Channel branding has been in existence for as long as there have been channels, except it was, for several decades, referred to as station identification. On the hour you could hear ‘This is the BBC Home Service’. And in those days it was reassuring to know you had tuned in to the right station. In 1961, when the BBC celebrated 25 years of television, in the UK there were only two TV channels, BBC TV and ITV, and three BBC radio stations. Despite the relative lack of competition for viewers and listeners, each station regularly presented its ID.
In the early days TV branding was simple. It had to be. Even in the early 1970s a VTR cost as much as a row of London houses and there were no viable computer graphics. Cometh the channels, cometh the technologies! When colour started at the BBC it devised a new logo. Its rotating world comprised a slowly spinning globe, actually about the size of a billiard ball, with white land and black seas, in front of a concave mirror. There was also a static ‘BBC 1 COLOUR’ lower third, in white letters. A monochrome camera shot the scene 24/7 and the output was synthesised turning the white blue, and the rest black. There was another set-up for BBC 2, using similar technology. Small, simple, cheap to run – they did the job well. There was only one problem that anyone walking past the set up made the camera wobble so, among BBC TV Centre staff, they were affectionately known as Noddy One and Noddy Two.
Today hundreds of TV channels are easily accessible and affordable technology for branding is in a totally different league of availability and affordability, and branding exists whether we like it or not. However, such power at the fingertips needs to be used with discretion. Good branding gives the viewer a good impression and so creates a bias toward that channel. Rather than leaving viewers to come to their own conclusions, broadcasters can then actively manage that impression and expand the branding as the channel becomes more popular.
Bugs, good and bad
There are many ways a channel can brand itself and typically, for a major channel, all methods are used. The channel ID, or ‘bug’, usually placed in the top left or right corner, is most popular. Aesthetically this has to do its job of labelling the channel without distracting the viewer from watching the programme. It’s up to the graphic designer to get it right. Technically, displaying the bug involves keying a graphic over the channel’s output, perhaps in a downstream keyer. Some are transparent; some are solid. Today we would hope the keying avoids producing ragged edges, implying some profiled key rather than the old hard key. Already it is apparent that, to achieve this 40 years ago using standard equipment of the time, was not easy, or rather cheap. Today it can be.
Some channels like to animate the bug. Technically, this obviously means there must be some form of video replay to run this video and key. As humans are historically hunter-gathers and so programmed to notice movement – even in peripheral vision, viewers are bound to be distracted by the bug; a fact that may be counter productive and turn the viewer away.
This simplest form of branding is important as the viewer should immediately, or within milliseconds, recognise the channel by the bug / logo when surfing the many available channels. However the bug is very basic and not likely to encourage viewers to watch and stay loyal. So there is usually a range of other elements that make up the complete branding package for the channel.
Creating a brand
Channel branding is much more than establishing an identity; it is about creating a brand that will get viewers to watch the channel and keep watching, as well as recommending the channel to others. Multi-channel broadcasters will want to promote across all their channels and platforms. Channel branding is all about gaining viewers and keeping them watching your channels and, for commercial channels, so to increase revenues.
Competition for viewers is greater than ever and so channels are demanding ever more powerful ways to promote their brand within, what is usually, a very limited budget. The good news is that, today, with the advances in technology, achieving a required look on air can be flexible, high quality and low cost. At the high end, many branding systems, including some CiaB systems, can meet and exceed the requirements very cost effectively. Now, unlike the early days, the on-air technology no longer limits channel-branding presentation. This throws the challenge back up the workflow to the artists, designers and even the accountants, to supply effective branding materials, as, from the broadcast engineering position, we can present it on air. It is up the channel’s creative powers, not the technology.
Typically graphics experts will have produced the designs and these designs need information, text, to be added when it goes to air. Using traditional TV equipment for video, stills, text, animation, on-air mixing, keying, sizing, positioning, timing and sequencing etc., it can get very complicated to do this live. For this reason the packages were pre-recorded so all that had to happen to put the piece to air was simply to replay the clip, and cut it on air. That was possible with clips of some length but attempting to cue a two second bumper or sting – all a part of the on-air look, would be asking too much of VTRs. One way around this was to pre-record every break – sacrificing flexibility and increasing workload. Another was the cart machine, a mighty, elaborate electromechanical wonder that could do the job, but at a considerable cost.
Today with the agility of disc storage, CiaB and other file-based playout and graphic systems, the whole workflow changes, becoming more efficient, much lower cost and reliable. What stay the same are the original graphic elements and their choreography that are designed by experts. But now they are created on computers and delivered as files. Any additional branding elements can be pre-programmed and added live on air with up-to-date information from last-minute scheduling or from internet or metadata. The dynamic display of the graphics, videos new text, etc, is run live by the on-air graphics engine.
