Evolution of a broadcast brand

As BBC One rolls out its 'O' idents for a multimedia world, James Curtis takes a look back at previous iterations.

As the nation's biggest TV channel, the flagship of the BBC and, thanks to the licence fee, a brand that the whole country feels it has a stake in, the on-air identity of BBC One is always hotly debated.

And so the Corporation and the agency that has designed the latest identity, Red Bee Media, prepare themselves for the public's reaction to the 11th incarnation of BBC One's idents.

Martin Lambie-Nairn, chairman and executive creative director of branding agency Lambie-Nairn, which oversaw the creation of three BBC One idents between 1991 and 2002, says it is an extremely tough brief. 'People often ask me: "Did you do those dancers?" They either love it or hate it. The challenge is to find a single-minded, relevant and entertaining common denominator, and, for a generic channel like BBC One, it is a hugely difficult task.'

After four years, the dancers are making way for a circular device based on the 'O' of One, and alluding to the globe motif used in the first BBC One identity of 1964. This time, however, the look sets out to be more strategic than recent vignettes to encompass iconography that stretches beyond TV, and to have a far longer shelf life. It's all a far cry from the relatively simple requirements of four decades ago. So, how has the identity changed over the years?


Although BBC Television had been on-screen since 1936, the launch of BBC Two in 1964 meant the two channels needed distinct identities. BBC One adopted the globe motif introduced by BBC Television controller Donald Baverstock a year earlier. The globe was designed to trumpet the BBC's, and Great Britain's, position on the world stage. At home, BBC One had to compete with a rampant ITV network making many of the nation's most-watched programmes.


The globe remained, but a fresh 'watch-strap' design was introduced, complete with a striped band and clock. A strange concept, but then, TV branding was still an inexact science. 'As there were very few TV companies around at the time, the priority for branding channels was very low indeed,' recalls Lambie-Nairn, who worked at the BBC in the 60s. 'It was just a question of getting your name on screen. There was no strategy.'


The 'high-tech' arrival of colour on BBC One, two years after BBC Two, heralded a decidedly low-tech identity, with a blue and black mechanical globe rotating in front of a curved mirror. Monty Python's Flying Circus, which made its debut the same year, frequently used the identity for spoof continuity announcements. To watch BBC One in colour, viewers needed a new TV; within 10 years, there were 12m colour licences in the UK.


At last, a dash of colour for the ident, as a blue and yellow globe and big bold font were introduced. However, the clocks and idents were still rudimentary - filmed by a black and white camera, colour was added electronically. For both BBC One and ITV, this was a golden era, with audiences that can no longer be matched in a multichannel world. In 1977, the Christmas Day Morecambe and Wise Show attracted 28m viewers; it remains the most-watched comedy programme in British television history.


A more futuristic version of the globe appeared, inelegantly christened COW, an acronym for Computer Originated World. It debuted on the day that Terry Wogan began a thrice-weekly chat show and the day before EastEnders first went on air. With Channel 4's launch in 1982, the TV landscape became more crowded, and the new channel's dynamic logo, featuring interlocking coloured bars, significantly raised the standard for TV identities. Credited as the first attempt to inject personality into a TV brand, it conveyed Channel 4's diversity and independently produced programmes.


The BBC turned to Lambie-Nairn, which had created Channel 4's logo, to update its identity. 'Being known as "Auntie" was a problem,' recalls Lambie-Nairn. 'It needed to get from dull and following to exciting and leading. There was also a lot more competition, so identity became very important.' Notable among the competition was Sky, which launched in 1990. Lambie-Nairn's solution, the 'smoky globe', accentuated the number '1' and made more dynamic use of the globe.


Lambie-Nairn's second stab at BBC One's identity saw the ageing globe reinvented as a hot-air balloon, filmed flying over 10 different locations around Britain. The idea was to show how BBC One brought the world to all corners of the United Kingdom. With devolution on the political agenda, the balloon helped signify that the regions played an important part in BBC programming. Although cleverly conceived and popular with audiences, critics quipped that the balloon signified that the BBC was slow, lumbering and full of hot air.


BBC One controller Lorraine Heggessey ordered an identity that better reflected her vision of a more entertaining and energetic BBC One. Then BBC director-general Greg Dyke shared her view and Lambie-Nairn replaced the balloon with another 'unifying' motif - dancing. Lambie-Nairn describes the rhythm and movement idents, which dispensed with the globe for the first time in 38 years, as 'the ultimate democracy of dance'. Although some thought the globe was imperialist, the fresh idents did not fare much better, criticised for being politically correct and patronising.


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