The Broader Picture: Semiotics for Beginners

'I HOPE you're not confusing idents and animations,' says Pam Masters, Head of Presentation at BBC Television. I was, and anyone might, because we're talking about the kind of images you see every day, but can never quite put a name to - specifically all those 2's on BBC2.

If you're a BBC2 watcher, you must have registered the numerous variations performed on the number '2' and the conspicuous creativity that goes into it all. There's the 2 with the horizontal paint-splash, the bit of 2-shaped chewing-gum trodden into the pavement, the 2-shaped sweep's brush coming out of a chimney, the Friesian cow with the 2-shaped marking, the donkey with the 2-shaped carrot, the 2 reflected so as to form a heart-shape (very smart). You may also have noticed that in recent weeks a whole new batch of them has arrived - the 2 that planes across a wooden floor, the painting-by-numbers 2, the 2 in a darkened room caught in a wedge of light from the doorway. But idents and animations? It's not just jargon. It takes us into the mysteries of presentation, the designs every channel has upon its viewers, and which almost pass the viewers by. Lots of different 2's, yes. But could you say, for instance, which of the nine mentioned so far would appear immediately before a programme, and which never would? Well then. Let's talk about idents.

Idents are 'channel identities', the little films that tell the viewers which channel they're watching. They are the prime agents of channel branding, establishing 'image' and a sense of continuity between the various programmes. They appear immediately before the start of a programme (almost every programme) and they say: this is BBC2, and here's a BBC2 programme. They're absolutely vital. Now just over two years ago, there was only the one BBC2 ident, simply the word TWO, in red, blue and green capital letters, same every time. And this, it came to be felt, was dull - certainly compared to Channel 4's luminous building-block 4, then the acknowledged brand-leader. So consultants Lambie-Nairn (who had done that 4) were called in for a redesign. And from this consultation emerged the original variations on the 2.

There was a range of no less than nine different idents, each with its own individual mood and name. There was Paint of course, and Blade (where a sharp 2 sticks into a surface), and Silk (billowing silk), and Copper (shooting sparks) and Neon. Although one, called Cut-Out, was dropped almost at once as too feeble, most of them are still in regular use and so are some new ones, like Powder and Optic, which were added last year. Each of them features BBC2's very own colour, viridian, prominently. These then are idents.

Or rather, to be exact, these then are generic idents, idents basically suitable for any programme. But there are also specific idents, which likewise lead into programmes, but which signal that the programme is part of some special evening or season. It might be 'Lovenight' (last Valentine's day, the heart) or 'Birthnight' (the scanner) or the 'War and Peace' season (barbed wire) - but they're only used for their designated occasion. And with specifics the viridian rule is relaxed somewhat, preferred but not compelled.

Animations, on the other hand, are very different. They use the 2, but they never lead into a programme. Rather, they come at the start of trailers (or at the end, or both) and they're an altogether less serious proposition. They include the gum, the cow, the carrot, and there was a notable bunch last Christmas, like the sweep, the snow-shoes, and the 2-shaped Alka-Seltzers that wittily first fizzed on Boxing Day. (But note that the Christmas tree with lights in a 2-configuration was actually the Christmas Ident.) Animations are deliberately distinct: an animation at the end of a trailer might lead straight to an ident before a programme. In an ident the 2 is big, central and upright, the design is cool. But in animations, the 2's are smaller and get messed around with - playful marginalia to the idents' official images - and there is no viridian ever.

Just lately, though, there's been a development. The new lot of 2's, launching the current spring season, are all animations. But unlike previous ones, they are made specific to particular genres. The plane goes with documentaries and science programmes, the painting with arts programmes, the spooky room with drama, and the 2 sitting on floor-boards being sawn around from below with comedy. This has for some reason earned them the name Son of Idents. And the word from Presentation is that they are the future. Watch carefully. -

(Photographs omitted)