Over*Flow: It’s a F***ing Lockdown: The Branding Responses of the UK’s Public Service Broadcasters
Melissa Morton / University of Edinburgh


User created videos
BBC One’s “Oneness” Campaign showcases audiences’ social distancing activities.

Over the past two months, the UK’s population—the vast majority at home under lockdown—have increasingly been relying on television for trustworthy news and escapist entertainment. During a time of social isolation, television has become crucial for our sense of connection with the outside world and with each other. Despite the increasingly crowded television landscape with an expanding array of online platforms—Amazon Prime, Netflix and Disney+, to mention a few—many viewers are looking to trusted public service channels (BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5) to be “informed, educated and entertained” during a period of crisis. At the start of the lockdown, 64 percent of people were watching more live TV than before the pandemic.[ ((Havas Media Group. 2020. “Havas Media Group study reveals swing to trusted media brands and live TV in response to COVID-19,” March 23, 2020. Available at: <https://havasmedia.com/havas-media-group-study-reveals-swing-to-trusted-media-brands-and-live-tv-in-response-to-covid-19/>))] In response, the UK’s public service broadcasters adapted their branding communications to reflect the drastic transformation of their viewers’ daily lives. Audiences have felt an increased need for connection and inspiration; accordingly, the promotions created by the UK’s main public service broadcasters particularly focus on themes of connection, laughter, and community.

On-screen branding, consisting of the “bits in-between” the programs such as station identifications, trailers, and promos, provide the UK’s broadcasters with an opportunity to articulate a distinct brand identity and the roles the broadcasters hope to play for audience members imagined as a diverse national community. The recent on-screen branding provides an interesting commentary on changing societal perceptions of the role of national broadcasters during a global crisis. Viewership data suggests a “swing towards trusted and meaningful media channels and brands,” including a reliance on the BBC as “the most trustworthy source of information.” What might increased dependence and trust mean for our relationship with public service broadcasters in the future?

BBC: Cups of Tea and Dua Lipa

At the end of March, BBC Creative produced a promotion for the BBC iPlayer which encourages people to stay at home by featuring excerpts from archival BBC comedies. These include Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) and his iconic “It’s a f***ing lockdown” meltdown from the The Thick of It (2005) and Miranda Hart’s vegetable orchestra from Miranda (2009).


BBC Creative’s promotions use excerpts from archival BBC comedies to encourage Brits to stay home.

BBC One, meanwhile, has recently introduced new on-screen branding featuring multiple videos captured on smartphones, including cups of tea and an “isolation disco.” Many argue that these changes have been long overdue; throughout late March and April, BBC One had continued to use a series of station idents named “Oneness,” which showcase groups of people across the country engaging in activities ranging from dog-walking and swimming to Bhangra dancing and aerobics. Some disgruntled viewers expressed their confusion that the channel has continued to use these idents at a time when social distancing measures, including maintaining a two-meter distance from others, have been declared mandatory. In replacing the previous “Oneness” idents with home-videos, BBC One has maintained its core values of “unity and togetherness,” while reflecting its viewers’ current socially distanced realities.[ ((Red Bee Creative. 2007. “BBC One.” Available at: < http://www.redbeecreative.com/work/bbc-one-channel-rebrand>))]


Non-social distancing BBC One brand ident
Non-social distancing BBC One brand ident


image description
Safer at home BBC One brand ident


BBC One has transitioned from showing pre-social distancing brand indents to home videos of Brits staying at home.

BBC News 24, meanwhile has encouraged its viewers to experiment with its music theme composed in 1999 by David Lowe. One influencer, Rachel Leary, propelled a BBC News dance craze when her version went “viral” on social media platform TikTok. Dressed as a DJ in shades and headphones, Leary dramatically turns “dials” and presses “buttons” on a makeshift turntable and mixer made of aerosols and cleaning products. Another remix trend was led by Owain Wyn Evans, now known as “the drumming weatherman,” of BBC North West Tonight. As part of “Owain’s Big House Band,” viewers recorded and submitted variations of the BBC News theme, ranging from trumpets, banjos, and tap dancing. Lastly, Glaswegian musician Ben Howell created a remix of the News theme with Dua Lipa’s “Hallucinate,” which, after going viral on Twitter, was showcased in a BBC News interview, the headline reading: “New News theme meme: Latest mash of corporate theme is musical smash.”


