The identification and characterization of mammalian core promoters and transcription start sites is a prerequisite to understanding how RNA polymerase II transcription is controlled. New experimental technologies have enabled genome-wide discovery and characterization of core promoters, revealing that most mammalian genes do not conform to the simple model in which a TATA box directs transcription from a single defined nucleotide position. In fact, most genes have multiple promoters, within which there are multiple start sites, and alternative promoter usage generates diversity and complexity in the mammalian transcriptome and proteome. Promoters can be described by their start site usage distribution, which is coupled to the occurrence of cis-regulatory elements, gene function and evolutionary constraints. A comprehensive survey of mammalian promoters is a major step towards describing and understanding transcriptional control networks.