The channel brand that was bigger than its programmes

It was hugely fitting that Channel 4 paid tribute to Martin Lambie-Nairn on Monday night after his death. Without him, who knows whether the channel would have flourished.

There’s a big distinction between his work for Channel 4 in 1982 and his later work for the BBC.

His rebranding of BBC TV attempted to shift perceptions of the channels and modernise their image. But in 1982 he created Channel 4’s image.

It is easily forgotten now that the channel’s launch was anything but smooth. Some programmes – including initially Countdown and Channel 4 News – were simply not very good although, in time, they became successes.

Some other programmes were unfamiliar so took time to find their audience. And certain parts of the press were out to get them.

Some papers condemned the channel’s cutting edge. Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells may not have liked programmes which were definitely not made for them.

Others mocked low viewing figures – conveniently forgetting that many viewers could not receive the channel or that most of its programmes were aimed at specialist or minority audiences.

Yet none of this mud really stuck and Channel 4 became a great success.

After a few months, presentation settled down and seemed to follow many of the conventions of BBC TV rather than ITV.

VIDEO: the original Channel 4 ident, designed by Martin Lambie-Nairn. SUPPLIED BY: YouTube Channel – LambieNairnTube. COPYRIGHT: Channel 4 Television Corporation.

It was a conscious decision – with so many programmes which were unusual in form or content, the presentation was designed to be relatively conventional.

But the powerful, brilliantly animated image of the ‘4’ ensured that presentation still made impact. The ‘4’ logo and music became instantly recognisable. The brand of the channel was far bigger than its individual programmes.

If presentation had been blander visually – or imitated ITV with regular in-vision continuity – would Channel 4 have flourished?

The fact the ‘4’ logo has never been completely ditched is perhaps testament to its power.

It’s scary to think it’s now 24 years since the original idents were last used regularly – indeed the music was changed four years earlier. Yet the original animations have dated little:

Channel 4 today is, in many respects, quite different to the channel of the 80s and 90s.

Some of its programmes are nakedly commercial, few are consciously designed to serve minorities. The channel’s genuine commitment to diversity, innovation and inclusion is fulfilled in a very different way nowadays.

But the lasting image of the ‘4’ serves as a link back to its pioneering days.



PICTURED: Channel 4 ident. SUPPLIED BY: The TV Room. COPYRIGHT: Channel 4 Television Corporation.

Posted by Andrew Nairn

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