commenting that "if there's been a movement in the FTSE index then you want a big arrow showing you that". This contrasted with News 24's gentle and understated graphics, and indicated that a new approach was on the way. It didn't take a genius to notice where the influence was coming from.
In September 2001 Sky News's long awaited new look was launched, and presentation fans almost universally ridiculed its use of enormous captions and font sizes. A radio DJ even remarked that it looked like an advert for MFI.
It was also remarked that the use of red in almost every instance looked tacky. This was demonstrated no better than on the morning of the death of Princess Margaret in February 2002, when News 24's sombre black information bars and deep purple background colours were contrasted by enormous white-on-red "ROYAL DEATH" blobs on Sky News.
A number of other decisions made by News 24 - such as to drop "LIVE" logos (obvious when you think about it) and not treat the event as a "Breaking News" occasion - were not followed by Sky, highlighting the different approaches taken by the two channels. It was therefore somewhat surprising when the new graphics machine whirred into life at the end of April.
One of the joys of the BBC News corporate look is that it can have so many different images, yet all recognisably come from the same stable. This also enables programmes to have mini-relaunches after a few years to keep the look of the programme fresh, whilst keeping within the established look of BBC News.
A number of programmes took advantage of this in autumn 2001 - BBC World modified their set to include more red, BBC One and Two News revamped their studio to include more red, BBC LDN launched with an almost entirely red title sequence and News 24 had sections of its set repainted red. Red was the new beige - but not any old red, a deep china red. But you can have too much of a good thing - and those who revamped News 24's graphics obviously had a lot of red left over from the other areas of BBC News.
Solid black and red monstrosities replaced the subtle and gentle purple and beige caption bars. Unlike their predecessors these reached right down to the bottom of the screen, and then again all the way over to the left, all in all covering about a third of the screen. It didn't stop there - the beige title bar used to indicate what the story being reported on was about was now bright red, using a very chunky font.
This meant that there was now no distinction between normal news and Breaking News in terms of colour. The clock had also been altered - instead of a hovering rectangle it was now stretched all the way to the bottom of the screen. The colours made the screen look a lot darker - ironic considering News 24's initial response was to claim they made the channel brighter. But perhaps the most stupid decision was to make the whole lot solid, rendering anything underneath completely invisible to the viewer.
With a third of the screen now covered it would have been thought that this was more of a necessity than ever. And curiously, the business graphics, which started the issue of a revamp, remained the same - complete with small arrows!
The strangest aspect of this relaunch was that it completely threw out the 1999 corporate rule book that all BBC News programmes had spent three years trying to adopt. Breakfast, BBC World and even News 24's own sport graphics no longer lined up with the clock. News 24 had gone off in its own little world, a bit like the grumpy teenager who wants to be different despite all efforts to make him fit in.
Changes were inevitable - after all, any grainy, distant pictures during Breaking News would be rendered unwatchable by the huge block at the bottom of the screen covering up a large portion of the picture. So, after only 35 hours on the air, the clock reverted to its previous design at 5pm the day after the changes.
Later that week the black area of the astons was changed to a semi-transparent version, so the picture underneath could be seen. There were even a few improvements on the old graphics - the Potters Bar train crash, whilst tragic in itself, gave News 24 an opportunity to try out the slick new transition methods, such as sliding the information bar down to the same level as the clock, and then back up again, and shrinking the presenter into a variety of different boxes next to alternative camera views of outside broadcasts - although thankfully without the "swoosh" noises that Sky accompanies some of these with.
But it is hard to see a way in which any of these new methods that couldn't have been implemented on the old graphics. Indeed, it looks like News 24 is constantly playing catch up with Sky News at the moment.
The new graphics mimic Sky's obsession with the colour red and the use of the colour all over the screen in chunky graphics. The modified studio set introduced two weeks after the new graphics moved the presenters closer together and added a block of screens in the main view behind the presenters - sound familiar?
It is a shame that the channel has been reduced to doing this, as many people have realised that the two channels are two very different beasts, each with their own good and bad points. News 24 is already catching up with Sky News - and this has been without mimicking them. The editors would do well to remember this as their channel comes to further prominence.