Channel Changing

Dominic Small examines why channels change their identity

First published March 2009

As times and tastes change, our aims, needs and desires alter too. The media has to reflect this in order to remain relevant – and, in a commercial environment, profitable. In addition, changes in the media itself, such as the development and growth of digital platforms, present new challenges and opportunities.

Whereas most changes are developed with an eye on tomorrow, UKTV is looking to Yesterday – the new name for UKTV History from 2 March 2009. It’s the latest in a string of channel rebrandsfrom the network, which began in 2007 with UKTV G2 becoming Dave. Subsequently, 6 April 2009 will see Paramount Comedy take on the name of American sister station Comedy Central. The change – which follows a similar move in Italy in 2007 – aims to synchronise the branding used around the world; an increasingly useful notion in this globally-connected age.

But just what does a channel stand to gain by removing its established brand and redesigning itself? Here’s a guide to the various types of revamps seen through time, and the reasons why broadcasters often think change is for the better.

1. YOU CAN STAND UNDER MY UMBRELLA: Changing to suit or form a corporate network
One of the first big branding changes on British multichannel TV was the 1989 revamp of Sky Channel as Sky One (tweaked to become ‘Sky1′ in 2008). After several years as a pan-European, single-channel service, Sky’s 1989 relaunch as a UK-focused multichannel provider saw the arrival of more than one Sky channel. Thus, a rename for the entertainment service enabled the station to be positioned simultaneously as a flagship service in its own right and also as part of a larger network family. The short-lived Sky Two came along over 1996-97, but clearly proved to be such an embarassment that, in 2002, the network chose not to revive the name when launching another attempt at a complimentary service, choosing instead the clumsy Sky One Mix. However, several subsequent relaunches have seen this channel fall into line and become what is now Sky2.

Elsewhere, UKTV predated their current fixation with channel individuality by banding all their output under a single branding, both at the network’s launch in 1997 (building on the established UK Gold brand) and again in 2004 by changing the ‘UK’ prefix on all their channels to ‘UKTV’. At this point, they also replaced UK Horizons with UKTV Documentary. Meanwhile, 2006 saw Reality TV and The Horror Channel renamed Zone Reality and Zone Horror to better flag up the Zonemedia (now Chello Zone) ownership of the channels. Since then, sister stations Zone Thriller and Zone Romantica have launched into the network, though Extreme Sports Channel (now also owned by Chello Zone) remains under its original branding at the time of writing.

2. YOU’RE MY WIFE NOW: Rebranding to suit a new parent
While Extreme Sports may not yet be in the ‘Zone’, other channels have taken new names as a result of coming under new ownership. Fox Kids became Jetix in many territories in 2004 when ABC/Disney purchased the Fox network’s family and kids’ division (in the US, the Fox Family channel became ABC Family). Meanwhile, the formation of Virgin Media (from NTL, Telewest and Virgin Mobile) led in 2007 to Ftn – previously seen as a cheap dumping ground for cast-offs from Challenge and Bravo – being rebranded as the more substantial Virgin 1, and gaining the UK premieres of several major shows.

Sky’s purchase of Artsworld kept the channel afloat during its financially choppy early years, and a series of changes were made to better identify Sky as the new keyholders: initially, from 2005, it was promoted as ‘Artsworld: The arts channel from Sky’; then in 2007 this long-winded billing was simplified with the rebranding of the channel as Sky Arts – a name Sky had first floated as a proposed future service at the launch of Sky TV in 1989, though had ultimately not used at that time, except for a brief Marcopolo-only opt-out service run following Sky News’ takeover of BSB’s Now. The new Sky Arts expanded to two channels in 2008, at around the same time Channel 4 brought their part-ownership of music channel operator Box Television to bear by revamping one of its channels – The Hits – as 4Music and loading it with T4 offcuts.

