When change occurs at the BBC, you can be sure an Away Day will not be far behind. Yesterday morning, BBC news types gathered at the fashionable Soho Hotel off Dean Street to review a momentous week when the multimedia newsroom was launched and the new on-air look unveiled.
It will be a while before outsiders get a real sense of how much difference the coming together of News 24 – now the BBC News channel – and the BBC One bulletins into a single news team will make, other than a loss of jobs.
But the new £550,000 on-air look for BBC News is there for all to see – and dissect. Not all the comments so far on the swirling Saturnian rings have exactly been complimentary.
One viewer, Derek Dorrity, denounced the changes as appalling and lacking "any sense of substance or solidity", while adding that such things "really matter, and seriously affect perceptions of an organisation".
Andrew Bustin said simply after his first viewing: "I actually felt quite sick tonight, so will revert to ITV." Don Wallace was so horrified by what he saw as a misuse of licence-fee money that he has promised to work out what proportion of his own licence fee the rebranding represents and deduct it from his payment.
The three views represent the broad range of comments typically forthcoming when a look that everyone has got used to in their living rooms over a number of years suddenly changes. Some are irritated by the disappearance of the visual punctuation that has formed a backdrop to everyday life. Others take issue with the substance of what has been done, while practical types resent the spending of so much money on what they see as superficial frivolity. Just give us the news, the programmes, they say.
When broadcasting executives reach for their chequebooks to pay for new "idents" – as the
Saturnian rings are known in the industry – they invariably talk about the need to "freshen" things up and improve branding in a competitive world.
One of the biggest rows over this issue came in 2002 when the globe motif between programmes was dropped in favour of multicultural idents in the interests of "inclusiveness".
The protests over the new-look news have been muted by comparison. Partly this is because the new livery grows out of the old – the latest version of the globe image that has featured in some form in BBC branding for more than 40 years. There has also been continuity through the use of the colours red and black.
Apart from the extra movement, the big change has been the introduction of light and air, and acres of white. Why black and heavy, dark red should have been the height of branding elegance five years ago, while something so much lighter is now de rigueur, is far from clear.
Those who accuse BBC News of "dumbing down" inevitably see symbolism in such an obvious move away from "substance and solidity". But why the BBC has such loyalty to the colours red and black remains a mystery, apart perhaps from the fact that rivals Sky News and ITN major on the colour blue. Some critics, however, have gone so far as to accuse the corporation of preserving "a belligerent and fascistic colour scheme".
This time round there is perhaps more justification for the change than the mere lapse of five years since the last one. There is the reorganisation of how the news is produced, with BBC online joining the multimedia newsroom in June.
In the age of Google and YouTube, it was decided that it was a good time to bring all the disparate parts of BBC News from radio, TV and online to World and mobile under a single, identifying brand. As Helen Boaden, director of BBC News, puts it: "All the parts were sometimes less than the sum of what we do." There was a need to "punch through" in everything the BBC did.
Though broadcasters take them very seriously, it's far from clear how important such stylistic devices really are. In 2005 Sky News spent millions on a new look, and quite soon after started to lose out in the battle with News 24. It is not clear whether it was "the Starship Enterprise" look or changes to the programme format that viewers found most offputting.
The relaunched News at Ten discovered earlier this year that looks were not everything. It had the latest graphics and a nod towards continuity and nostalgia with the reappearance of Sir Trevor McDonald. The result has been regular embarrassing audience figures compared with what is now BBC News at Ten. Last week the ITN bulletin managed to equal a previous low point of only 1.7 million.
For years, News at Ten was known as News at When, meaning that all the slick graphics in the world could not dent the nation's habit of turning to the BBC at 10pm for the main evening news. But broadcasting executives will continue to believe and continue to spend money on the trimmings.
At the end of this month, Channel Five's digital channel, Five Life, is due to be rebranded as Fiver to make it seem "younger, faster, louder". The whole of Five itself, which has already rebranded its news, along with the poaching of Natasha Kaplinsky from the BBC, is also in line for a makeover.
As for the future of BBC News, you can be sure there will be another new look and that it will come from Lambie-Nairn, designers of the current effort.
It will probably come in 2012 to mark the Olympics and the completion of the move to digital in the UK, and there will probably be a lot more red and black. You will need continuity of colour in such an uncertain world and certainly a bit more solidity and substance.