Musician Ben Howell’s BBC News Theme remixed with pop star Dua Lipa’s “Hallucinate.”

The increased involvement of young people in “remixing” the theme is a promising sign for the BBC after Ofcom raised concerns last year that the BBC was “losing a generation of viewers.” The Havas Covid Media report showed that the BBC was the most trustworthy source of information on Covid-19, particularly among 18-24 year olds. Moreover, these younger viewers are not only relying on the BBC as a source of news but actively and irreverently engaging with it through remixes and viral dance crazes.

Channel 4: Buttocks and Personalities

Channel 4 also introduced new on-screen branding, adapting its irreverent and creative brand values and claiming to “innovate and take bold creative risks.” Bumpers between shows feature the channel’s stars accompanied by peaceful birdsong, including John Snow ironing a tie and Katherine Ryan painting a glamorous self-portrait. In a longer promotion, Matt Berry theatrically addresses the nation, accompanied by heroic trumpet fanfare, cymbal crashes, and harp glissandi, as images of wiggling buttocks are superimposed onto a spinning globe. Berry asks us:

Britain: When was the last time you did something that really mattered with your arse?… We need your buttocks—clench together on the sofa: stay at home; save lives.


UK’s Channel 4 encourages Brits to stay home through cheeky ads.

ITV: Outsourcing Graphic Design to the Nation’s Schoolchildren

ITV’s approach has centred on user-generated content, aspiring to create a sense of a community among its viewers. On Monday, April 6th, ITV introduced “ITV Kids Create,” enabling children to re-design the on-screen logo; parents can post their children’s designs on Twitter for the chance to have them shown on TV. ITV also re-introduced its “Get Britain Talking” campaign, which allows viewers to share a message with the nation on Twitter, spearheaded by the channel’s spokespeople, Ant and Dec.

ITV’s “crowdsourced” branding approaches accords with the BBC’s, exemplified by the BBC One idents and their decidedly “home-made” aesthetic. In sum, the branding approaches by BBC, ITV, and Channel 4 display an attempt to connect and interact with viewers, the emphasis on user-generated content and light-hearted comedy providing a sorely needed sense of connection, inspiration, and fun.


ITV logo
ITV’s “Kids Create” campaign encourages children to redesign the channel’s on-screen logo.

What Does this Mean for Public Service Broadcasting?

Initially, when the BBC was established by Royal Charter in 1927, its public service remit was conceived in terms of General-Director John Reith’s paternalistic definition of broadcasters as the nation’s “moral and cultural leaders”:

It is occasionally indicated to us that we are apparently setting out to give the public what we think they need—and not what they want—but few know what they want and very few what they need.[ ((Reith, J. C. W. 1924. Broadcast Over Britain. London, Hodder and Stoughton Ltd. Pg. 34))]

Now, nearly one-hundred years later, consumers have an overwhelming array of terrestrial, satellite, digital, and online channels to choose from, and can access content from anywhere in the world. The BBC is funded by a license fee—roughly £150 per year to be paid by every household receiving broadcasts. Although ITV, Channel 4, S4C, and Channel 5 are commercially funded through advertisers, these broadcasters also have to fulfill certain public service obligations in their programming. Throughout the changes in the media landscape, beginning with the introduction of commercial competition with the establishment of Channel 4 in 1982, the BBC has been transformed. Dispensing with the implicitly elitist aim to elevate the tastes of the masses, the BBC had to be more in tune with the needs and wants of its diverse target audience and formulate its television and radio stations as distinct brands. In particular, the on-screen branding designed by BBC, ITV,  and Channel 4 during the Covid-19 crisis demonstrates a marked effort to form a connection with their individual audience members as well as evoking a sense of community, evident in Matt Berry’s address to the nation (“Britain: we need your buttocks”), and the attempts by ITV and BBC to encourage user-generated content.

The brand responses raise questions about the role of public service broadcasting today, particularly that of the BBC. Since its inception, the BBC has increasingly had to justify its existence to those who consider the license fee as “unnecessary, elitist and anticompetitive.”[ ((Born, G. and Prosser, D., (2001). “Culture and Consumerism: Citizenship, Public Service Broadcasting and the BBC’s Fair Trading Obligations.” Modern Law Review. 64: 5 pp. 657-687.))] Perhaps the BBC’s most precarious time was under Margaret Thatcher, who was strongly in favour of scrapping the license fee and replacing it with advertising. Although the BBC managed to maintain its public funding model, the debate has continued. As recently as February, Dominic Cummings controversially suggested that the government could scrap the license fee and replace it with a subscription model when the Charter comes up for renewal in December 2027.