Most recently, ESPN have carried out their long-predicted rebrand of NASN (as ESPN America) following their earlier purchase of the channel, and the fairly new Irish digital entertainment outlet, Channel 6, was taken over by the owners of the established commercial channel TV3, and in 2009 was rebranded as 3e to act as an ITV2/E4-style spin-off from its new parent.

There have also been ‘shotgun marriages’, where two channels are combined into one at short notice – which range from Rediffusion and ABC-TV’s 1968 merger to form Thames TV, ITV3′s almost-literally-last-minute merger on its 2004 launch day with the established Granada Plus in order to get carriage on Sky, or recently Urban TV being bought by, and replaced by a timeshift of, BET UK.

3. A CHANGE HAS TAKEN PLACE: A new channel eats an old one
This is where a broadcaster effectively builds a new channel out of the remains of an old one. This can be a useful tool as it means licensing, carriage arrangements, subscription charges (if any), EPG listing and other issues which bog down new launches are already sorted out. It also means the channel can get a better EPG position (new ventures go to the end of the line-up). Plus, there’s also the chance of inheriting the former property’s audience.

Examples of new-from-old include Adventure One’s replacement with National Geographic Wild in 2007, Sky Travel giving way to Sky Real Lives in 2008, and Five Life’s absorption into Fiver in the same year.

The BBC, meanwhile, supplanted factual channel BBC Knowledge with the wider-focused BBC4 in 2002, and in 2003 replaced BBC Choice with BBC3 – although Choice had been moving closer to the BBC3 format in its later days in preparation for the switch, and some shows (Re:Covered, Johnny Vaughan Tonight, Liquid News) directly transferred to the new set-up.

In 2006, computer games channel Game Network – which had been carrying Babestation content late at night since 2003 as a revenue driver – found itself shunted into the adult section of the EPG as part of Sky’s revamp. This was the catalyst for the eventual removal of the gaming-themed programmes. UKTV Gold and it’s +1 service, meanwhile, were replaced by Watch and G.O.L.D in 2008, which were effectively launched as ‘new’ channels rather than being billed as a continuation of their predecessor. Although refreshing the network, it did also mean UKTV were throwing away much of the brand equity and recognition UKTV Gold had built up in its 16 years on air.

Discovery is arguably master of the relaunch, with the main Discovery service being its only UK station not to have been renamed at least once since inception. The string of revamps has included Discovery Health expanding to Home and Health in 2005, Discovery Wings flying off to be succeeded by the wider-focused engineering service Discovery Turbo in 2007, and history station Discovery Civilisation being renamed Discovery Knowledge and gaining an edgier brief in 2008. The Turbo launch did, however, sadly mean the loss of the smart, unique Discovery Kids channel, which shared a broadcast slot with Wings. Now Discovery’s kids shows are provided as a three-hour daily block within DMAX.

4. ONE SLICE WAS BIGGER THAN THE WHOLE PIE: Playing to your strengths and amplifying them
An alternative to the above is a relaunch because one type or strand of a channel’s content has come to dominate the schedule. The success of old game shows on the UK version of The Family Channel, for example, saw it transform into what we now call Challenge, while a series of sell-offs meant the original US version of TFC become ABC Family (and saw Disney end up with the rights to most of the output of defunct ITV franchisee TVS).

More recently, UKTV’s rollcall of revamps saw UKTV Drama – originally set up to screen a wide range of dramas and films, later adding vintage comedies – scale back on range to focus exclusively on crime, mystery and police dramas, under the new name Alibi. And as for the channel about to become Comedy Central? Well, Paramount wasn’t always a comedy channel. It began as mixed entertainment station The Paramount Channel in 1995, but comedy programmes dominated the schedule by the time of the rebrand as Paramount Comedy Channel in 1997.

There is another way to build on the success of a programming block, but without sacrificing your main channel, and that’s to spin it off as an entity of its own. Examples include kids’ networks Boomerang, Playhouse Disney, Nick Jr and Toonami, and Challenge’s offshoot Player (now Bravo 2). Toonami was itself replaced when the Cartoonito strand running on what was then Cartoon Network Too expanded to fill that channel entirely. The CN Too name survived by being transferred across to the former Toonami slot; as a result the Toonami content – action cartoons and anime – was faded down in the mix, so other Cartoon Network content could join it in the new schedule.

