Indepth on Ulster Television 

24 May 2004 tbs.pm/1980

Ulster TV logo

Colm O’Rourke looks in-depth at the Ulster oscilloscope

Many of the logos used by ITV companies over the years have rightly gone down in legend as triumphs of design and immortal symbols of a television age now limited to personal recollections and repeat showings.

One should note that the majority of these symbols came from the companies with a strong and consistent presence on the ITV network, hence the logos quickly manifested themselves into the psyche of the television audience.

But let’s not rule out the importance of the logos of the smaller companies, the backbone of the ITV network.

One of the best remembered logos of the small players in the ITV network was that of Ulster Television; technically called an oscilloscope, but to those not adept with the technical jargon, known as the “zig zag telly”.

The Ulster Television logo made its debut at 4:00pm on Saturday, 31st October 1959, preceding the station epilogue by Sir Laurence Olivier. A series of seven dots appearing while zooming in to the screen, with accompanying chimes.

This was followed by lines appearing to join the dots together in the shape of an oscilloscope, with the two lines joining the central three dots wiping up to complete the pattern. With the logo now complete, the station’s name was revealed underneath the pattern in tune with the closing bars of the ident music.

It was suggested the Ulster logo represented one of the mountain ranges in the Province, perhaps indicated by the choice of the folk tune The Mountains of Mourne as the accompanying jingle.

The logo however had a different, but still geographical, symbolism. Placed over a map of Northern Ireland, the seven dots represented some of the large towns in Northern Ireland, roughly positioned from west to east:

  • Strabane
  • (London)Derry
  • Enniskillen
  • Coleraine
  • Armagh
  • Ballymena
  • Belfast

The lines connecting the dots thus represented Ulster Television bringing the towns together through its service. The logo, despite its sparse appearance on the ITV network, became recognisable and is still associated with the station today.

1969 saw a modification to the Ulster oscilloscope, a stylising which has remained as Ulster’s immortal identifying symbol.

The original pattern was reduced in size and the dots were removed, with thicker lines and the pattern’s proportion maintained. Influenced by a later version of the original oscilloscope, surrounded by the shape of a television screen, the oscilloscope was encapsulated by a television screen.

The logo was mainly associated with the impending launch of a colour service in 1970. For most of the time, the new logo did not carry an accompanying jingle or animation, but recent evidence has confirmed that animated variants of the Ulster Television logo were used between 1977 and 1978.

Ulster Television celebrated its 21st anniversary on October 31st 1980, and the station transmitted a live gala event from the Grand Opera House in Belfast. To launch the programme, a specially commissioned ident made its debut, an ident that became one of the most ridiculed on the ITV network to this day.

Using melted film stocks from old, unworthy for future broadcast archive material, a small statue was created, a stick with a cube in the centre, featuring the Ulster Television oscilloscope on its faces.

UTV on a stick

The statue rotated on screen, a concept harking back to the first colour ident on British television, the BBC-2 cube. The statue was used for a fortnight after the 21st anniversary, but the ident was given a reprieve in late 1980, and its use as a pre-programme ident continued until September 1988, 8 years after the event it was originally commissioned for!

The first steps into computer animated idents arrived in September 1987, with a variant logo used for the evening news magazine with a silver logo. January 1989 brought a further modification to the oscilloscope logo and a new ident taking a more tentative step into computer animation.

The oscilloscope pattern was coloured yellow, with the encapsulating lines coloured blue. With the increasing importance in creating a TV station brand, the symbol’s presence as Ulster’s brand was strengthened, with its extended use spreading to trailers and promotional material, even to the extreme that it was used as an DOG for brief and experimental purposes in the summer of 1991.

Unbeknown to Ulster viewers, this incarnation of the classic Ulster logo would be the last.

The Ulster Television oscilloscope breathed its last in June 1993, an era that saw other ITV companies replace their legendary and long-running logos.

In previous months, Tyne Tees’ conjoined letters and HTV’s aerial logo were retired in favour of new stylised logos with a fresh and modern appearance.

However, Ulster’s departure from its long associated logo was more radical, and certainly had further implications than the introduction of any other logo on the ITV network. Gone was the oscilloscope pattern, gone also was the name Ulster Television.

In its place, fragments of a “U”, in blue and yellow Times New Roman, coupled with a smaller “TV” in red Futura Condensed, flew onto the screen from different areas to create the new, textual logo for UTV.

It did have links to its predecessor ident; the blue and yellow colour scheme was maintained, and the previous jingle was evident, albeit in a Celtic rendition. For the first time, Ulster Television, or as it wanted to call itself now, UTV, acknowledge its Irishness.

By the early 1990s, Ulster Television began to tap further into attracting audiences and advertisers in the Republic of Ireland, a previous uncharted territory, and certainly one which 10 years earlier would have provoked controversy and dissent from the Unionist camp.

The company established a sales office in Dublin, and the station was being relayed to more homes in the Republic over the flourishing cable network. Although it was never implied on screen, it seemed quite coincidental that UTV’s new identity came from its desire to appeal to a cross-Border audience.

Up until 1993, the use of the term UTV was never adopted by the station on an official basis, on screen references to the station were always as “Ulster Television”. UTV was used by other media from the station’s launch in 1959, mainly by Nationalist journals who despised the misappropriation of the word “Ulster”, though in subsequent years, even Loyalist-aligned newspapers jumped on the UTV bandwagon.

So, by the time of UTV’s reinvention, it wasn’t disregarded by Unionist voices as further pandering to the Nationalist community.

Admittedly, the new on-screen look for UTV was refreshing and well implemented, and was perfect in terms of establishing a corporate identity for the station, but it seemed such a shame that the symbol most associated with the station for 34 years had to be sacrificed to achieve this.

What was more alarming is that in 1999, a year that saw three ITV companies celebrate their 40th year of broadcasting, UTV was the only one of the three who chose to neglect the momentous occasion completely.

It is ironic for a place where history prevails over all aspects of everyday life that UTV refused to look back at itself without the slightest bit of self-reflection. Does this mean the Ulster Television oscilloscope represented the pre-Troubles Unionist-ruled “Ulster”, a time that seems so distant in contemporary Northern Ireland it should not be recalled or reminisced? Actions, as they say, speak louder than words.

What makes this symbol a classic?

The Ulster Television oscilloscope logo is a simple but effective design.

It gives a geographical impression of its region that works on a number of levels; it symbolises the ethos of the station in “bringing” its audience together; and although rarely seen to a mass audience, the logo is indicative of the wide canon of the station’s programming, be it serious or entertaining.

Despite being discontinued in use since 1993, the oscilloscope pattern stills remains acts as a symbol for the station, more so than their two subsequent logos.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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Colm O'Rourke Contact More by me

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1 response to this article

Graham 23 November 2014 at 9:14 pm

I saw a clip on a television website where the Telly on the stick incarnation of the Ulster Television clock leads us into the ITV Lunchtime News and Weather. This was probably recorded on a Saturday because the bulletin plus the weather forecast was about 7 1/2 minutes long.

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