MEDIA FORUM: Should UKTV make the most of its BBC heritage?

The BBC/Flextech venture has just embarked on its first brand campaign. Does the network face a promising future? Alasdair Reid reports.

It's a shame really that The Dick Emery Show doesn't run on UK Gold. Because if it did, that would be a fine example of what brand consultants call congruence. But let's not go there. The UKTV family of channels is probably more like another programme with a big cast of characters - the real UKTV mainstay, Dad's Army.

In the war against Rupert Murdoch and other multi-channel forces of darkness, you could have been forgiven for thinking that UKTV, a joint venture between the BBC and Flextech, was never really intended as a serious long-term proposition. Yes, it was nice, from the BBC's point of view, to squeeze a little bit more in the way of a return from all that dusty old stuff in the programming vaults but it was always going to be a holding operation, wasn't it?

Apparently not. Last week, UKTV attempted to increase awareness with its first network branding campaign since launching five years ago. Created by Mother and featuring a "UKTV brings you home" tagline, the campaign will promote the whole family of channels - UK Gold, UK Drama, UK History, UK Horizons, UK Style and UK Food - under an umbrella brand. Previously each channel has promoted itself individually.

Does UKTV harbour previously unsuspected ambitions? Watch this space, Julia Weston, the marketing director of UKTV, says. She implies that this is just the beginning. "We've been launching channels that have become incredibly strong in their own right and we have found that they have been segmenting the audience rather than fragmenting it. They attract viewers of like mind - for instance, on Style we have ABC1 women who are high spenders in the DIY market. In the five weeks since History launched we have doubled ABC1 men impacts. All of this is convincing evidence that the potential is there to grow even stronger," she says.

But won't UKTV have to evolve even further away from its BBC heritage to do that? That's just not an issue, Weston responds. "Consumers don't automatically think BBC when they think UKTV," she states. "If you probe a little they will say that, yes, they realise it must be linked to the BBC in some way. But that issue is not what the UKTV brand is about."

In other words, the brand is far more sophisticated than we give it credit for. And it will become even more sophisticated. UKTV has more original production plans and channel launches coming up at the start of next year.

Meanwhile, the main focus of the current campaign will be existing and potential viewers - it broke last weekend in Christmas TV listing magazines and there will be TV, posters, press and radio work too. But just how impressed is the advertising community likely to be with all of this?

In airtime market terms, UKTV has always been relatively peripheral. Isn't it likely to stay that way? After all, its airtime is sold in ratings packages, isn't it? Not by individual programme or even individual channel.

Stuart Cox, the media manager of Nestle in the UK, points out that every little helps. "I think it's true that the perception in the past has been that collectively the channels didn't perform badly in audience terms - especially UK Gold. It probably makes sense to make more of the UKTV brand, in terms of its ability to reach certain audiences, and to inform people that its combined reach is effective," he states.

But will that enhance its position in the airtime market? Does strong branding translate into ad revenue? Indirectly, Cox says: "We're not as close to the TV market coalface as media agencies are, so it's not always possible to be aware of all things relating to every channel - and obviously these days there is a real plethora of channels out there in the market.

What we're looking for is a feeling of confidence and knowledge when considering channels, an understanding of what they deliver in terms of audience, and how effective they are in reaching these audiences, so that we have peace of mind when our agencies make recommendations to us. Any marketing UKTV can do to stand out from the crowd has to be worthwhile."

However, can it hope to do more than make itself more prominent in that crowd? Just how ambitious can UKTV afford to be? Can it evolve beyond its BBC re-run heritage? After all, this is a troubling time of year for UK Gold, what with BBC1 and BBC2 stealing back all the old Only Fools and Horses-type material to run in peaktime on Christmas Day. This is not an entirely flippant point - in the future there's likely to be an increasing conflict of interest between the BBC proper (its public service output) and UKTV (BBC commercial-lite) because the BBC, following the launch of Freeview, clearly has big plans of its own in the digital field. It's going to give up its archive jewels ever more reluctantly.

Chris Boothby, the negotiations director of BBJ, reckons it should never come to that. "Given the BBC's increasing investment and emphasis behind digital multi-channel offering with BBC3, BBC4, News 24, etc, it does make sense for UKTV to re-establish itself as a network of channels within the multi-channel environment, reinforcing its relationship with the BBC," he says.

"The partnership between Flextech and the BBC to form UKTV does have another 25 years to run and there are strict programme distribution guidelines.

The target audience for UKTV channels and the BBC's new offerings are very different, with the BBC's new channels being more specifically demographically targeted, while the UKTV stable is more lifestyle and culturally based," he comments.

And he also points out that UKTV does have one important card up its sleeve when it comes to the ad market - it's still the only place to go if you want to advertise in BBC programmes.

Jim McDonald, a managing partner at The Allmond Partnership, agrees that it's always worth reminding people that you're around. "Credit to them for trying to get more out of what they have and presenting it as more cohesive," he says. "Viewers tend to have a portfolio of eight to ten channels that they watch regularly and, from a consumer point of view, they don't watch channel brands, they watch programmes. It will be through programmes that they elevate themselves into that viewer portfolio."

And McDonald argues that the BBC heritage is actually an asset. It shouldn't forget that. "It means that anything from that stable is going to be quality.

You can rely on that. And I think it has a halo effect too on the originated programming," he concludes.