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Is Channel 4's latest rebrand evidence of a televisual mid-life crisis?
In early November, to coincide with its 40th birthday, Channel 4 announced that it was rebranding its video-on-demand (VoD) player from All4 to Channel 4. Having finally ditched the various iterations that attempted to differentiate its streaming service from its linear TV channel, the powers that be have decided that the original Channel 4 brand is the most powerful way to establish the brand in people's minds going forward.
Why? What's going on?
At its heart, this has to do with the changing nature of television viewing habits. When All4 was first launched, streaming TV was still the preserve of youthful, tech-literate early adopters. This audience had less positive associations with the Channel 4 brand (or indeed, any mainstream brand) and, as typical for most early adopter audiences, wanted to feel that they were accessing something new and different.
On top of this, back in the day, streaming platforms were the poor relations of linear, broadcast TV. They were often described as 'catch-up' services, suggesting a lesser choice, and certainly not a traditional viewer's first port of call.
This is a classic context for the use of a sub-brand – needed to target a specific audience without alienating your core consumer. But streaming platforms are now many viewers' first choice for entertainment, and are no longer about just finding programs people missed the first time around.
During the pandemic, people were stuck inside with little to do but watch TV. With their almost infinite wealth of content, streaming services became the default way to access entertainment. For the majority of people, there is now little distinction.
The situation is complicated further by the growth of TV shows as brands in their own right. In a world of limited choice and information, it was the TV brand that set expectations for what you might expect to see. But in today's more fragmented and complex world, the power of channel branding is waning.
There are now countless different ways to discover new shows. Social media and word-of-mouth drive discovery and encourage sharing. Social media itself is a growing platform of entertainment in its own right. Even shows like Gogglebox celebrate the watching of TV shows with little reference to the channel where these shows are from. In this world, TV brands have been 'disintermediated.'
Streaming services and live TV are now simply different ways to access the same shows. They're all serving the same purpose, so the need for a sub-brand is gone. Rather than confusing the viewer with different brand names for streaming versus standard TV, simplicity seems the best policy – particularly in an endlessly expanding streaming market.
But here's a more interesting question: if consumer viewing habits are no longer predominantly driven by channel, what's the role of TV brands these days?
"Maybe the value of a TV brand isn't to do with consumers. Maybe it's to do with commercial partners. In a bid to create a coherent offer for these partners to buy into, increasingly fragmented audiences mean advertisers need a bit of shorthand to navigate the complex landscape. By bringing all of its output under a single brand name, it gives meaning and cohesion to its audience and builds a strong proposition for advertisers.
The Channel 4 brand becomes the means by which advertisers understand the type of shows they can expect to see on the channel, and as an extension of this, the size and type of audience they can help their clients reach. The channel brand may no longer serve as a signal to consumers, but in the face of growing complexity it is a vital shorthand for commercial partners – even if the viewers themselves just want to get on with bingeing the next episode of It's a Sin."
— Matt Boffey, Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer, Superunion London
At 40, I think Channel 4 has reached mid-life – by it's by no means a crisis.
First published in The Drum.