Next month Ofcom is to usher in a new set of rules governing programme branding and sponsorship - billed as bringing a new era of relaxed attitudes to all manner of commercial references on television.
Terrestrial channels such as ITV1 will be allowed to brand their entire channels for the first time, offering broadcasters a new source of cash that the multichannel world has enjoyed for some time.
Mark Cullen, chief executive of Enteraction TV, which runs branded channels such as Thomas Cook TV and London TV, calls the new rules a "shot in the arm" for the branded channel market, where he insists there is plenty of untapped potential. The branded channel owner is exploring a music channel launch with lager giant Carling, while car manufacturers BMW and Audi are also understood to be looking into channel launches.
But Cullen's enthusiasm for branded channels isn't matched by everybody in the industry, including Channel 4's head of sponsorship, David Charlesworth. "Ceding your brand entirely to an advertiser is a decision unlikely to be taken lightly by anyone [on terrestrial TV] - messages could get very tiresome," is his verdict.
Surprisingly, some advertising agencies aren't rubbing their hands together with glee at the prospect of more branded channels, either. Says Mark Boyd, director of content at agency BBH and chairman of the Branded Content Marketing Association: "Specialists like Enteraction TV like to talk up the market but I remain very sceptical. There's a lot of hype but when it comes down to it I don't think that a lot of brands are considering it."
For Boyd the reasons boil down to the money and the risks associated with branded channel launches. "When you spend money on advertising or sponsorship with Coronation Streetyou know you are going to reach a significant amount of people. But with branded digital channels you could have an audience of just 500 to 10,000 people - not much return for channels which still cost a lot of money to launch."
For some branded channels - just as in traditional sponsorship - there's also the tricky subject of editorial independence to negotiate. The Poker Channel's head of programming, James Hopkins, is keener on Ofcom's decision to relax the rules on gambling than he is on a new lease of life for branded channels.
"It would be very difficult to stay independent if one poker site sponsored us. While we are keen for different poker sites to sponsor whole zones of programming, staying independent and true to the viewer is integral to the channel."
Alan Friedman, founder of advertiser-funded programme specialist Fact Based Communications (FBC), is another sceptic. "I don't think that branded channels are the way forward. I fear that they are a turn-off for the viewers and I think that the more sophisticated brands understand that."
But despite the negatives, there's no doubt that branded channels can work. Some of the multichannel world's most seasoned performers such as the National Geographic Channel and Disney have used world-famous brand names to get a leg-up in an increasingly crowded digital universe.
National Geographic Channel UK general manager Simon Bohrsmann argues that what makes National Geographic - and for that matter any channel's branding - work is that the brand and the channel mutually benefit from a positive association.
"The channel and the magazine are different entities, but the National Geographic Society is a great asset for us because everybody knows what it is and what it stands for. That helped us enormously to expand into an attractive proposition for TV platforms all over the world - otherwise we'd be just another documentary channel."
But for most new branded channel launches, the scale of National Geographic with its multi-million pound co-productions such as ITV1's Deep Jungle, budgets of $250,000 an hour are a distant prospect.
Most branded channels running on the digital networks are tightly run ventures, which make ends meet by keeping programming costs down below the£10,000 per hour mark. It's all about getting as much of the programme budget on the screen as possible - something Enteraction TV excels at according to Cullen. "We are simply a lot more efficient than the independent production sector in general because we run our operations like factories at full capacity," he reveals. "We spend less time wasting money in pitching for short-run shows and more resources making them."
Instead of making six or 12-part series, Enteraction TV turns around 40 shows at a time. Director of television Adrian Swift, who launched Thomas Cook TV in 2001, reveals that the channel's schedule of 30-minute shows are made for£30,000 to£35,000 per half hour but the shows can be run four or five times. And because all the on-location footage of travel destinations is between 60 seconds and 105 seconds in length, these segments can be re-versioned into new programmes - with an individual item being used between 20 and 30 times during its six-month shelf life. These segments are also used as standalone clips on the channel's broadband website.
The channel uses a digital asset management system integrated with an Avid Media Browser (bespoke by Avid and consultancy Cap Gemini) to quickly and easily locate clips in its archive. The whole operation is run by 15 in-house staff made up of producers, script writers and editors who are supported by freelance directors and producers.
According to Swift, money is saved by using broadcast technology rather than cutprice crews - a false economy in his opinion. On location footage is shot on DV rather than on a higher-end Digibeta camera, with a two-man producer/camera op crew plus the occasional presenter.
The production process is entirely digital, with material ingested into Enteraction's 7 terabyte Unity server, edited on one of three Avid Xpress Elites with graphics added using Maya and After Effects.
According to Swift the channel has the hardest sell of any channel on the Sky platform with the aim of retailing holidays as fast as possible, and it needs a method of constantly updating fast-changing package prices. The solution is a bespoke automated graphics package superimposed over the video feed which is added at the BT Tower playout centre.
The same principles of programme-making with repeatability in mind apply to London TV, Enteraction's tourism channel. It's 20-minute Tell Me Where to Gois screened three times a day.
