It's that oft-cited digital future rearing its head that has caused the present vogue for an all-singing, all-dancing "ident". The fact that ITV has not had a new on-air identity for 10 years speaks volumes for the state of marketing in terrestrial television. When there were just the three channels, who really needed to lure viewers with strong, smartly targeted, integrated branding?
When Channel 4 launched in 1982 with its 3-D, computer-generated figure "4", it gave us all a shock. Suddenly everyone wanted an animated logo, and the regional ITV companies set their in-house graphics departments on the case. Channel idents had become a viable business, and Martin Lambie-Nairn - creator of the "4" - was the designer everyone wanted. Darrell Pockett, whose firm English + Pockett is now writing briefs for the creatives on the ITV account, also designed the present ITV identity back in 1988. He notes a change: "It was very much a political exercise then. It was pre-franchise round and the whole of the ITV network wanted to be seen as solid, but I could never quite understand why - they all obviously wanted to represent their own interests."
With the consolidation of ownership, things are different for ITV. "This isn't a political exercise - it's to try and get an identity for ITV, which hasn't got one as such because it's a federation of companies." Pockett's challenge is to "re- establish the identity of channel 3 and put over its merits as the popular entertainment channel".
The third button on the remote has so many different names, viewers don't even know what to call it. The north-east franchise occasionally known as Tyne Tees Television has, in particular, suffered in recent years. For decades just known as Tyne Tees, it was rebranded as Channel 3 North East when Yorkshire Television took over. Local uproar led to that move being reversed last year when Granada took over Yorkshire Tyne Tees. Confused?
By contrast, Channel 5 launched last year with one of the best targeted off-air marketing campaigns ever. But, says Lambie-Nairn, it wasn't enough. "A channel launch is very different to revamping one already in existence. You're able to launch on promises. In the end, of course, if the product doesn't live up to the brand, viewers reject it."
Lambie-Nairn, who reinvented BBC2 in 1988, is adamant on this point: "All branding is 90 per cent programming, but it is possible to have a brand which says one thing when the programmes say another. BBC2's brand was old, dull and snobbish, and the programmes were radically turning into anything but that." His task was to align the branding with the content, and the multiple awards that have been won by BBC2's idents bear testimony to his success.
Sky 1's new look is based on a similar principle. Made by the comedy producer Tiger Aspect, a series of new idents focuses on the channel's key programmes. Behind-the-scenes experts from Friends and ER pass on some of the secrets of the shows, such as how to put on a surgical rubber glove in two seconds. A new logo is based around a television set-type box which, according to the general manager, Elisabeth Murdoch, shows that "we are the lens on your world".
It's the first in a concerted move by Sky to refocus every single channel. Murdoch says branding doesn't necessarily mean changing: "It's about trying to get to the heart of what you do, what makes you you." For that reason, she feels Sky Sports is least in need of a facelift.
"It has probably been the most successful in having a clear sense of itself because live sports is so passionate in itself," she says. "People have to have a relationship with a broadcaster if it's to be valuable to them. This country has now realised that - the US broadcasters had to realise it when [the premium movie channel] HBO came along." Murdoch will, by September, have reinvented Sky Movies in HBO's image, presenting added value to viewers with Exclusives (made-for-TV movies) and reinforcing that value on screen. She adds: "It's essential that every channel has a very clear identity and sense of itself." So, come September, we can expect a coherent, united ITV and a distinct portfolio of self-aware Sky channels. If only it were that easy.