Down in front 

24 May 2004

David Hastings remembers when programmes gave you the most important information first

Virtually everyone who remembers watching ITV prior to 1988 will have seen what is known as a pre-programme production ident or “frontcap” (front caption) which told the viewer the name of the ITV franchise that had produced the programme which was about to be shown.

Some ITV companies’ frontcaps consisted of short animations which were sometimes very elaborate, whilst others were simply static symbols displayed along with some text. Prior to 1988 almost all programmes shown on ITV that had been produced by an ITV franchise to feature a frontcap, and since the franchises provided a high proportion of ITV output, frontcaps were a very common sight on UK TV screens.

Any non-franchise programming, such as feature films or imports, just used the local ITV company ident as a frontcap, though a feature film usually also had a production frontcap of its own, such as the famous 20th Century Fox logo lit up by searchlights or the Columbia Statue of Liberty.

Television copied may conventions from the cinema, and the frontcap was just one of them. They effectively put the name of the programme’s producer “up front”, so there would be a reasonably good chance that the average viewer would associate the company name emblazoned on the frontcap with the nature of the programme’s contents.

In theory this should act as a form of incentive on the part of the programme producer to produce a worthwhile programme – after all, you shouldn’t want your company name to be associated with something that was rubbish. But, in practice, this didn’t stop certain ITV franchises producing some dire programming, though at least it may have helped viewers to subconsciously identify them.

The use of frontcaps effectively helped to develop the reputation (good or bad) of individual ITV franchises for programme making. They made clear that it was not only the franchises that were responsible for the bulk of the channel’s programming but also that the more important ITV franchises had the most airtime when it came to networked programmes.

And the style of frontcaps used varied from the very basic to the elaborately animated; who could forget ATV’s elaborate ‘In Colour’ ‘zoom’ that combined numerous graphic elements, or for that matter ABC’s earlier monochrome masterpiece that used three triangles allied to three chimes and a drum? Granada’s silent static caption exuded an air of understated confidence, whilst Southern used various forms of its star symbol during its lifetime.

And whatever you thought of the frontcaps themselves, there were the programmes that became associated with the programme makers. Anglia’s rotating knight became associated with Sale of the Century and Survival. ATV with Pipkins, Tiswas and Sapphire and Steel. Granada with Coronation Street, University Challenge and World in Action. Central with Auf Weidersehn, Pet Shine On Harvey Moon. Thames with The Bill, This Week and the Kenny Everett Video Show, and countless other frontcap-programme combinations.

Before computer graphics became commonplace, animation of frontcaps had to be achieved the ‘hard way’ using a variety of standard animation techniques, which often meant that individual captions had to be hand drawn or painted – a very labour intensive task. A cheaper (but often effective) alternative was the use of a mechanical roller or turntable to obtain a form of movement without recourse to time consuming and expensive stop motion animation techniques.

By the 1980s computer graphics meant that elaborate animation was no longer such a time consuming task. The downside was that some frontcaps and idents were starting to take on an air of ‘corporate blandness’ when they become too slick and sophisticated as a consequence, but there were still some excellent frontcap animations (such as the Central ‘cake’) produced during this period.

Just before Channel 4 launched in November 1982, I thought that every programme would feature a frontcap just like it did on ITV. And having read the pages of the TV Times that featured the first week of Channel 4 broadcasts, I was amazed at the weird and wonderful selection of company names. Along with the familiar Thames, Yorkshire and Granada were many more unfamiliar names such as Chatsworth, Diverse, Illuminations and Mersey.

Therefore I assumed by default that all these new productions would have their own frontcaps – a whole new world of frontcaps to look out for. How wrong I was! As soon as the launch sequence of Channel 4 had finished, Paul Coia announced the very first programme (Countdown) but instead of the Yorkshire Television caption and fanfare appearing, the programme instead started straight away.

