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  • Classic Campaign: The Peacock–The Colorful Evolution of NBC’s Iconic Logo
  • Matt Ritter (bio)

The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) peacock logo has enjoyed quite a ride since it was first introduced on the American television network in 1956. Since then it has become a cultural broadcasting icon, recognized by most anyone in the U.S. Famed design artist, Paul Rand, once described the ideal company logo as a healthy mix of intuition, trial and error, skill, and good fortune.1 The peacock was perhaps what Rand had in mind when he wrote those words, for it certainly describes the creative evolution behind the logo. Peacock originator, John J. Graham, proposed an image people associate with color to NBC’s parent company at the time, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), to market televisions. The logo was helpful in that endeavor. NBC soon ditched the logo in an effort to capture the modernistic feel of the 1970s. Before long the company recognized its error and revived the original logo. Through a stroke of good fortune, NBC turned to Ivan Chermayeff, whose graphic design skill turned Graham’s original illustration into the now iconic six-feathered NBC peacock.

A logo is a valued asset that companies and organizations use to guarantee consumer recognition, and they expend a lot of effort to ensure the logo continues to do that over time.2 Historically speaking, it is important to understand the evolution of the peacock logo in NBC’s efforts to attract viewers. The peacock is a classic advertising campaign that provides a blueprint companies and organizations can follow in determining the best selection of design elements that can withstand cultural shifts. Organizational objectives change. Company purposes are revised. And the progression of time calls for change. Yet the logo should be able to withstand that progression and communicate new ideas within different eras. The NBC peacock does not communicate the same message today as it once did. Its purpose, however, remains unchanged.

We begin here with an analysis of the early years of color television development in the U.S. It was within this develoment that the need for such a logo found its birth. Our attention then turns to Graham and the design and implementation of the logo. From there, this analysis traces the peacock to its modern form.

NBC and RCA Push for Color

To understand the cultural impact of NBC’s peacock logo, it is important to explore the advent of color television in America. Color television, although demonstrated as early as 1928, did not permeate the broadcast landscape until the early 1960s.3 By the 1950s, several promising color systems had survived years of bureaucratic wrangling after the National Television Systems Committee in 1941 decided it needed further testing before any agreement could be made on a standardized technology. At issue was the fact that television viewers would absorb the cost of converting existing black-and-white televisions to the new color technology. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), color television would improve broadcasting, add realism to the pictures, and perhaps open new broadcasting fields.4 The color television system the commission finally approved in 1950—which was developed by CBS—nearly paved the way for color broadcasting in the U.S.5 Televisions manufactured under the standard would have contained a color wheel that spun in unison with one at the transmission source. The obvious problem with the system soon became clear: it was incompatible with current black-and-white television sets. The system never caught on despite its purported advantages over the standard that was eventually adopted and used in the U.S. for decades to follow. That system was developed by RCA, NBC’s parent company.

The way the RCA color system became the American standard is a historical study in itself of the American government’s relationship with big business. This relationship privileged private enterprise to develop and to implement new technology that stood to benefit the public at large, but controlled that technology through regulatory guidelines. RCA owned NBC, which was an ideal model as RCA manufactured television sets and NBC provided programming. The primary problem with the CBS system—which the...