The spawning of MTV Hits and MTV Dance from the ashes of MTV Extra could also count in this category, but these are only part of the story when it comes to music channel changes…

5. IT GOES IN ONE YEAR AND OUT THE OTHER: Trends and fads make channels change
Popular culture is notoriously fickle and when a new flavour of the month emerges, the mass-media will usually jump on the bandwagon to capitalise on it, only to hop off and follow the next big trend as soon as that comes along. No wonder, then, that channels focused on pop music and youth culture have changed with the seasons.

Discounting Rapture TV’s various departures and revivals – at least four at last count – there have been multiple tweaks in the sector. MTV Extra was set up in 1999 to show MTV’s music and entertainment programming at alternate times to the main service. Subsequently the channel launched themed music video blocks, a dance-orientated section at night and a daytime chart hits service. These subsequently split out to form their own services in 2001 – MTV Dance and MTV Hits – the latter of which took Extra’s broadcast slot.

Meanwhile, in 2006, the two-year-old, UK-created, classic rock/alternative music channel VH2 was binned in favour of a web-community-controlled property, MTV Flux. However, Flux had an even shorter life than its predecessor; its broad music policy was at odds with MTV’s move to pidgeonhole genres of music into dedicated channels. As such, its content dispersed among other stations and the broadcast slot was used to timeshift MTV One – the new name from 2007 for what had previously been MTV UK & Ireland.

In 2005, The Amp (at that point still officially owned by Sky, but run on their behalf by CSC) was replaced by Bliss; while The Amp had been a mix of alternative and credible music, Bliss aimed at housewives with AC pop and love songs, which although less credible were undoubtedly more commercial. Alternative music returned to the CSC portfolio with the launch of NME TV – a tie-up with publisher IPC – in 2007, which replaced the short-lived placeholder channel Minx, itself an extension from the Minx slots within Chart Show TV. Another of CSC’s channels, B4 – which originally focused on new releases from across the genres – became rap/R’n'B channel Flava in 2008. The relaunch reflected the growing popularity of urban music in the charts.

This kind of behavaviour isn’t solely a UK phenomenon. US rock channel MTVX was replaced by R’n'B channel MTV Jams (their version of our MTV Base) in 2002, with MTV citing ratings and high sales of urban music as the reason. Most recently, Red (itself an entertainment-led revamp of law advice channel Legal TV) was revamped and repositioned as music channel Brit Hits in December 2008, but appears to have jettisoned the music format mere months later and reverted to its previous format.

6. MAKING YOUR MIND UP: They changed and changed again
Sometimes one change is not enough, and channels are revamped or reformatted multiple times in their history, or revert back to a previous identity, as times require.

Ireland’s RTE2 was renamed Network 2 in 1988, in a bid to reposition it as a younger, edgier station, with children’s programmes and sport shifted across from RTE1. However, by 2004, with the number of channels available in the Republic much larger, it became important to better identify the channel as an RTE service, and the RTE Two name returned.

In the UK, the 1993-launched UK Living changed its name to Living in 1997 because – unlike the then-new UK Style, UK Horizons and UK Arena – Living was not part of the UKTV family (and still isn’t, though its owner – Virgin Media TV – owns a half-share of UKTV). The Living name remained until 2002, when the power of the internet brought another amendment. Because the channel’s website was at, the decision was taken to rename it LivingTV in order to match this, initially by appending two extra letters to the then-current logo. Then, in a 2007 relaunch, the added ‘TV’ was shelved and just ‘Living’ returned.

