BBC2’s new look is important because channels do still matter in the on demand world

You wouldn’t tell Netflix that brand identity isn’t important, would you? says Ben Dowell

BBC 2 new ident, BBC publicity, BD

BBC2 is getting a makeover – a full new set of on-air dents starting on Thursday that represent its first “refresh” in twenty years.

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Gone are those playful little Twos that used to scurry mischievously around the screen; they are being replaced by simpler looking colorful curve patterns that look a bit like Twos but aren’t. They are meant to represent the “constantly eclectic and stimulating mix of programming” on BBC2 according to controller Patrick Holland and will help define the channel for the coming age.

But let’s put aside Holland’s management speak because he does have a point – even in this on demand world channels do matter, and so do their identities. A lot.

TV content is not a nebulous thing floating around the airwaves. Channels are places that help you navigate what you want to watch. Or put another way, if the Electronic Programme Guide on your TV is a High Street, the channel brands represent a familiar and trusted shop where you know what you are getting.  Whether it’s BBC1, BBC2, ITV, Channel 4 (which has also just rebranded its digital channels) or Dave.

And with BBC2 you know. It’s a place with rather a lot of history, after all. The younger sibling of mainstream BBC1 has always had an older, smarter more sophisticated feel ever since it first went on air in 1964 – younger in years but slightly more adult than the ratings-hungry beast that is BBC1.

Its character was shaped by its figurehead controller David Attenborough (who was in the role between 1965 and 1969) and who wiped away the old slate and introduced an exciting array of culture, comedy and factual programmes that continue to be the channel’s hallmark.

The Old Grey Whistle Test, The Money Programme, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s Not Only… But Also… were Attenborough babies, rubbing shoulders with the Open University and the landmark arts series Civilisations. Clever stuff for people with a wide range of interests.

In fact, I bet if you name your favourite ever programmes (and you’re a certain age) they may well be BBC2 ones –  Not the Nine O’Clock News, The Young Ones, The Office, The Fast Show, Goodness Gracious Me, The Day Today, This Life, Boys from the Blackstuff, Our Friends in the North.

And let’s not forget recent favourites that have graduated onto BBC1 – The Great British Bake Off, Peaky Blinders, say. You will have your own.

But even if you don’t like most of what BBC2 has to offer, at least you have a pretty good idea of what that is. And that’s why channels matter.

Take away the “high street” presence of the TV schedules and the channel brand suffers – as the decline in BBC3 viewing testifies since it went online only.

At the last count, according to Barb and TV lobby group Thinkbox, 86% of all TV viewing is live and linear.  TV also accounts for 71% of all video watched in the UK – within this, live TV is 56.4%. All the video on demand and streaming services including Netflix and Amazon accounts for only 6.4% of total video viewing in the UK.

Netflix and Amazon know channels matter. And you wouldn’t tell their bosses in the US that brand identity doesn’t matter either.

So, it is with channels where the shared viewing experience – sometimes all together in the case of watercooler dramas like Bodyguard or the football World Cup – remains important.

Technology has changed – but human needs haven’t and nor are they likely to. And the experience of watching TV and having a sense of what it is on what channel and feeling affiliated with it is still strong. Just as in the golden age of newspapers, it mattered whether you had the Guardian or The Times or The Sun clutched under your armpit, so with TV channels.

In the case of BBC2 you may watch Trust Me, I’m a Doctor or Upstart Crow on a Wednesday night followed by a Motherland repeat. And you’ll know that each weekday ends with Newsnight – an upmarket look at the world’s events which will be setting the tone of the debate on a national scale. It’s an engagement, a conversation, a real and live event and part of the whole channel experience.

As Holland puts it “Netflix cannot do that, Amazon cannot do that. An ongoing schedule gives you an ongoing dialogue with the audience. I wouldn’t swap that for anything.”

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And nor should he.