Image via flickr
If you grew up watching American television, you are aware of the CBS logo present in commercial breaks and between programs. It has been a symbol of stability in entertainment and pop culture for as long as most us have lived on this earth. You may have realized the design resembles an eye, and maybe even thought of it as looking at you as you were looking at it. Well, in this article we are going to investigate it ourselves, probing CBS and the history and evolution of this simple and iconic logo.
About the CBS Brand
Originally dubbed Columbia Phonographic Broadcast System in 1927 when the Columbia Phonograph Company became a major investor with United Independent Broadcasters, CBS took on the name Columbia Broadcast System when the company was sold to Isaac and Leon Levy in 1928.
They owned one of the affiliates of the small network of radio stations, but turned management of the overall company to a young in-law by the name of William S. Paley. It was he who trimmed the name to Columbia Broadcast System. That year, he purchased enough of the company to become the majority owner. With the growth of radio and Paley’s highly competent management, CBS expanded rapidly through the next decade and became a major player in the broadcast industry.
The Many Faces of CBS
Obviously, CBS became much more than a radio network. In the 1940s, they were developing their television network in competition with NBC and eventually ABC. Although CBS has been through many changes, mergers and splits, its arms branch out like a massive tree.
It must be mentioned that Viacom took over CBS in 2000 and another entertainment giant known as National Amusements owned Viacom. So when Viacom split from CBS in 2006, CBS Corporation came into existence as an entity and National Amusements remained in control. There is a vast array of CBS Corporation assets that illustrate the diversity of the CBS brand.
The CBS Corporation owns CBS Entertainment, which is made up of the basic TV network, CBS News (television and radio), CBS Sports (television and radio), The CW, and CBS Television Studios with its many subsidiaries. In addition, there are network holdings internationally.
CBS owns CBS Cable Networks, which include such organizations as Showtime, The Movie Channel, CBS Sports Network, and AXS TV. They also own CBS Publishing. Under that name is Simon & Schuster with their many imprints such as Atria Publishing Group, Gallery Books Group, Scribner, Aladdin and many more.
Although there are over 200 non-owned CBS television affiliates, they still own at least 16 television stations. CBS television programs are shown in Canada, Bermuda, Mexico, five European countries, Australia, New Zealand, and five Asian countries. They also own CBS Local and CBS Local Sports, which give the network a presence in local digital media organizations..
CBS Logo Design History
The CBS logo we know today was preceded by one designed during the radio years. It was basic, using block lettering of CBS on a plain surface that appeared to be under a spotlight. The letters were raised, meaning the spotlight effect threw shadows on the letters. This added to a slight three-dimensional look. It’s not bad, really, but the CBS President Frank Stanton felt the logo was boring and had no style.
He asked network graphic designer William Golden to present something more interesting for the network ‘ident’, which is a visual image used to remind viewers between programs as to the network they were watching.
Golden was driving through Pennsylvania Dutch country when he noticed an old Shaker design used and embellished by the Amish on the outside of their barns which conveyed the Eye of Providence. This symbol was meant to show God is watching, warding off evil. Golden was taken by the design and took time to study Shaker art he found in a magazine. He passed it along to his fellow graphic designer Kurt Weihs to refine the design into something the network could use to identify itself.
Weihs came up with the CBS logo that became such a success. We do not want to forget Georg Olden, another designer in the company, who may have had a role in the development of the logo. He was an African-American who was a graphic designer of note in the years following World War II.
An interesting side note is that Golden took the eye logo and two other proposals to CBS management, receiving a less than enthusiastic response. Fortunately, Stanton liked what he saw and made an executive decision to use it. When Golden wondered aloud the following year what he could present as the ident for the new season, Stanton proclaimed with certainty he didn’t want it changed. It was his backing that made the icon permanent.
Another appealing feature of the logo was the font. Golden took it from two similar typefaces known as Didot and Bodoni. He changed their lettering for CBS and the result was the distinctive, strong yet elegant look that accompanies the circular logo design.
The concept of the CBS logo as an eye was one the network came to use in its marketing. CBS stars were brought on to do endorsements, using the logo. For instance, famed actor Conrad Nagel, whose career spanned the silent film era through sound film, radio and television, did a voice-over spot with the CBS logo on the screen, saying, “This is Conrad Nagel, suggesting you keep your eye on this eye, the CBS Television Network.” It was 1951 when it was adopted. TV was coming into its own, but radio was still strong in many parts of the country.
CBS came to be known as the Eye Network and the logo was credited with possibly hinting at the forthcoming dominance of television over radio in the following years.
CBS Logo Evolution
The core design of the CBS logo has never been altered, but over the years there have been changes to enhance its effect on the viewer. Once it was being used on screen in the beginning, it was shown to be in motion. The camera would slowly move in toward the logo’s inner circle and the center “pupil” would open to reveal “CBS Television Network,” then shut in the manner of a camera shutter.
Different Takes through the Decades
In the 1960s, the network wanted to emphasize its transition to color programming. When showing the CBS logo, it would show the letters in vivid color next to the eye while the iris was left in black and white. The only difference was, the white was primary and black was secondary— a reversal.
To celebrate 50 years of broadcasting, in 1971 CBS made the logo look more electronic, resembling a neon light. The background was blue with a thin purple line running most of the way across the screen behind the basically white eye. The lines of the eye were shaded to blue and pink at places along the way. “CBS Television Network” was shortened to just “CBS.”
In the 1980s, the CBS logo was for the first time a completely computer-generated image. The background was blue transitioning to purple and the lines of the eye were shades of white, blue, pink and now yellow with a bit of red. No writing was in the eye, but “SHARE THE SPIRIT OF CBS” was written on the lower right. The slogan also was printed subtly in the entire background. The graphics weren’t great, in retrospect, but for the times it probably achieved the purpose of making CBS appear to be advancing technologically with the rest of the world.
The eye returned to a more simplistic look in the 1990s, but the graphics dramatically improved. The modernistic eye, in shades of blue mostly, was prominent and seemed to be suspended in a space-like environment. The background was colorfully lit in blues, purples, yellow and black, blending softly reminiscent of the aurora borealis.
In the first decade of this century, the CBS logo evolved to high definition. The network went back to black and white, but again with the colors reversed to white being primary. The background is mostly black with some spots of white bleeding into the lower left of the screen. Under the eye in big letters of white and a textured blue, “ONLY CBS” is written.
The CBS logo is a model of simplicity, high quality art, and accessible symbolism. The most successful logos are the ones that, when you look at them, the name of the company springs to mind. Examples of this are Apple, Mercedes-Benz, and McDonald’s. None of these need to put their name on their logos for you to recognize them. CBS accomplished this with the eye.
Even with the cosmetic changes to update the presentation of the iconic design, the logo is easily identified. Its basic integrity has been preserved throughout, which is a tribute to Frank Stanton and all CBS presidents who have followed him.