However, increased viewership numbers and surveys carried out by the Havas Media Report suggest that the UK’s population largely trusts public service broadcasters in a time of crisis, not just for accurate news but also for irreverent escapism and laughter. There is still a long way to go until the BBC’s charter renewal in 2027. Will the BBC maintain its current status as the “most trustworthy source of information” and stay relevant among younger viewers? As broadcasters and their audiences both attempt to adapt to a “new normal,” the nature of the longer-term impact on public attitudes and government policy towards public service broadcasting is not yet clear.



Image Credits:

  1. BBC One’s “Oneness” Campaign showcases audiences social distancing activities.
  2. Non-social distancing BBC One brand ident.
  3. Safer at home BBC One brand ident.
  4. ITV’s “Kids Create” campaign encourages children to redesign the channel’s on-screen logo.


References:




The Seeds of Doom?

by: Derek Kompare / Southern Methodist University

Doctor Who
Doctor Who

The BBC’s revived production of Doctor Who has been, by all accounts, a smashing success in Britain. Brought back to life on television after a fifteen-year sojourn in various non-television media forms, the series has captured sizeable audiences and copious media coverage to a degree not seen since the heyday of Tom Baker in the late 1970s. Writer-producer Russell T. Davies has managed to make Doctor Who (2005) simultaneously classic and contemporary, serving up equal portions of adventure, wit, and fear in lightning-paced episodes.

While the series has taken off in the UK, however, the official reception of the new series in the United States has been much cooler. Despite an otherwise successful global sales effort, and a fair amount of US fan interest, the BBC has not yet sold the series to any US television outlet, whether broadcast, cable, or satellite. US Doctor Who fans have been left in a holding pattern of sporadic announcements of “ongoing negotiations,” and rampant online speculation as to where the series might wind up. The only publicly acknowledged rejection of the series came in late February from the Sci-Fi Channel, who, according to reports, cryptically claimed to have found the series “somewhat lacking.” This phrase, which has considerably heightened fan anxiety, frames the overall debate about the new series, and highlights the gaps of media globalization, i.e., the cultural, economic, and legal boundaries that still exist between national media regimes.

“Boundaries” are structural issues (in both the theoretical and material senses), marking off categories. In this case, as with most others in global media, the key structures are distribution networks. While the legitimate, “official” network of transnational media trade has thus far failed to bring Doctor Who to the US, the illegitimate, “unofficial,” and rapidly growing network of online file sharing has provided the series from the get-go. High-resolution video files of episodes are posted online within minutes of their UK broadcasts, mostly via BitTorrent, the radically non-centralized file distribution method that has shifted peer-to-peer file sharing into a higher gear. Unlike older P2P systems, BitTorrent is designed for optimum network efficiency, actually escalating file-sharing speed as traffic increases. Users must “seed” (upload) and “leech” (download) bits of the same file simultaneously, producing a so-called “swarm” of data as dozens, or even thousands, of computers swap file parts. When coupled with increasingly ubiquitous broadband connections, BitTorrent can deliver gigabytes of data in a matter of a few hours. The much anticipated (or dreaded, from the perspective of the copyright industries) “Napsterization” of video data is here.

Thus, we have a significant differential between distribution networks: one functions through the long-established, top-down models of audience flow, media capitalization, and copyright, while the other simply serves up media on demand. In an era where this differential will only increase, it is worthwhile to understand the logic of each.

Television programmers across the planet value genre and predictability. That is, even in an age of otherwise diverse forms of television, programs should look, sound, and “feel” like established programs. Even something as iconoclastic as Lost still “feels” like a standard ensemble drama in its narration, characterization, design, and cinematography. The BBC’s failure to find a US buyer for Doctor Who, despite early courting before the series even entered production, and despite decades of BBC programs on US TV (including the original Doctor Who), is, as unlikely as it sounds, probably a cultural misunderstanding on these grounds. Accordingly, the Sci-Fi Channel’s alleged “somewhat lacking” comment can be understood in several different ways. From a US programmers’ perspective, the new Doctor Who is lacking in stable generic markers: it is simultaneously science fiction, fantasy, comedy, character drama, and social allegory. While this might not always be fatal (see Lost), the fact that the series is British (even more so than the original) further separates it from typical US fare. Both the Ninth Doctor (played by the Mancunian Christopher Eccleston as decidedly “Northern”) and his companion Rose (played by Billie Piper as a working class shopgirl), have quite specific British accents and demeanors that do not correlate with anything else on US commercial television at this time.

