Courtesy of CBS
CBS wants to pivot from telling people it’s the nation’s most-watched TV network to making them more aware of the programs it distributes across many different screens.
The network, the flagship business of ViacomCBS, wants to make sure modern viewers continue to recognize the outlet behind “Blue Bloods,” “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “Survivor” as a force for big-audience entertainment. But these days, audiences fan out across traditional TV, streaming video hubs, mobile screens and more – and TV companies need to collect them wherever they can be found.
“If someone walks into a room and says, ‘Hey, you know what, I’m number one,’ you’d be like, ‘Well, thanks, you’re kind of turning me off a little bit,’” says Michael Benson, CBS’ chief marketing officer, in an interview. “We want to be something where people feel like they are part of the family. It’s tough to unify if you’re bragging about yourself.”
In a different era at CBS, such thoughts would be considered heresy. Under longtime chief Leslie Moonves, CBS embodied Big TV, no matter what other video ventures in which the company might dip. Yes, CBS was building streaming-video hubs like CBS All Access and CBSN, but it continued to tout the power of top-rated TV to drive ad revenue and retransmission fees.
Times have changed – and quickly. CBS is one part of a larger, merged company and its programs are showing up in some surprising places. Consider the fact that CBS has made two of its newest TV series, “Evil” and “The Unicorn,” available on Netflix. Another CBS-produced series, “Dead to Me,” doesn’t even appear on the CBS TV network – only on the aforementioned streaming giant. Over time, some of CBS’ most popular offerings will become part of Paramount Plus, the new streaming-video outlet slated to be launched by its parent company, and having a brand that can vie with those that stand for high-quality TV – HBO, Netflix and Amazon come to mind – will be crucial.
“We want to help people understand our brand means more. It’s not just a linear television network,” says Benson. “We are a multiplatform entertainment, news and sports brand.”
The challenge is great. Creating a distinctive identity for an entertainment outlet is tough stuff. In decades past, broadcast networks might trot out some of their biggest stars and have them shout out a clever slogan, like “Let’s All Be There,” as NBC did in the mid-1980s. Others might rely on a top radio hit, as ABC did with Orleans’ “Still The One” in the mid and late 1970s. Cable networks have had to cut an even finer figure, focusing their programming and marketing on a particular audience niche, like cooking aficionados or science fiction fans.
Now, with the rise of streaming video, the task has grown arduous. “There’s so much out there,” says Alan Cohen, a former senior marketing executive at NBC and ABC who is founder and president of Hot Coffee Marketing Studio. Other media companies are trying to till similar terrain, and standing apart, he says, “is hard to do.”
With that in mind, Benson has devised several new elements that will emphasize the company behind the content. Among them: a revival of “This is CBS,” a simple voiceover used for decades in CBS radio and TV broadcasts.
A new five-note musical “mnemonic” will play before many CBS programs, and quietly debuted this past Sunday before “60 Minutes.” Benson and his team found the audio phrase in a 1950s-era CBS newscast. The music is also playing when Netflix subscribers watch a fresh episode of “Evil” or “Unicorn,” says Benson, and will likely sound as a consumer opens a CBS mobile app and after an episode of a CBS-produced series wraps on a different service.
CBS intends to change the tones depending on the program they accompany, using drums, perhaps, to play before “Survivor” or an acoustic guitar and the swing of a golf club before a PGA match.
The days of different fonts and signs for CBS News, CBS Sports and the CBS network are over – the first time the company has created a united design for all its properties. The idea, says Benson, is to make certain viewers tie the different divisions to the same central conceit: It all comes from CBS.
But each entity will still have its own identity. Flagship CBS will use dark blue tones, for example. CBS Sports will start to incorporate colors associated with the leagues it televises. And CBS News will rely on black and white – a means of portraying its product as down the middle and not associated overmuch with red or blue, which have been claimed by the nation’s two biggest political groups. As part of the process, CBS Television Studios has been renamed CBS Studios, a nod to the fact its programs aren’t always made for traditional television.
Viewers can expect to see the new marks for CBS News in the run-up to the unit’s coverage of the 2020 election, while CBS Sports’ transformation should be in place by February 7, when CBS broadcasts Super Bowl LV. Changes are in the works for designs associated with CBS Television Stations and CBS Television Distribution.
One bedrock CBS element will remain. The Eye, that unblinking stamp that has been part of the CBS brand since 1951, will continue to be used, but in some novel ways. New designs call for the logo to appear in pieces, in some moments, and come together in others.
No matter where CBS programs show up, the new designs were created to ensure viewers know who made them. Research proved “that we have all these shows – we have them on the network and we have them on many platforms, and we didn’t get credit for them,” says Benson. No longer. Content on CBS and CBS-owned platforms will be tagged with “CBS Original,” “CBS News,” “CBS Sports,” or “CBS Presents.” Content produced by CBS Studios, meanwhile, will also include the identifier, “A CBS Studios Production.” CBS worked with Gretel New York, a marketing agency that has helped other media entities, including Slate, National Geographic and the Paramount Network.
Benson has a long history of trying to get attention for new programming. He enjoyed a long tenure at ABC, helping to launch landmark programs including “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” More recently, Benson worked for Amazon, trying to get the word out about series such as “Man in the High Castle” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” He is among a handful of executives who has had helped gain a larger profile for streaming-video series, deciding in recent years to use TV’s annual Super Bowl broadcast to promote Amazon selections like “Jack Ryan” and “Hanna.” Benson replaced another veteran of TV’s marketing wars: George Schweitzer, who had been with CBS since 1972, spent years devising new ways to get audiences to sample its many series.
CBS has evolved over the decades, says Benson, but never in such a massive way. “We are a 90-plus year old brand. We went from a radio brand to a TV brand, and now we are moving from a TV brand to a multi-platform brand,” he says. “I do think this may be the challenge of my career.”
Variety's Brian Steinberg contributed to this post.