Media: All package and no content for new-look ITV

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THIRTY YEARS ago, in an episode of Till Death Us Do Part, Alf Garnett memorably explained the difference between the BBC and ITV to his "meat-head" son-in-law. The BBC, he said, "is your Christian television," while ITV "is your Jewish television".

As an early attempt at Channel branding, Garnett's exegesis was probably closer to hitting its mark than recent motifs such as the ITV heart and the BBC balloon. At that time the BBC was still the quintessential bastion of the stuffy, high-altar British broadcasting establishment; ITV was the channel with chutzpah, grabbing huge audiences under the leadership of dynamic, populist producers such as Lew Grade. Forty years later, it is all so much more complicated.

With more than 150 television channels now in the market-place and more on the way, broadcasters face being lost in the clutter. Hence the calculation that the brand identity of individual channels has never been so critical to attracting audiences and retaining their loyalty. That's why last week's rebranding of ITV as the "people's channel," complete with new logo, is likely to be a crucial test for the worried executives who are in charge of revivifying the network.

ITV's decision to rebrand itself is hardly before time. Indeed, it seems to be reactive rather than an attempt to set a new agenda. The network seems increasingly dusty, with its great innovations a faded memory. It has seen its audience share fall from 42.3 per cent in 1994 to 37.3 per cent last year - in television terms, a calamitous decline.

The difficulty is that, to many viewers, ITV doesn't really mean very much. It was not very long ago that the network was even eschewing its identity as ITV and emphasising its position on the dial as Channel 3.

The last efforts to brand ITV have floundered because the network is, in fact, made up of a number of different television stations that are all busily promoting identities of their own. Faced with logos from Carlton, Granada, Meridian and others, it has been hard for viewers to know just exactly who or what ITV stands for.

ITV's core problem, in any case, stems less from a lack of identity than from a dearth of fresh programmes. The stalwarts of the network, Cilla, The Bill, Gladiators, News at Ten and Coronation Street, are long in the tooth. There's nothing wrong with popular stalwarts but television can scarcely afford to stand still.

At a time when broadcasting is in transition to a bold new era of interactivity, wide-screen pictures and near video on demand, ITV's original appeal as a fresh alternative has long been forgotten, along with its reputation for quality. It is many years since ITV offered us a Brideshead.

Can the identity doctors save ITV? After staging the usual focus groups and invoicing their clients for a reported pounds 1m, they have been giving us big promises, all wrapped up in the glib psycho-babble of modern, customer- facing marketing.

ITV's commercial director, John Hardie, announcing the new identity last week, explained it thus "ITV is the channel closest to the heart of the nation," he declared, unveiling a stylised heart logo that looks remarkably similar to the one on wrappers of Walls' ice cream.

"This will not be a sentimental, Valentine-type heart," he quickly added. "It will be a much more adaptable and subtle image designed to reflect the breadth and depth of our programme output - ITV at the heart of the action, at the heart of current affairs, at the heart of the nation." The new symbol, designed by English Pocket, makes its first appearance this week, alongside a new, stylised ITV logo, all in lower case.

ITV will have to do better than this. Consumer brand managers say that in the end it is not so much what is on the package as what is in the box.

Yet the best that ITV (or should that now be "itv"?) was able to promise to kick off its new rebranded image was a new season of James Bond, a character as emblematic of the old ITV as any.

Meanwhile, ITV's competitors are not standing still. BSkyB is busily rebranding, too, in an attempt to shed its relentlessly male and downmarket image to sell its dishes into more upmarket homes. The BBC, floating its balloon logo over the more attractive parts of the British countryside, sends a clear message that reaffirms it as the broadcaster with the best view, serving the entire nation.

Channel Four, which set the standard for on-screen identity with the use of its stylised "4" logo when the station launched as an alternative more than a decade ago, is freshening up its branding as it prepares to launch its new digital services.

ITV's managers must remember that viewers watch programmes, not channels. It is going to take more than a typographic makeover to re-establish ITV as "the people's channel".