Given this flexibility of modern on-air graphics systems, there are many ways the channel can grab the viewer’s attention and deliver the message that will keep him on-channel. For example, as one programme is finishing a quick crawl, lower third or squeezeback can show the ‘Coming Up Next’ or, for multichannel broadcasters, ‘Starting Now On...’ messages over the end credits. This can be effective with, or without, a voice over. However, waiting until the programme ends is too late, as the viewer could already be scanning other channels. Of course the content of the message is important, maybe giving information about upcoming similar programmes, could well attract current viewers.
Channel branding vehicles can comprise items such as trailers, break bumpers, line-up menus, forthcoming programmes, cross-platform and cross-channel branding, etc. But all this needs to be delivered in such a way as not to disturb deter viewers from watching the channel. For instance, music channels create templates for the singer / group and song title. Different templates are often used for different shows, but the information comes from the metadata of the clip, or from the MAM, and is automatically shown after the clip starts and again near the end. Also using the same metadata or MAM, the coming-up-next clips can be created and shown, even if the music clips are interactive and shown in viewer-rating order.
News channels can create templates for latest information. This can be news tickers, share prices, weather, exchange rates, etc. and may take the metadata from a database, or the internet, to keep the information current. Information can be shown concurrently or sequentially with added graphics generated by the computer. So arrow-up, arrow-right and arrow-down graphics can indicate the direction of share-price movement from the last-shown data or from the day’s opening prices.
The most developed Channel-in-a-Box (CiaB) systems can comprise just COTS hardware and CiaB software. Given reliable operation playout systems based on this technology can run fully redundant automatic remote playout anywhere in the world via the Internet. This can make delivering a TV station anywhere, complete with local branding and content, an economic reality, even for small audiences. It enables the whole operation to be run from an established broadcast centre to worldwide locations at a cost that makes sense.
Advert insertion systems, are aimed at enabling network content to be locally branded. Targeting advertisements for specific audiences with ad insertion and digital programme insertion (DPI), it can use local or network advertising to maximise the business potential for the local audience.
All in a box
Some CiaB systems offer a cost-effective turnkey file-based solution that combines video playback and rich branding graphics, with both generated from the same box. Then good graphics and some simple programming is all that is needed for the channel to be considered one of the best available.
Today’s viewers are far better equipped than in past decades. Many have PVRs and so tend to watch programmes later. They will skip adverts and many of the channel-branding messages that link the programmes. This is another reason for the branding to start before the programme ends – even before the final credits. A strap or crawl in the final minutes of the programme is becoming more commonplace, as are lower thirds. Lower thirds, however really need to be previewed to make sure that they do not interfere with the programme. That can make this option more labour intensive.
Cross-platform branding is also popular with most channels. Having a website to watch other programmes has distinct advantages, as there is no PVR to fast-forward over the adverts and branding messages. Websites are also there to sell channel-branded and other third-party products, giving the broadcaster another branding opportunity.
Social media also plays a key role in channel branding. It allows users to create, share and exchange information and ideas. With many viewers commenting about programmes they are watching on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, etc. using hash tags that allow access to more branding opportunities for the channel, as well as delivering messages to both viewers and the viewer’s social media contacts.
Today many TV channels are integrating social media into their programmes, so to appear more live and interactive with their viewers, although many are computer-generated with basic moderation to remove unwanted messages. PlayBox Technology NewsRoomBox for instance is an NRCS that not only takes feeds from news wires but can also handle social message feeds for the news programme, website and back to the social media feeds.
Channel branding is here to stay and will continue to be a challenge for broadcasters who strive to achieve the best branding at the least cost. All TV channels realise that the better the channel branding the better the bottom line. Now the second screen also has to be incorporated into the channel-branding package, but automation has to play a very important part in channel branding, otherwise costs will rocket.
Branding is also about having good programmes. Good branding cannot make up for bad programmes; however good branding can make a channel seem better than others showing similar programming. This is especially important for, say, music channels that essentially have access to similar music videos. Here branding can, and does, make a difference.
One of the problems of channel branding, other than for top tier broadcasters, is that most branding messages are either pre-recorded or computer generated and not delivered in a personal way. Maybe “Max Headroom,” now nearly 30 years on, will make a comeback... or some way to make channel branding and programme linking more personalised and friendly to viewers. Then, maybe, one day viewers will skip the programmes on their PVR to watch the channel branding messages. Stay tuned!