This Monday, at 6 am, a much-trumpeted ITV rebrand was revealed. The ITV logo has been re-designed and the 1 has been dropped to make their flagship channel ITV once more. The idents are now more expansive spatially and are integrated to whatever is on the screen at the time, creating a stable but flexible brand interacting with a multiplicity of products, courtesy of channel-specific idents and “colour picking”. While initial responses to ITV’s new branding aesthetic, and particularly its logo, have been referred to by commenters on Digital Spy as a “load of buttocks” and more coyly in the Daily Mail as “the outline of a human bottom,” the rebrand enables ITV to re-vision itself as a cohesive, commercial producer-broadcaster in the global market, bringing together its channels, products and platforms. In addition, the rebrand re-orients ITV through its Transformation Plan, the webpage for which states: Our vision remains to create world class content which we can make famous on our channels, before exploiting its value across multiple platforms, free and pay, in the UK and internationally. Content creation therefore lies at the heart of our Transformation Plan.
There is a certain irony then in the channel-specific rebranding of CITV when, post-2003, ITV investment in children’s television has been so drastically reduced. I want therefore to look at the implications and possible rationale for the recent rebranding as well as the recent transmission of 30 Years of CITV (29th December, ITV1) and the recent ‘Old Skool’ weekend of nostalgia programming (5th and 6th January, CITV), and suggest that there might be a shared strategy at work between the two. I’ll look at how CITV, and the history of ‘Children’s ITV’ as a brand, is currently being conceptualised through its logo, idents, and a retro-vision re-capitulation of its operation and history.
This ITV rebrand is being hailed as the “biggest on-screen brand overhaul in 11 years” (The Guardian, 16/11/12) but children’s programming on ITV has been experimenting with brand and identity since its inception. Starting with ‘Tea-Vee Time’ in 1955, rebranded as ‘Children’s ITV’ thirty years ago, it has never really stopped experimenting with its own identity and associated ideas of public service broadcasting and the child audience. The 1983 launch of the ‘Children’s ITV’ brand was partially in response to what was seen as the BBC’S stranglehold on weekday children’s programming. In the report from the 1981 IBA Children’s Consultation, Mary Baker (Thames TV) located the weakness of ITV’s appeal to the child audience at the time in “the lucky dip nature of programme scheduling and selection”. The proposed response to “ill-balanced output” and audience disaffection was a system which would incorporate “consistency, familiarity and loyalty”. Sir Brian Young drew the consultation to a conclusion by suggesting a shared need for “a critical mass, […] a central thrust, and […] a single co-ordinated plan.” Far from valorising national ITV children’s output pre-1983, the 1981 (and 1973) IBA Consultation identified its problems with regard to both production and network transmission and the brands of Watch It! and then Children’s ITV were developed as a response.
The more recent rebranding however stands in quite a different light, given the move to a model in which ITV are not a children’s television producer-broadcaster but more accurately speaking a publisher-broadcaster since they stopped in-house children’s television production in 2006. The CITV channel was launched in the same year and in 2010 all children’s programming was shifted from terrestrial to digital. It was on this Freeview channel that the recent ‘Old Skool’ weekend of nostalgic programming, celebrating the thirty year anniversary of ‘Children’s ITV’, was shown.
However, even within its celebrated 30 year, the demands of a long-running service necessitated periodic rebranding, as we can see in this 2009 CITV rebrand by Red Bee Media.
The emphasis here is plainly upon the ludic, public service values of children’s imagination and play, as well as the commercial value of entertainment and the carnivalesque in the use of bodily functions as entertainment in and of themselves.
If we look then at the new CITV idents, it’s possible to identify some commonalities but also some important differences.
The emphasis is once again clearly on the traditional elements of children’s television promotion: a carnivalesque overturning of the everyday, the importance of play, and the privileging of entertainment. However what is also interesting within these idents is the incorporation of the child audience’s own creativity as drawings which interact with the CITV identity, suggesting a participatory, adaptive element to CITV and a closer construction of children as audience and even producers. Karen Lury’s examination of the Nick Jr channel identifies it as “a ‘personality’ and a place; whilst it literally has a ‘face’, it is also ‘owned’ and inhabited by the child viewer – it is ‘just’ for them.” (Small Screens: Television for Children, ed. David Buckingham) CITV’s current branding might not have a face, but it certainly has a voice: the identification of child viewers through their drawings, a child’s voiceover and the speech bubble which features as a key part of the logo all suggest that CITV represents the child viewer’s ‘voice’, creating personality, power, and place, ostensibly inhabited by the child audience. The re-brand suggests that children’s creativity, performance and ludic activities are an integral part of their brand.
This rhetoric is reinforced in 30 Years of CITV where child presenters and actors, such as Ant and Dec, Samia Ghadi and others are shown as adult fans, viewers and producers themselves. Last month, ITV celebrated the 30 years of ‘Children’s ITV’ history with a retrospective, 30 Years of CITV, which interestingly conflates ‘Children’s ITV’ as a history and CITV as a separate, digital channel. In addition, the first weekend in January 2013 on CITV was the ‘Old Skool’ weekend, two days of children’s programming from the 1980s and 90s. I have to admit that when I first saw it I did rather wonder at the purpose of what the Radio Times called a “nostalgia-fest”. While New Year is the traditional time for nostalgic programming, ITV children’s programmes are no longer produced in-house or shown on terrestrial channels, and all of its children’s programming is transmitted on the digital CITV, as was the Old Skool weekend.