Another channel renamed to tie itself more tightly to the web was Sky Sports News, which in 2000 redesigned itself under the unwieldy title skysports.comTV. However, this proved unpopular and the previous name returned in 2001, ahead of the channel’s addition to Freeview the following year. Sky Sports Gold, meanwhile, was dropped as a concept in 1996, when it began to show new content as Sky Sports 3, though Gold continued as a programming strand for a time thereafter on the new service.

These changes at Sky Sports are small beer, however, compared to Sky Movies. Eight years on from the launch of the single Sky Movies and its BSB rival-turned-sister channel The Movie Channel, Sky’s cross-network 1997 branding refresh (the one with the ‘coloured egg’ logos) saw these stations switch to Sky Movies Screen 1 and 2. Then, ahead of the launch of Sky Digital, they were retooled into Sky Premier (focused on big names) and Sky MovieMax (offering a wide choice), with Sky Movies Gold becoming Sky Cinema (but otherwise unchanged). 2002 saw Sky seeking to better promote the umbrella Sky Movies brand name, which led to rebrands as Sky Movies Premier, Sky Movies Max and the clumsy Sky Movies Cinema. About a year later, the channels changed to the more logical Sky Movies 1 to 9 (with Sky Movies Cinema reverting to Sky Cinema). By 2007, however, Sky had noted the shift in taste to digital channels focused on a particular genre of programming, and so divvied up their movies to suit, launching the current arrangement. Two channels (Sky Movies 9 and 10) were closed in this reshuffle, but this caused some customers to complain they were getting less for their money, and so they were hastily brought back as Sky Movies SD1 and SD2 – which have since changed to adopt the Sky Movies Screen 1 and Screen 2 names last used in 1997-98!

7. NEW LOOK PACK, SAME GREAT TASTE: The same channel, only more so
While some relaunches involve a change of ownership, style/format or target audience, other redesigns simply require slapping a new sticker onto an established ‘product’, possibly as the result of changes elsewhere. For example, BBCtv was motoring along quite happily until 1964, when it was suddenly retitled ‘BBC1′ (though the globe wasn’t relabelled until 1966) – the reason behind this switch being the launch of a new young upstart by the name of BBC2. As with the recent Sky One/Sky1 relaunch, though, the 1997 change from BBC1/2 to BBC One/Two was merely a cosmetic preening.

Two other terrestrial broadcasters have also made changes – ITV to ITV1 in 2001 and Channel 5 to Five in 2002, and then FIVE earlier this year. ITV1′s relaunch formed part of the push for the ill-fated ITV Digital, and came three years after the launch of ITV2, though several months before ITV2 was available on satellite.

Elsewhere, while the US version of Discovery sister channel TLC is still running, the UK equivalent was revamped in 1994 as Discovery Home & Leisure (and again as Discovery Real Time in 2005). More recently, Discovery Sci-Trek was tweaked to become Discovery Science in 2003 – amusingly, a whole year after the US version of Discovery Science was renamed The Science Channel. UKTV’s launch of Dave in 2007, although feted as one of the most successful new channels of recent times, was, when you strip it down, simply a case of giving UKTV G2 a snappier title and shoving it onto Freeview.

More recently, BBC News 24 dropped the appended numerals in 2008, in order to be seen less as an add-on to BBC1′s bulletins and more as the central plank of the Corporation’s newscasting. Oh, and Five US bought a vowel to become Five USA in 2009.

8. THE NAME’S THE SAME: A new channel in the clothing of a previous one
Sometimes a channel relaunches in format, but decides to retain its previous name. While this means the newcomer doesn’t have to build up an audience from scratch, it does pose the problem that viewers of the previous format will not necessarily enjoy the new agenda. The gamble the broadcaster takes is that the number of viewers gained will exceed the number lost. A good case in point is Bravo, which was transformed in 1997. This was in part due to its realigned broadcast hours – having previously aired from noon to midnight with vintage drama, adventure, and films – its broadcasts were shunted to an 8pm to 6am slot, to make room for Trouble. This prompted Bravo to concentrate on what was referred to in trailers as “television’s nightbreed”, with a switch to cultish drama, sci-fi, horror, and action. While some retro shows made the move across the formats, the creakier output was binned off as Bravo focussed on a younger adult audience, and disconnected some of the older viewers.

