Although fewer than four decades have passed since the 24-hour cable news phenomenon began in earnest during the 1980s, over that time the seemingly ubiquitous CNN logo, and the brand it signifies, have become recognizable to hundreds of millions if not billions of people the world over. How did an upstart cable television network with more than its fair share of initial doubters rise to such global prominence with brand recognition that rivals behemoths like Coca Cola?
Although the rise of CNN, and cable news in general, may seem inevitable in retrospect, at the outset its success was far from preordained. The same can also be said of the now-famous CNN logo, which, according to those involved in its original creation, was pulled together at the last minute yet has remained remarkably unchanged as it has risen to prominence over the decades since.
About the CNN Brand
CNN, or Cable News Network, currently is one of the most recognizable names in cable news, if not news generally, in the United States and around the globe. At one time, the network reached “more individuals on television, the web and mobile devices than any other cable news organization in the United States,” though today most of CNN’s numbers are gained through “captive” audiences and subscriptions, such as in airports and hotel rooms or through bundled cable subscriptions.
In terms of actual American viewership, CNN declined 41% in daytime and 36% in prime time from 2018 to 2017 and now ranks behind most news networks, ESPN, and even the Food Network. Internationally, CNN claims that “CNN International is the most widely distributed news channel, reaching over 373 million households.”
Additionally, CNN includes among its comprehensive portfolio over twenty different branded networks and services it says reach more than 2 billion people across 200 countries and territories. These outlets are supported by reporting from a global network of three-dozen editorial outlets and over one thousand affiliates.
But it wasn’t always this way. When the network launched at 5 pm eastern time on June 1, 1980 with a message directly from television mogul Ted Turner, there were a large number of critics questioning the very premise behind the all-news network and predicting CNN’s imminent demise.
Despite this widespread and, in some case, virulent opposition, Turner remained steadfast in his vision, and among the very first words aired on the network were unequivocal promise that, “We won’t be signing off until the world ends. We’ll be on, we’ll be covering it live, and that will be our last, last event. We’ll play the national anthem for one time on the first of June, and that’s all. When the end of the world comes, we’ll play ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ before we sign off.”
Although CNN now employs some 4,000 news professionals around the globe, at the time of the network’s creation in 1980, the notion of a 24-hour cable network that showed nothing but news was a relatively novel idea, one that was met with a large amount of skepticism. To help distinguish itself from other channels, and as a constant reminder to viewers of what network they were watching, CNN would feature its logo prominently, displaying it on air at almost all times in what is known in television as a “bug”.
However, as the network was set to launch for the first time, its creators realized at the last minute that they had not yet commissioned, let alone decided on, a logo: leading to one of the most famous last-minute logo designs in marketing history.
CNN Logo Design History
Amidst all the turmoil of launching a first-of-its-kind 24-hour cable news networks, the powers that be at CNN had made a small yet significant oversight: they had forgotten to commission a logo to represent the fledgling channel. According to Toni Dwyer, who worked at the time for an ad agency that counted the nascent CNN among its clients, the request for a logo came down at the very last minute, with almost no time to spare.
“In the eleventh hour, it occurred to someone that they needed a logo,” Dwyer has shared when speaking about the history of the famous CNN logo design. “We had about 24 or 48 hours to turn around and present a design.”
With practically no time to spare, Dwyer and colleagues whipped together 4 or 5 alternatives to present to CNN brass, one of which ultimately became the famous logo instantly recognizable by millions if not billions of people around the world. The design that ultimately was chosen as the official logo was created by the late Auburn University professor Anthony Guy Bost.
“There were several forms of the logo they weren’t exactly wild about, there was one we thought would play the best, we tried to keep it simple,” Dwyer said of the process behind the last-minute assignment.
Terry McGuirk, who helped launch CNN as then-vice president of Turner Broadcasting and who now works as chairman for the Atlanta Braves baseball team, has shared similar recollections about the design process behind the CNN logo.
“They gave us 4 or 5 different looks,” McGuirk has said of the logo-design team. “One sort of stood out, a cable running through the letters C-N-N.”
Somewhat ironically, given today’s global prominence of both the network and the CNN logo, one of the driving considerations behind the design was money, as in keep it as cheap as possible. According to Dwyer, this led to the logo’s single-color design.
“It was designed with money in mind,” Dwyer has said. “So we tried to keep it one color.”
According to Dwyer, CNN’s brass was so budget-conscious that they even balked at the initial price of the logo design: a seemingly modest $5,000.
“For the price of the logo, we wanted like $5,000,” Dwyer has shared. “They [CNN] all threw a fit, and the final bill for the logo was $2,800 or $2,400.”
CNN Logo Evolution
Despite its initially having been overlooked and finally thrown together at the last minute, the CNN logo has remained remarkably consistent over the years, which is, above all, a testament to the quality and timelessness of the original design.
Rather than alter the original design, CNN has kept the CNN logo feeling up-to-date and contemporary across multiple decades by lending it modern flourishes such as animation and, later, three-dimensional computer graphics. As time goes by and the CNN logo is ingrained into the minds of yet another generation of news consumers, it is increasingly difficult to imagine CNN making any drastic changes to this venerable, and increasingly recognized, design.
Why Has the CNN Logo’s Original Design Proven so Long-Lasting?
The theories as to why the CNN logo has proven so enduring are seemingly as numerous as the criticisms that accompanied its introduction. Some commentators have attributed much of the CNN logo’s success to its unique shade of red, which they say exudes an image associated with value, entrepreneurship, and omnipresence, and which has similar connotations around the globe, an important consideration for a global brand. Similarly, experts say that the shape of the CNN logo projects “power, stability, and reliability,” three important attributes people associate with a trusted news source, which CNN strives to market itself as.
Much like the news CNN reports on, the lessons one takes away from the history of the CNN logo seem to depend a great deal on one’s preexisting worldview. For some, the quick 24-to-48 hour turnaround on this venerable corporate image is proof that professionals in marketing and graphic design are vastly overpaid to do incredibly simple tasks that should take them far less time and cost far less money than they presently do. For others, it is proof of the old rule that, to paraphrase, “It took 10,000 hours to be able to create the CNN logo in two days.” Still others will cite it as evidence of the maxim, “Keep it simple, stupid.”
Regardless of what moral, if any, one tries to apply to the story, the idea that the world-famous CNN logo, now perhaps the single most recognizable journalistic image in the world, was whipped together at the last minute in under two days is just fascinating in its own right. What would the CNN logo have looked like if the creators had been given more time (allowing them to conduct focus groups, for example) or greater resources (opening up the palate to, say, multiple colors)? Would the end result have become nearly as emblematic or proven nearly as enduring?
With the CNN logo as we know it approaching its fourth decade in prominent use, and with its recognizability only continuing to grow across not only television but also digital media, it is increasingly difficult for skeptics to argue that any alternative design would have proven nearly as successful.