CNN Makes Headlines


In fall 1999, CNN Center in downtown Atlanta got a $27-million makeover. Home to CNN and Turner Broadcasting System (TBS) since 1987, there was little to outwardly identify the 1.5-million-sq.-ft center as the global headquarters of CNN's thriving international news operation. Constructed in 1975, the building consists of four concrete towers connected by a glass-roofed atrium. Inside, brown quarry stone made the space seem dated and dark. There were scant video or electronic elements to hint at CNN's pioneering role in the television industry or its new state-of-the-art studios. "It has always been CNN headquarters," says Hunter Richardson, vice president of development for Turner, "but we had always been quiet about it. We decided to become bolder in proclaiming our identity."

Improvements brought to the area by Centennial Olympic Park and Philips Arena helped spark the renovation [See TCI November 1996]. A legacy of the 1996 Olympic Games, Centennial Park--a 21-acre spread of green space, brick walkways, and fountains--replaced the scruffy parking lot and abandoned businesses that once stood across the street from CNN Center. When Turner decided to build the new, $250 million Philips Arena (which opened early this year) on the site of the Omni Coliseum next door, sprucing up CNN Center was a logical step. "The arena by itself couldn't generate the critical mass needed to change the whole area," says Richardson. "The downtown needed a daytime attraction that would encourage the community to feel comfortable with the environment and think of it as a destination." CNN Center, which by 1998 was already attracting three million tourists per year, was the obvious candidate.

The renovation included a facelift for the exterior, atrium, and onsite Omni Hotel, as well as a $700,000 makeover of the CNN Studio Tour. D'Agostino, Izzo, and Quirk Architects (D'AIQ) collaborated with Arquitectonica on the master plan and provided the exterior and interior design that would help CNN promote its corporate identity. Holder Construction was the contractor, David Ashton and Associates created the signage, and the engineering firm Hibble, Peters, and Dawson, in addition to providing the electrical, plumbing, and HVAC, worked with D'AIQ on the lighting design and implementation. For the exterior, D'AIQ replaced the concrete cladding with a sheathing of green glass, and cut an opening into one side of the wall to give CNN Center a new front door onto Centennial Park. The enclosed promenade Hawk Walk, a walk-through exhibit on the Atlanta Hawks, links the Center with the Arena. At the main entrance, freestanding 20'-high red steel beams artfully spell out the CNN logo letters.

Simple, effective changes enhanced the corporate branding inside. Working with D'AIQ and entertainment design firm Jack Rouse Associates (JRA), Turner brightened the space by replacing the brown flooring with white tile. To transform the food court into a commissary and enhance the feel of a television studio, Turner blacked out the ceilings and added exposed stainless-steel pipes and a studio-style lighting grid. Interspersed blue and white tiles create a floor map of the world, with gold medallions indicating the locations of CNN's nine domestic and 21 international news bureaus. Tabletops carry CNN network logos. Retail tenants got new signage and graphics that conform to the new look. Suspended from the second-story balcony, six 52" Philips videowalls broadcast CNN programming.

JRA also worked closely with Turner to redesign the introduction and finale of the CNN Studio Tour, originally inaugurated in 1988. "Even though we had made changes in 1994 and 95," says Richardson, "the company's rapid pace of change meant going to the next generation." JRA designed graphics, electronic kiosks, video displays, and information panels that give a historical overview of CNN and Ted Turner.

The tour begins on the ground floor, where a guide meets guests and leads them eight floors up, on one of the longest escalators in the world; during this ride, visitors can view a series of graphic panels that relate major news stories from 1980-1988. The panels are a prelude to the 31'-long graphic display "Charting the Course of Human Events," found at the top of the escalator. "We got the idea from a memo that circulates around CNN's top-level management every two years," recalls Brian Donahue, a JRA designer. The timeline spans top news stories of the last decade, superimposed with a chart showing the number of viewers who tuned in. The display can be continually refreshed: every year, the oldest panel will be pulled out, the remaining panels slid down, and a new one added. Likewise, the nine graphic panels in the escalator will be continually updated.

Guests can access CNN news clips and the CNN website from electronic touchscreen kiosks. Another addition is the videosphere, made up of four 20" Philips monitors arrayed in a square and set in a mirrored enclosure. The mirrors' angles and reflections multiply the image to create a spherical 3D effect that appears to jut into the space. Architectural Concepts, Inc. worked from JRA's designs to fabricate, engineer, and install the exhibits.

The new showpiece of the tour is the Control Room Theatre, a real-time experience that captures the drama of CNN's two control rooms, where directors, producers, technical directors, graphic designers, and support staff monitor the four different camera angles, other major news stations, and feeds from CNN's satellite bureaus and affiliates and edit news stories.

Because journalistic integrity is the byword of the tour, Turner insisted on providing real-time live experience to the tour guests. "On slow news days, the experience is rather placid," says Richardson, "but when a hot story breaks, it is dynamite." Turner equipped thetheatre with 37 Philips monitors of various sizes. CNN's in-house engineering department and Technical Industries linked the theatre to the two control rooms via broadband cables. Nor-Com Inc. also provided audio/video integration support.

Turner also wanted a more decisive and climactic ending for the tour. "Before, it just fizzled outside the Turner Store," recalls Kimberly Hartley, the director of the tour. When D'AIQ and JRA expanded the store from 3,400 to 9,000 sq. ft., they carved out a place for a grand finale. Benches are placed around an 18'-high brushed aluminum pole that houses eight Philips monitors. CNN produced the final video presentation, in which Ted Turner thanks the guests for their interest in CNN, wraps up the story about its news operations, and links it to Turner's other entertainment and sports ventures.

Turner premiered the new tour in stages. ACI completed its work on the exhibit area in mid-November 1999, the Control Room Theatre opened in March 2000, and the Grand Finale was scheduled to be fully operational later this spring. The revamped tour put into place one of the final pieces of Turner's campaign to make CNN Center a more exciting and branded space.

Turner's commitment to the downtown is widely hailed as catalyzing Atlanta's growth, and the makeover of CNN Center is a major contribution to that effort. Across the street, the Georgia World Congress Center plans to expand; Coca-Cola will build a 20-acre corporate campus in the vicinity; and Bell South is relocating thousands of employees to the area. The new owners of Underground Atlanta, the nearby three-level, six-block warren of specialty shops, want to turn the struggling center into a family entertainment destination. Several large-scale mixed-use residential projects surrounding Centennial Park will help ensure that the sidewalks don't become deserted after 6pm, and the increased pedestrian traffic should help lure more retail and restaurants. Janet Marie Smith, president of Turner Sports and Entertainment, warns against overly high expectations. "Revitalization doesn't happen overnight," she counsels. "It's an organic, yin-yang process that takes place over the years, block by block."