Trouble has itself evolved, albeit in a smaller way, by switching from older kids/young teens (with shows like Saved by the Bell and Hang Time) to older teens/young adults (shows like Teachers and The Secret Life of Us), and moving from the kids’ listings to the entertainment guide on Virgin Media and Sky’s EPGs.

Elsewhere, music channel Flaunt has been through numerous identities. When launched by Sky (2003), it was a pop/dance/urban station aimed at teenagers, set up to run alongside The Amp (alternative music) and Scuzz (masculine heavy rock). After Sky signed the management of their music channels over to CSC, Flaunt was tweaked to be less of a rival to CSC’s own Chart Show TV and switched to focus on dance and R’n'B. Subsequently Flaunt then went in a dance/upbeat pop direction aimed at the gay community, effectively becoming a TV equivalent of radio station Gaydar. After CSC gained full control and took it free-to-air (along with Scuzz and Bliss), the gay element was toned down in order for the channel to speak to a wider audience, due to the need to increase viewing figures and advertising to replace subscription revenue. In addition, with CSC not at the time having a dedicated urban music channel, the popular R’n'B and rap genres began to take up a large part of the broadcast day. However, following the launch of sister channel Flava, Flaunt has become all-dance once again.

Elsewhere, BBC3 was redesigned in 2008 with a new look and a drive to focus on a slightly younger audience than before. This did lead to some changes in the programming policy, with Sharon Horgan claiming thenew aim had led to the station not commissioning a third run of the award-winning Pulling (aimed at the older end of BBC3′s previous audience), while sketch outfit Cowards – who had initially been tried out as a series of innovative online skits on BBC3′s website in 2007 – transferred to BBC4 for their full-screen series in early 2009.

9. TWO BODIES WITH JUST ONE HEART: Rolling out a single name across multiple services
As increased conglomeration and globalisation puts various firms in the hands of a smaller number of national and global players, brand names are rolled out nationwide and worldwide in place of local names – think Snickers, Oil of Olay, Cif, Starburst – and the media is not immune to this.

The upcoming Paramount Comedy/Comedy Central changeover is one example, but it is not the first. The mergers which put all the ITV regions in England and Wales in the hands of three companies – then two, then one – led to ‘efficiencies’ as more work (acquisition, scheduling, management, presentation) was taken away from the regional centres and given to London. The cuts also saw the network of local brand names swept away in favour of a unified ITV1 style. (A similar change occurred in Scotland when the bulk of Grampian TV’s output was shunted down to Scottish TV’s Glasgow HQ, with the two regions jointly branded as ‘stv’ from 2006). But where now is the man who imposed the ITV1 branding across all of England and Wales? He’s doing the same thing in radio.

During 2009, a number of local radio stations will bin their long-held local names and switch to take branding and some networked programming from London station Heart 106.2, with only the Ofcom-mandated minimum 10 hours a day of local content likely. The Heart network, and the stations set to become part of it, are owned by Global Radio, whose chairman – Charles Allen – was heading ITV during the introduction of networked branding. While the introduction of networked national brands is useful shorthand for viewers/listeners/customers and advertisers, who now no longer have to do their homework to find out what’s on offer, there’s no doubt that innovation, regional identity, and opportunities for would-be broadcasters outside of London, are hit by such moves.


If there’s one thing we can ascertain from the above nine categories, it’s this – channel rebranding, per se, is just a short term solution. While UKTV is right now leading the multichannel market in the direction of quirkier channel names (Discovery are set to launch Discovery Shed in a clear;y Dave-prompted move… and it’s worth noting that a once mooted name for Dave was, indeed, ‘Shed’), it is programming that ultimately commands viewer loyalty.

Will UKTV History really seem all that more vibrant as Yesterday? And, if not, how long before Yesterday itself becomes – well – history?