What's in a name? In TV, quite a lot

UKTV has put painstaking effort into rebranding its channels. Ian Burrell finds out why

Blighty, Eden and Yesterday. Three words that conjure a nostalgic image of better times, when broadcasts were made with a plum in one's mouth and no one lost any sleep over advertising spend going through the floor. And maybe that's UKTV's idea. With comfort brands reportedly faring well in these times of economic hardship, the broadcaster has chosen decidedly feel-good names for the re-branding of three of its channels.

But the recession does not feature in the official UKTV explanation of a strategy that takes its own logo off its portfolio of channels and introduces ten new identities to act as signposts in a forest of competition.

It is a process that began with UKTV G2 being renamed as Dave nearly 18 months ago. That re-branding was a success, more so than the launch of Watch, the Richard & Judy-led reincarnation of UKTV Gold+1.

UKTV Drama was then made over to Alibi and UKTV Gold subtly altered to G.O.L.D, a comedy channel. Now we have Eden (formerly UKTV Documentary) and Blighty (UKTV People). UKTV History will shortly become Yesterday.

But how much can a simple change of name change a TV's channel's fortunes? Isn't it just the case that a channel confined to the nether reaches of the programme guide is destined to be undiscovered and unwatched?

Matthew Littleford, UKTV's controller, refutes such simplicity, wafting his multi-coloured graphs and computer printouts to demonstrate the scientific nature of the exercise. The figures come thick and fast: six months of research, 32 focus groups, consultation with 120 staff members and 3,500 online respondents, £250,000 spent.

"We realised that because we had strong content we needed to have kick-ass brands that would stand out," he says, stressing the importance of UKTV's access to BBC programming.

Blighty will relaunch on 17 February, with a fanfare that proclaims it as a celebration of "all that is great, unique and inspirational about Britain". That doesn't mean presenters in bulldog T-shirts. "What we were very keen on doing was to not make it jingoistic," says Littleford, "and so it isn't [just] about white middle-class Britain, but caters for everybody."

In effect that means a schedule so broad that it may disappoint the type of viewer who might be planning to deck the living room in bunting; just good, solid BBC factual entertainment such as Who Do You Think You Are?, Louis Theroux Meets and Trawlermen.

Littleford points out that such a channel will give a new audience the opportunity of seeing programmes from the BBC's nations and regions, citing Coal House, in which three families lived as if they were part of a 1927 mining community. "It was only broadcast on BBC Wales, but it's great for a wider audience."

Last week UKTV launched Eden as a channel with a focus on the natural world, such as David Attenborough's Planet Earth and Bruce Parry's Tribe. "Documentary is a very broad term," says Littleford, explaining that some of the staples of UKTV Documentary that are not about nature will be found more appropriate homes elsewhere.

A iceberg sculpture with a polar bear and cub was floated down the River Thames to promote the launch.

Next month it will be the turn of UKTV History, which will be rebranded as Yesterday, a name which has a whiff of staleness about it.

Littleford bristles at the suggestion that his team may have blundered. "All of the research about History was that people who came to watch it would be interested in 20th-century history and war. The history channel isn't just about that," he says. "We wanted a brand that stretched wider."

The channel will feature musical nostalgia programmes such as Seven Ages of Rock alongside more traditional fare such as Churchill's Bodyguard.

Littleford claims that the BBC's iPlayer, which makes programmes available online for a week after broadcast, has not reduced the appeal of watch-again channels and says UKTV has just had its best Christmas audiences for 11 years.

The name UKTV will disappear from the screens on the grounds that it did its job in an earlier era, establishing the reputation of a broadcaster that is partly owned by the BBC and partly by Virgin Media (although the latter's stake is being coveted by Channel 4 and BBC Worldwide).

"When UKTV was set up there wasn't a proliferation of channels and the internet was in its infancy. We wanted to create amphibious brands that can have a life outside of the TV market place," says Littleford, suggesting that Dave can be extended into CDs and merchandising. The channel gave its name to a comedy night at last year's Edinburgh Festival.

Stressing the staff "brainstorming" and the market testing that has gone into the rebranding process, he is confident that the Blighty, Eden and Yesterday will soon become instantly recognised features of the television landscape. "It wasn't as though we just sat down and said 'I tell you what, we'll call a channel Eden'. We went back to the first principle of 'what do our audiences want?'."

The whole brainstorming process has already begun again to rebrand the UKTV Gardens, UKTV Food and UKTV Style in the spring. Littleford promises they will shortly re-emerge as "killer stand-out brands". How about Pot, Grub and Catwalk? Not necessarily in that order.