E4 emperor 

24 May 2004 tbs.pm/2015

The best presentation on satellite comes from the sister station of Channel Four. James Pittman looks into E4’s secret.

What makes good station presentation? That is a question that I am sure many writers could easily and keenly answer. A good, memorable, distinct symbol? Innovation? Imagination?

A warm, inviting feel? Symbolism over corporate identity? The answer is all of these and a lot more to boot. The unfortunate fact is they are all qualities that have been lacking from our television screens in recent years.

There are many that criticise modern TV presentation. The loss of the BBC globe, the ever more corporate look of ITV, stations being more concerned about pushing their product than trying to strike a lasting on screen relationship with you.

And if all of this is happening on our five terrestrial bastions of broadcasting, what hope is there for that big bad world of digital TV channels, all competing fiercely for the fractions of a percent of the total audience share and coping on shoestring budgets?

Well, for the most part, I think digital TV presentation is pretty poor at best and dire at worst. Channel identities all seem to merge into one and there is precious little presentation these days that jumps out at you and makes you stand back and notice a channel in awe. There is, however, one service out there which I believe bucks this trend.

E4 is not everybody’s cup of tea. I think you either love it or you hate it. For some it is a place where you’ll find all your favourite television programmes rolled nicely into one channel, whereas for others it is just another excuse for US imports and rather bizarre comedy shows you’d rather not watch.

But whatever your views of the programmes’ output there is one thing I don’t think can be denied – and that is they know how to present themselves.

E4 was launched with a great deal of anticipation and expectation and not just in terms of the programming output.

Those that were keenly watching at the start would have been greeted by a Channel 4 ident (either the original ‘coloured blocks 4’ or the ‘moving bars’) being somehow perverted by animators with lots of little multicoloured ‘jumping E4s’ popping out of the woodwork.

So what exactly is it about this channel’s presentation that I think makes it a cut above the rest?

The Symbol

For a station to work you’ve got to have a good symbol. BBC-1 had the globe. Yorkshire had the chevron, Granada had the… thing Granada had, and E4 has the E4 four. The E4 four has everything a symbol needs.

It is simple but not too simple. It has a certain retro ’70s style to it yet looks fresh and in keeping with the style of the channel. Best of all it isn’t too corporate. When you look at the E4 four you’re looking at a true symbol. Not a company title like the BBC blocks or the ITV blue and yellow box.

What you have is a symbol that identifies the station and not the company who makes it and that is the first thing I believe E4 have got right.

Imagination

Broadcasters such as Central in the ’80s and ABC before it aren’t considered classical masters of TV presentation by accident. They had imagination. The Central orb and cake could be seen in countless forms – often fitting to the current mood or theme of the station, and all expertly done.

Some of the BBC’s best work is the most imaginative too, with the prime example being the BBC’s ‘2’ of 1990-2002 which also took the symbol to many very different forms. Despite the fact a little imagination goes a long way, such creativity has been sorely lacking in the vast majority of television presentation in the last couple of decades, yet E4 seem to be the exception who carry on the torch.

Only a few years into existence we have seen the station image go a long way. First of all were the original E4 shots, the jumping E4s coming out of sardine cans and mechanical sliding bars, and from the station’s first-ever commercial break onwards we have the break bumpers.

These in themselves put the station on the map – where else is there anything else quite like it? Break bumpers are usually some of the dullest parts of television presentation – things we don’t even pay attention to that just pass us by. But E4’s broken phrases are really something different.

With that now expected “bleep”, E4 splits bizarre phrases of generally two words in half with one half at the start of the break and the rest at the end.

Your first impression is that it is all some sinister way to stop you turning over during the adverts so as to see what the rest of the phrase is but you soon learn to love it and the important thing is, unlike any other station, you find yourself actually taking notice of the break bumpers time and time again whereas with most stations you pay no attention after the first two or three times you see them. A classic example of a small bit of imagination going a very long way – the approach you need to make presentation magical.

And E4 don’t come up with these ideas and only put half their heart into them – very rarely is it that you see two of the same set of words on a break bumper. I get the feeling the number of bumpers must be in the hundreds, or at least the station gives us that impression.

Either way, it is an achievement not to be dismissed. If a station doesn’t tire on the audience very quickly something must be right.

Then there was more: The strange continuity announcements made up of footage of people dressed in ’70s attire in restaurants and bars with a purple computer style slide bar telling us how much of the continuity announcement was left and a number telling us which continuity identity video this is.

It’s bizarre, very bizarre but it works. With each ident being different we pay attention each time. We know we are watching E4, and, unlike the rest of the channels, everything doesn’t blur into one. E4 is different, it is wacky, and, along with the general image, that is exactly what is trying to be got across and is done well.

And there is more again – the mirrors. Ugly people posing and poncing about into the camera as if it were a mirror in a toilet or bathroom (as demonstrated by the mirror-inverted E4 symbol in the corner.)

Reminiscent of the time when Channel four had its celebrities banging on the camera glass with their fingers, it is one of many types of presentation that is fresh and different and makes us sit up and notice them. With E4, the continuity is part of the enjoyment and not just something between the programmes or an opportunity to flaunt corporate identity as continuity these days so often is.

And like all the great presentation departments of years gone by, E4’s don’t fall short of supplying presentation in tune with current themes on the channel. Little E4 fours jumping about as if they were BBC ‘2s’ in a mock-up of the Big Brother house is one such recent example.

Style and Consistency

The look and feel of a station has to stand up and be bold for presentation to be a success and this definitely happens in the case of E4 – they have this one cracked too. Forget the wishy-washy attempts made by E4’s rivals, Play UK, Sky One, BBC Choice and ITV2 – when E4 is presenting something you know what channel you’re watching and not just because of the onscreen graphic.

Nowhere else on digital TV will you see a font quite like the one E4 use, and the purple and white cements the station so that you are absolutely certain who you’re dealing with.

Everything E4 does shouts at you “E4” and it shouts it loud. Sky One and BBC Choice merely suggest it.

Different

Everything about E4 is different and the trailers are no exception. Trailers are often presentation’s worse enemy these days as broadcasters cram in more and more trailers at the expense of quality presentation time, but E4 uses imagination here too.

The ‘Second Chance Sunday’ features of a while back are a great example. Such a mundane subject as repeat times are made almost sensational by the campaign. ‘Second Chance Sunday’ is a household name in homes that are regular viewers of the channel.

Yet another example of how presentation is part of the entertainment of the channel and not just a bit in between.

Modern

E4 doesn’t have clocks. It doesn’t have start-ups. There are no in-vision announcers sat behind a desk with a suit, tie and a bowl of petunias. Formality is mocked at and nothing is serious – even other channel’s’ continuity is joked at (such as the E4’s mock up of the BBC acrobat idents.)

Where older channels wanted to stress formality and a respectful air of authority, E4 wants to stress a feeling of comedy and light-heartedness. But like its more formal predecessors it achieves this in much the same way – through great presentation.

Many modern channels use the informality of modern times as an excuse for poor presentation. E4 demonstrates that a true modern and informal approach to TV presentation, just like a true formal and authoritative one, needs hard work and real thought in the presentation department.

In a modern age of scores of rivals all trying to be unique and in doing so ending up looking the same, E4 really stands out from the crowd with all of the ingredients of great presentation.

It just goes to show that a modern style of presentation can have real gems as well as disaster zones just as much as traditional presentation can. Let’s hope the imagination and creativity of the E4 team lives on.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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