While Enteraction uses standard studio sets for London TV, on Thomas Cook TV studio shooting is carried out in a 4m x 7m virtual studio set based on BBC Holoset technology. Computer-designed scenery is simply dragged and dropped in on the computer - saving time on scene changes, plus there's no need to devote space to prop storage. The virtual studio operates three robotic Panasonic cameras which work in fixed camera positions - saving on operators. "It's the way forward," says Swift, "but you have to remember that because it uses chromakey technology virtual sets do have limitations. Your presenters have to remain pretty static."
As Cullen explains, the channel's strategy is different to a traditional terrestrial network, which aims to hook viewers for as long as possible. "London TV is a 'what's on' service designed to be watched for around 10 minutes."
Branded channels also deploy multiskilling to keep costs down, with directors doubling as vision mixers and producers also acting as DoPs.
But perhaps one of the best tricks is to find a source of good quality programming that doesn't need to be paid for, as is the case with football channel Chelsea TV. Premiership clubs get automatic rights to screen their own games, albeit with restrictions placed on transmission by live rights holder Sky. Says Chelsea Digital Media managing director Chris Tate: "We aren't getting it live but to all intents it's free."
This enables Tate to devote most of his£150,000 a month programme budget to shows such as Blues Newsand the channel's phone-ins (see below). As well as receiving "free" footage from the host broadcaster, Chelsea TV rakes in revenues from its subscriptions of£6 per month. Other clubs to get in on the game include Manchester United, Arsenal, Celtic and Rangers.
Emap's (which also publishes Broadcast) stable of branded masthead channels, which includes FHM TV, Smash Hits, Q and Kerrang! also relies on pre-existing footage. Its production set-up enables the company's 50-strong TV production team to run a total of eight channels. Emap TV head of marketing Vikki Timmons explains that costs are minimised on FHM TV, which launched last month, by re-versioning music videos provided by record labels in its five Avid suites - including one with DS.
"We aren't trying to be MTV, producing programming like Pimp My Ride, Cribsand The Osbournes. Our research showed that what our audience really wants is music - so that's what we give them."
Branded channel content - some production models
Programme links - Thomas Cook TV
Enteraction TV has been using a virtual set based on BBC Holoset technology for the past three years on its holiday retailing channel Thomas Cook TV. Last year, Enteraction redesigned its studio and Reflecmedia was drafted in to custom-build chromatte drapes for three of the walls as well as the floor. This gave Enteraction versatility, within a relatively small 14m x 3m space. The system uses chromatte backgrounds in combination with a chromakey system to enable the production team to shoot the channel's programme links. With fast turnarounds a must, the keying needs to be quick and painless. Unlike real sets, the blue screen studios needed for virtual environments can be uncomfortable places for on-screen talent to work - the lights especially make them as hot and bright as some of Thomas Cook's tropical destinations. This system is designed to work within any space at low levels of light, keeping temperatures down.
Tell Me Where to Go - London TV
Tell Me Where to Go is just one of a number shows designed to help visitors sift through London's kaleidoscope of entertainment options. Screened three times a day in afternoon and evening slots, the weekly 20-minute show features panelists Piers Hernu of FHM, radio presenter Tessa Dunlop and Guardiantheatre critic Michael Holden all pitching their top offering to the show's discriminating host Mike McClean who has to select his favourite. The studio-based format, which Enteraction TV turns out at£8,000 a show, combines VT segments with studio banter and has the advantage that it can easily be tweaked from week to week as certain events pass their sell-by dates. The channel is part of the Enteraction group and is broadcast on Sky and VoD service Homechoice. It's produced in association with the capital's dedicated promotional agency, Visit London.
Blues News - Chelsea TV
Blues News may not be the news programme with the biggest audience on British television but it has certainly got a passionately loyal following around west London, home of Stamford Bridge where Premiership champions Chelsea run their own TV channel. The daily half-hour news bulletin produced by Input Video and presented by Gigi Salmon runs twice a day on Chelsea TV at 6.30pm, with a repeat at 9.30pm, whether it's the season or the summer break. The bulletin is turned out for£5,000 an hour from the club's fully equipped studio complete with edit facility and transmission links to the BT Tower. But what happens out of season? Chelsea Digital Media managing director Chris Tate says: "There's just as much to talk about in the summer. On 1 July, the transfer window opens, plus the club is preparing for a pre-season tour of USA and we will be showing those games live. There's plenty to talk about."
100 Sexiest Singers - FHM TV
This two-hour special - based on a survey published in the Emap men's title - was one of the highlights of FHM TV's launch last month and is its top-rating programme to date. "People like lists and they tend to stay with the show," explains Emap TV programme controller Phil Poole. "We took the FHM editorial and then went around gathering the music footage - then it was a case of sending out our crews to get interviews about singers with pundits, which included FHM editorial staff." The beauty of these shows is they can be turned around at relatively low cost and repeated regularly on FHM TV or Emap's growing collection of music channels. Most of the footage is already on hand in the TV division's archive, and forms the basis for most of FHM's programming, whether it's Battle of the Butts (video clips of female musicians' rear ends) School of Rock (air guitar anthems) or the forthcoming 100 Sexiest Videos.