Battle of the brandosaurs

Corporate Television - Malcolm Clark on how the major TV channels have averted extinction

Branding has become television's obsession, and its secret weapon. Five years ago, British television executives were terrified. The aggressive new satellite and cable channels were coming, and with them, so everyone thought, an era of unrelenting competition. Audiences were about to be introduced to a world of 600 digital channels. An orgy of choice would devour the old terrestrial broadcasters.

But just as they began to despair and curse their stupidity for ever having believed Lew Grade's advice in the 1960s - that a TV franchise was a licence to print money - the TV bosses hit upon a solution. It was one that would protect their jobs, their paper-clip empires and their walnut-enhanced shag-mobiles, as well as (but of course) the quality threshold of the finest television output in all the great wide world.

And so it came to pass that they decided to copy the very companies that were so publicly preparing to destroy them. They would turn themselves into lean, capitalist fighting machines, and what is more, they would do it by using their enemy's most powerful weapon: branding.

Five years later, the old channels are in rude health, despite their protestations. There has been a slight decline in the amount of time we spend watching them, but it is only a fraction of the cliff-edge fall that pundits predicted. Instead, the folks who are in real trouble are their much-hyped satellite and cable competitors. Ten million British homes may have access to digital TV, but the various companies lose between one-tenth and a quarter of their subscribers every year. Suppliers have been forced to give away box decoders, with the result that BSkyB lost £515m last year, and ONdigital, now renamed ITV Digital, shuffles from cell to cell on TV's equivalent of death row. In July, the cable company NTL announced more than 5,000 redundancies.

Part of the explanation is that the newcomers, with a handful of prominent exceptions, were not as formidable as they were cracked up to be. Most still aren't. No matter how you mix Men & Motors with Carlton Cinema, a good night in they do not make. But even if they had done, they would still have needed time and space to develop some sort of relationship with viewers. Yet everywhere they turned, the newcomers found the existing channels dug in, defending their audience. Money and resources were being poured into renewing time-honoured bonds between audiences and the big old channels. It was, in short, a classic branding exercise.

In No Logo, Naomi Klein describes how giant corporations ruthlessly exploit the value of their brands to keep their position in the market place. She calls them brandosaurs. It is a perfect description of what BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 became as they struggled to close off opportunities for the new channels. What started as a means of survival now permeates the entire corporate culture of our terrestrial broadcasters. No decision is taken by any of them that ignores the impact on what they have come to realise is their most precious asset, their brand identity.

Most of their branding tactics are innocent enough. They simply differentiate each station from the next. Sometimes it is a matter of tone. Channel 4's irreverence, say. Or the subjects the programmes tackle. Don't hold your breath for Coronation Street to feature an incest storyline. After all, that ident between ITV's programmes, a heart falling into something that looks like a liquid chocolate wrapper, tells us we are watching a station that wants to connect with us emotionally, not confront us.

And who can blame the stations for coming over all commercial and exploiting their successes with an unexpected ruthlessness? So the BBC's Walking with Dinosaurs was quickly followed by Walking with Mammals, and soon filming will begin on Walking with Cavemen.

The long-term ideal of all the stations is to associate themselves with particular types of programmes so that, in the jargon of the brand managers, they "own the territory". By this reckoning, dinosaurs are now owned by the BBC. Now no one else would dare to chance their arm with things Jurassic. The viewers would first of all assume they were watching the Beeb, and then spend the rest of their time comparing it to the original.

That's fine. But savvy can quickly turn into anti-competitive spite, a dangerous quality for stations that remain, in effect, monopoly proprietors of their own little part of the analogue signal. The pursuit of ownership explains the battle royal going on right now between Channel 4 and BBC for food-lovers. In Nigella Bites, Channel 4 had a new and evocative type of food programme. So the BBC moved its own food programmes up against it. In the brand universe, potential competition must be stifled at birth. This is all good adrenalin-pumping fun for executives and programme-makers. Whether it really serves the audience is a different matter.

There is another problem. The most successful brands are those that are highly focused. Nike doesn't do jeans, and Carhartt hasn't yet ventured into swimwear. Either would be a managerial distraction and risk confusing the consumer. Equally, in TV terms, as the competition grows, the temptation will be to narrow the focus ever more.

There is an upside to narrowness. Some small audience segments now matter in a way that they never did before. For the free-thinking campery of Graham Norton, Channel 4 was willing to pay by the pink barrowload. When you are hovering around a 10 per cent audience share the gay vote counts big time. In his valedictory Observer interview, the outgoing chief executive of Channel 4, Michael Jackson, mentioned gays a dozen times. Branding, it seems, can turn us all into fag hags.

However, the danger is, in trying to "own" narrow parts of the audience, stations will increasingly squeeze out programmes that are not central to their brand image. At various times over the past two years, even venerable titles such as Arena and Omnibus have heard the clock ticking ever louder. How long before they find themselves marooned unceremoniously in digital retirement homes?

For the brandosaurs, you see, the schedule is not just a means of attracting viewers and keeping them there. It is now a meticulously finessed way of regulating our expectations. Success for the new brand managers of TV is ensuring that viewers know exactly what to expect from their station at any time of the day. If it's 7.30pm, it must be DIY; if 8pm, soaps; 9pm, a formidable woman with a regional accent who cuts open dead bodies in order to solve crimes. In this plan, slots for the sort of quirky programmes that might break new ground are always going to be hard to find.

Therein lies the greatest danger. The more rigorously they police our expectations, the less likely it is that the brandosaurs will feel able to surprise us. As the schedules harden to the point of stultification, the more likely it is that they will get out of the habit of taking risks. And brands that do not take risks become sitting ducks, as Levi's recently discovered.

It's not all bad news, though. And, ironically, as risk becomes a rarer quality in British television, the more precious it might become, and the greater the potential rewards for any brandosaur prepared to live dangerously. Risk-taking could become the most fertile territory of all to "own". As the station fields Comrade Jowell's embarrassing calls on the subject of Chris Morris, it is a thought that must surely have occurred to Channel 4.

Malcolm Clark works in television