The Daily Heller: The New Simplexity of TCM

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Three weeks ago, Turner Classic Movies (TCM), the most trusted name in curated vintage films (and a godsend during lockdown), refreshed its brand for only the third time since launching 27 years ago. Arguably, the requisite getting-used-to-it time is over, so this judgmental fan of the TCM cable network is now free to make a conditional verdict—“conditional,” because as Dave Itzkoff wrote in The New York Times (Sept. 1, 2021): “TCM … recognizes that even cosmetic alterations can look like the harbingers of fundamental shifts in philosophy.” In addition to the graphics, new bumpers, stage sets and maybe even subtle wardrobe changes will be introduced over the next few weeks, which inevitably makes nervous nellies out of us loyal viewers who worry that TCM may lose its vintage focus in the branding shuffle.

“While it preserves and celebrates the past,” Itzkoff reported, “TCM is thinking about its future, too. In an era that is increasingly dominated by streaming television, how can it continue to thrive as a linear cable channel while bringing its experience to other platforms? As a property of WarnerMedia, how can TCM contribute to that company’s own HBO Max streaming service without getting swallowed up by it?”

The new look, designed by SiblingRivalry (an indie New York firm), is an eye-pleasing collision of modern aesthetics, eclectic type elements and bright luminescent colors. The dominant sans serif font balances nicely with the prime conceit—the multiple morphing ‘C’s that accentuate the keyword Classic. They are rendered in a range of expressive and sometimes abstract forms that offer multiple graphic and photographic opportunities (including as a frame or window from which iconic images peek out). Overall, the style is “simplexity,” the weaving together of simplicity and complexity.

If the brand refresh telegraphs anything new, it is that TCM is not focused on its old friend, nostalgia. The original logo, designed by Charles Spencer Anderson, was rooted in his passion for (and revival of) vernacular vintage commercial art, the kind most commonly found on old matchbooks and in antique clip art samplers. Although tweaked to appear contemporary, the unequivocal message was retro-nostalgia. The second TCM graphic incarnation/iteration was not a logo, per se, but a new subsidiary font that appeared one day without fanfare as the house style. A gestural brush script replaced the retro fonts and decorations with an ever-so-vague tip of the fedora to old movie title cards. The latest refresh (or what Itzkoff accurately dubbed a “rebrand”) is not retro in the least, nor is it vintage or pastiche. It has the character(s) TCM needs to project both re-vitality and contemporaneity. To quote SiblingRivalry’s website: “Visually, the refreshed visual identity was inspired by one simple thought: What you consider to be a classic movie might be very different than what the person next to you thinks, or your children, parents, colleagues, friends or neighbors. ‘Classic’ is different to everyone, which speaks to the range of context, history and personal experience that surrounds each film.”

A branding program defines a point of view. It is a contract between a product and consumer—promising quality in exchange for loyalty. Tampering with a successful brand’s sacred rudiments—from logo to tagline or slogan and all the visual and verbal narrative matter in between—is never done without due diligence. The repercussions of an error in taste and judgement can be catastrophic, which is why most brand changes are dubbed a refresh, an umbrella term under which refinements to the visual persona and fundamental ethos of a product (or institution) are established. A brand guide is a kind of gospel preserved and propagated. Just think what would happen if the Catholic church changed the cross to a hyphen—there’d be hell to pay.

TCM has nothing to worry about there. As long as the curation of it cinephile content remains top notch, and the new generation of film historian hosts offers seriously novel commentary, the new look is indubitably right on brand.