As an exercise in nostalgia, however, it was well-received going by online response and ITV Media’s report of the highest ever weekend share for CITV (2.2%), but given that so much of ITV’s children’s output remains commercially unavailable, it seemed like something of a commercial cul-de-sac. (Despite a committed fan following and an enthusiastic response on Twitter, Knightmare has never been released on DVD.) Indeed, many of the Tweets were calls for a dedicated channel for nostalgia programming of ‘Children’s ITV’. Carlton Kids, with a tagline of “It’s not just for the children”, operated along these lines in the 90s but folded after two years; however, prospects for such a channel may be improved now that ITV has a more stable and penetrative digital platform than ONdigital.
Having watched CITV’s rebranding with interest, it occurred to me that this retrospective of children’s programming over December and January might also work as part of the 2013 rebranding of ITV. The 20th anniversary Children’s ITV Celebration Special in 2003 was far more oriented to a child audience; the “mums and dads” were secondary viewers.
In the 30 Years of CITV programme, shown on ITV1 at 6.30-7.30pm on a Saturday evening, the balance seems to have shifted. The programme appeals to adult audience’s nostalgia and loyalty and emphasises entertainment and popular culture, creating a wider history and historical audience for ITV.
This is a re-visioned ‘Children’s ITV’ history and a contemporary channel marketed across multiple platforms to a nostalgic adult audience. Its loupe-focus on ‘Children’s ITV’ as the history of children’s programming on ITV reframes CITV into a glossy, monolithic producer-broadcaster of a national, rather than a network, children’s service.
There’s no doubt that ‘Children’s ITV’ has been successful in its 30 year run but its current framing as a Golden Age of national children’s television is a little disingenuous. While Tim Worthington rightly points out that “[t]here’s absolutely no logical reason why a celebration of a specific anniversary (in this case, the launch of the proper branded presenter-linked CITV slot) should include anything from before the date being celebrated”, going by the 30thanniversary programme, nothing existed before then. Nearly half of 30 Years of CITV is taken up with the output of Ant and Dec. Children’s programming on ITV has a long, exciting and controversial history over a fifty-eight year span. To so precisely locate the history of ITV children’s programme within half its lifespan, and around such specific presenters, seems to me to erase some of that history in an attempt to reformulate it into a streamlined, stable and nationally-inflected identity more in line with ITV’s contemporary branding and its Transformation Plan.
The 30 Years retrospective elides the regional identities that went to make up the unified service, the primacy of scheduling to separate and mediate children’s television and the multiplicity (and absence occasioned by periods of out of vision links ) of presenters. In addition, the brevity of the programme allows for a narrative economy that necessarily skips on-going rebranding within the ‘Children’s ITV’ period, shifts between scheduling and format such as presentation, and the move from regional franchises to a commercial monolith in the wake of the Broadcasting Act 1990. Simultaneously, the programme uses multi-programme presenters as a narrative spine, giving a sense of overlapping continuity and televisual heritage that proceeds from children’s television into adult television, CITV into the wider, contemporary ITV brand. However in so doing it also suggests that the history of children’s ITV programming is far more streamlined than its production and breadth actually indicates, and also erases difference between presenters and nostalgic viewers. The comments on beloved programmes and presenters come from presenters themselves, both historical and contemporary, and therefore constitute presenters as fans as well as actors and creators. This conceptualisation of children’s ITV as purely driven by affection, aspiration and public service values rather than by industrial pressure is reinforced in the segment on Sooty and celebrity guests: Matthew Corbett claims they appeared for love, not money.
Both 30 Years and the ‘Old Skool’ weekend also omit “foreign quota” productions which made up a significant proportion of the ‘Children’s ITV’ output and which were one of the key criteria of the new network children’s service, established in 1983. The Minutes for the Children’s Programme Committee Annual Meeting on 16th November 1982 state that the new ‘Children’s ITV’ should make “[o]ptimum use of acquired material, spread across the week.” Certain programmes for which CITV were unable to obtain the rights (such as Zzzap! according to CITV’s Twitter feed, although the programme did appear in the 20th anniversary) and co-productions are also excluded. In effect, 30 Years of CITV and the ‘Old Skool’ weekend of programming create an institutional canon and a newly inflected history for Children’s ITV.
Naturally, a broadcaster’s look back at its own children’s television doesn’t require academic rigor but it does seem to me that the presentation of CITV as a broadcaster with a national, rather than regional, history and an identity which fuses quality, longitudinal audience loyalty, multi-platform access, and links between producers and viewers is an active piece of mythologisation. Samia Ghadi declares in 30 Years that “You learned your craft” in children’s TV, as was the case with Ant and Dec and multiple other presenters featured, such as Fearne Cotton and Matthew Kelly. Children’s ITV television is articulated as a learning curve and linear progression to adult ITV television but that’s simply not the case for the production ecology of contemporary CITV. Neither ITV nor children are actually active in the production of in-house ITV children’s television these days but the branding and the retrospective programming implies otherwise.
The rebranding of CITV through new idents and logo and, as I argue, the lens of ‘Children’s ITV’ history reconstructs ITV and in particular CITV as an homogenous brand; the beating “heart of popular culture” according to chief architect of the re-brand, Rufus Radcliffe. It recasts a federal and often competitive children’s television service as an integrated brand. I recognise that it would not be possible to represent ‘Children’s ITV’ history in one weekend but it’s even less possible to represent it in thirty minutes on a channel from which children’s television has been erased. Both new idents and logo seem to reference a model of ‘Children’s ITV’ that no longer exists, but 30 Years of CITV and the ‘Old Skool’ weekend suture it onto the new CITV model to suggest an ongoing tradition of public service values and a lineage attached to contemporary platforms and economic models. The history of ‘Children’s ITV’ and CITV is being re-visioned alongside its idents and logo.
Victoria Byard is a doctoral candidate at the University of Leicester, and her work is part of the AHRC-funded project, Spaces of Television, a joint initiative between the Universities of Reading, Glamorgan, and Leicester. Her current research is on British children’s television fantasy between 1955 and 1994.