Ironically, these very factors which have thus far doomed the series in the US have arguably ensured its mainstream success in the UK. For example, the early decision to clothe the Ninth Doctor in black jeans and a beat-up leather jacket — rather than the usual “eccentric” Edwardian ensemble of frock coats, bow ties, and hats — is a clear attempt to create a contemporary, urban feel to the character. Similarly, the series’ language is not the “BBC English” of the original, but more modern and varied in its idiom and accents. The generic framing of the series as “family television” also aims for a specific, longstanding UK TV sensibility, as television that works at different levels, suitable for many ages. There simply is no counterpart to this formulation in the US, so the series is at once too chaste and playful for prime-time drama, and too arch and sophisticated for the likes of Nickelodeon. The fact that the series is shot not on film, but on standard definition video (albeit “filmized” in post-production), a format alien to US prime-time drama, is the icing on this particular aesthetic cake.

Moreover, Doctor Who is also almost certainly “lacking” any of the typical financial and proprietary inducements that abound in this post-Fin-Syn media world. While virtually every program on US TV has some sort of co-production, syndication, video distribution, or sponsorship arrangement as part of its package, the BBC wished to sell Doctor Who “old school,” as in: here’s the show. No co-ownership, no ancillary distribution rights, no product placement. No wonder it has yet to run here.

Meanwhile, episodes blaze across the Atlantic via the Internet in multiple forms every Saturday night (after their airing on BBC1). Given the sheer number of file-sharing options, precise totals are difficult to come by, but one fairly well-known BitTorrent tracker recorded roughly 50,000 downloads of each episode of the new Doctor Who thus far. However, the bulk of online TV traffic parallels the trajectory of most “legitimate” global media traffic: outward from the US. Studies released in the past six months noted the growing volume of television programs available online, and reached similar conclusions about its growing scope, particularly in the UK (which represents nearly one-fifth of global television downloading), Australia, and Scandinavia, where tens of thousands of copies of episodes of 24, Lost, The O.C., and Desperate Housewives routinely head right after their US broadcasts, months before their debuts overseas. While 40,000 downloads (to take a figure cited for the UK downloading of Desperate Housewives) is clearly dwarfed by the 4 million viewers who catch the series “legally” there on Channel 4, the trajectory of file sharing is clear. At least one European network, Norway’s TVNorge, has publicly claimed that downloading of US TV is costing them thousands of viewers on the episodes’ eventual broadcasts.

Studies of file-sharing also routinely take the copyright industries to task for fighting, rather than adapting to, the new distribution networks. This advice has been slow to penetrate the capital-entrenched practices of the media industries, who will likely continue to seek cultural, legal, and technological means to maintain their status quo. However, some major firms are taking steps towards the online, on-demand world. While US broadcast and cable networks continue to offer the same piecemeal level of online video content that they’ve had for years, the BBC is actively developing extensive online distribution networks. Each of their radio networks is available as a high-quality live stream, and immense amounts of past radio programs are available as archived streams and even podcasts. This approach is being adapted to the higher-bandwidth requirements of television programming. Indeed, live test streams of four BBC TV channels (including both terrestrial channels) were briefly available worldwide in April, and the BBC is developing an ambitious video-on-demand system that will take advantage of P2P technology.

The ongoing fate of the new Doctor Who reveals a great deal about the uneven “gears” of cultural globalization. The model of centralized audience flow still retains immense cultural, economic, and legal powers, but its authority in each of these areas diminishes with each new broadband account and BitTorrent tracker. What power will remain when media users no longer have to wait for the differences within the old distribution network to work out? Even the corporate marriage of content and distribution is souring, as the Apples, Sonys, and Googles of the world also challenge the old regime’s boundaries. Still, even in the emerging on-demand world, myriad conceptual boundaries will likely continue to produce gaps and differentials in the global mediascape. All media will still be “somewhat lacking,” somewhere.

Image Credits:
1. Doctor Who

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