Feeling perplexed, bemused, and slightly disappointed (the disappointment of there being no frontcaps was somewhat offset by the novelty of a whole new channel to watch) I watched some more programmes but there were no frontcaps to be seen. Anywhere. Although I didn’t realise it at that particular time, Channel 4 was the turning point. The days of the frontcap appearing on ITV were now numbered and their demise was only a matter of time, since if Channel 4 no longer used such formal methods of programme identification, ITV follow suit.

Given my interest in television, it may seem surprising that I didn’t particularly notice the time when frontcaps were no longer used on ITV, but I had already got used to their absence on Channel 4. So when they eventually vanished from ITV presentation it didn’t seem as strange somehow as it would have done otherwise.

Frontcaps didn’t die out altogether after the start of 1988. Indeed one networked peak time programme shown after 1997 even had an LWT frontcap, presumably as a special request. But broadcasters came to realise that they would have more time to show trailers and other promotional items (if not more commercials) with the extra seconds in the schedule that became available.

At about the same time as ITV frontcaps were abolished, there was an increase in the number of independent productions from small non-franchise UK companies for the ITV network, so in a way the abolition of frontcaps was partly done for the same reasons as Channel 4.

The demise of frontcaps means that the credit for the company that produced a programme is now only found at the very end of the programme, often sandwiched between the end credits and a promotion for another programme (or for that matter an ‘end credit promotion’). As a consequence the casual viewer who has either changed channels or has stopped watching often misses it. ITV has now become more of a ‘channel brand’ as opposed to a place where you can watch programmes.

It’s a subtle change of emphasis but important nonetheless, though ultimately it may try to conceal often second-rate programmes in the context of the channel as a ‘whole’. The brand is now more important than the companies who produce the programmes, and with the vision of a ‘single ITV’, channel loyalty has overtaken programme loyalty.

This utopian vision has one major and fatal flaw – people tend to watch programmes as opposed to channels; they don’t care which channel Coronation Street is shown on but do care about the quality of programmes. If they see the name of the programme’s producer before a programme that they actually like, they may make the subconscious brand connection.

Due to the huge amount of bland and second rate programmes showing on ITV at the moment (my personal opinion) the concept of loyalty may be hard to come by. And without frontcaps, producers can hide behind a veil of semi-anonymity. Mention a modern programme such as Survivor and remembering the programme’s producer is a much harder task for ‘Joe Public’ than it was before frontcaps were abolished – though nowadays ITV programming is either produced by Carlton, a Granada Media subsidiary or an independent company.

Current programme production endcaps are also often lost in a bombardment of end credit promotional voiceovers and videoclips, and is often subservient in relation to the desire to keep the viewer tuned in to the very next programme.

Frontcaps can sometimes still be seen though when older ITV series are repeated on other channels both here and abroad. The old Thames mirror frontcap has been spotted before episodes of The Bill (for example) made well after 1988 when shown in certain countries. That Thames frontcap has even been briefly featured in an episode of The Simpsons, which shows how important this form of frontcap branding has been in cultural terms.

Ironically, the BBC has now realised the potential of programme production branding (long after ITV companies had given up the practice) by placing a BBC logo on the title sequence of a programme. From that, I predict that there may be a revival in the use of frontcaps when video-on-demand services become widely available in the UK.

Frontcaps have been a highly memorable piece of television heritage and I doubt whether there would have been such an interest in the subject of television presentation amongst certain people if those captions had never existed.

Whilst this writer has never seen a full clock of this type, it is suspected that the centre only read ‘Schools and Colleges’ at the start and end of the sequence.

As far as its workings are concerned, perhaps the individual dots were weighted so that left to themselves they would, by default, show their white side. A card rotated behind the background, and by means of a tab or similar on each dot they would, as the card rotated, be spun around to reveal the darker side of the dot. Remember, though, that this is only a guess! What has been seen, though, which supports this idea, is the clock resetting – it looked as if the card that was holding the dots was ‘pulled away’, and the dots bounced back to their initial, white sides all at the same time.

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