From 'Lost' to 'Friends,' The Strange Art of Picking a TV Title
As execs knee-deep in pilot season anxiously struggle with show names, insiders open up about what goes into picking just the right one – and why you might not want to call your show "The Forgotten."
Would Friends have been the same hit had NBC executives approved its original title, Six of One? Would Lost have lasted six seasons with its earlier name, Nowhere? And would Grey's Anatomy be able to charm nearly 12 million weekly viewers had it remained Surgeons?
These are the questions now haunting studio and network executives as they look to attach the perfect title -- catchy, but not cheesy; clever, but not confusing; inclusive, but not vague; provocative, but not inappropriate -- to their crop of pilots in contention for the fall schedule. Producers and executives agree that getting a title right is more important than ever given the increasingly crowded and fragmented television landscape, where standing out is as important as telegraphing what a show is about. And while a great title can't carry a poor show, it can get an audience to show up, which is why networks and studios have been known to rely heavily on focus groups and the occasional consulting firm.
"You've got to have something that makes people say,'I want to check that out,' " says MTV programming chief David Janollari, who recalls wrestling with several names before landing on Friends when he was running comedy development at Warner Bros. Television. "It has to be catchy, and it has to frame for the audience the context of the show."
Before needing to hook viewers, however, a title has a job to do internally. Although concept, quality and cast play pivotal roles, executives acknowledge that they're often swayed by a great name as they're making decisions about what to pick up or pass on. "When you're one of 10 pilots, if you don't have a title, you're easier to forget. It just becomes, 'Oh yeah, that show,' as opposed to something that's bold and strong and makes an imprint in the minds of all the decision makers," says one studio chief, who prefers to remain anonymous given the timing.
At this time last year, five network pilots had names that have since been changed, including Awake (then REM), Up All Night (Alpha Mom) and Shonda Rhimes' upcoming Scandal (Damage Control). Another four, including A Gifted Man, Last Man Standing and Unforgettable, which had by that time dropped The Rememberer, were trudging through the casting process without titles. At press time, 17 of the 84 pilots in contention for the 2012-13 schedule are without titles, and a handful of others, including CBS' untitled Greg Berlanti-Nicholas Wootton cop drama that flirted with the title Golden Boy, have already gone through name changes.
Internal debates about titles are legion. Had snap decisions been made years earlier, Happy Days would be on the schedule as New Family in Town; Seinfeld would have run as The Seinfeld Chronicles; Chicago Hope would be remembered as Chicago Sinai; Living Single would have been granted the name My Girls; and Buffy the Vampire Slayer would be simply titled Slayer.
Still others slip through. In fact, the television landscape is littered with failed series that were saddled with titles that were too vague (Traffic Light), too cute (Better Off Ted) or too generic (The Whole Truth) to effectively market. (Maddening exceptions to the rule include Fox's long-running series House and ABC's Castle, which are among the vaguest titles on the network grid.) And while there was a time when shows could change their name once on the air -- Ellen DeGeneres' ABC comedy These Friends of Mine became Ellen in season two -- such alterations are discouraged in today's 1,000-channel universe given the short span of time a series has to grab a viewer.
Then there is the thorny issue of choosing a title that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For eachEverybody Loves Raymond, which became a hit for CBS and made Ray Romano a beloved television star, there are dozens like The Forgotten (ABC) or My Own Worst Enemy (NBC), both short-lived Christian Slater dramas that became pun fodder for critical pile-ons. Potentially worse is the title that can put inadvertent pressure on a series. Take Smash, which one producer says "has earmarks of all the problems with the series; the pressure to perform, the pressure to be an incredible hit. It's like you smell it in the title."
More often than not, it's the judgment of creative executives that prompts title changes. The writers and creators will take the first crack at a name when they hand in a script. (Some agents say they encourage their clients to turn in scripts without a title if they don't have something great since a bad title can turn off execs before they even begin reading.) Those at the studio will either usher through a creator's attempt or work tirelessly to come up with something better. But it's the network that ultimately gets final say, and the execs there have to make sure their lawyers in business affairs are on board. Spin City, for instance, started as Spin, but ABC couldn't get the rights from the magazine of the same name. Fox tried and failed to secure the rights to the lyric "teenage wasteland" from The Who's anthem "Baba O'Riley," leaving the network to settle instead for That '70s Show as its title.
"It's very challenging," acknowledges Dana Walden, chairman of 20th Century Fox Television, which produces Modern Family, Glee and the midseason comedy Don't Trust the B-- in Apartment 23. "You want to be loud and provocative; on the other hand, you don't want to be so loud and provocative that you're alienating a certain segment of the audience."
The latter is a lesson Cougar Town showrunner Bill Lawrence has learned the hard way. The show's co-creator says employing a trendy if pejorative phrase for a middle-aged woman on the prowl helped sell the show to ABC and generated a tremendous amount of press for the series out of the gate. "But then we were trapped with a title that not only doesn't say anything about what the show is actually about but hints of something else that the show is not about at all," he says, adding that the comedy performs particularly poorly in conservative and rural areas where the controversial title is a barrier to entry.
Of course, with the alienation of watchdog groups comes free advertising in the form of media attention. CBS' $#*! My Dad Says raised the ire of the Parents Television Council, which accused the network of "contempt for families and the public."
On April 11, ABC will take another stab at "loud" with Don't Trust the B-- in Apartment 23, which the network executives had reflexively shortened to Apartment 23 until creator Nahnatchka Khan successfully appealed to ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee. Still, there were efforts to purge any allusion to the b-word by using "girls" or "women," but, says Kahn, "that felt like a weird half-swing to me."
"I prefer when people are talking about the show that they say 'bitch,' " explains Khan, who has been able to wield an abnormal amount of power in the naming process. "But to me, the word 'bitch' was less important than the warning nature of the title, which says that something dangerous is going on in this apartment." And Lee, she adds, "totally got it."
ABC has opted for a safer route with the new GCB, adapted from author Kim Gatlin's book Good Christian Bitches. The Dallas-set drama, at one point titled Good Christian Belles, was the target of religious groups when it was in the development process. The latest name change was mocked by critics, who predict the acronym will leave viewers scratching their heads.
While few believe a good title can realistically save a subpar series, especially in the era of on-demand viewing and hundreds of networks, some argue a bad title is enough to sink a solid one.
"We can't escape this stupid title," laments Cougar Town's Lawrence. "I know it sounds like an excuse, but if this show goes away, it will be, without a doubt, one of the things that brought it down."
To get the real story of how some of TV's most iconic shows settled on their names, we reached out to creators, producers and network executives. Here are their stories from the show-title battleground:
CONSIDERED: That Raymond Guy; What's With Raymond?
CHOSEN: Everybody Loves Raymond
Phil Rosenthal, show creator
"I put Everybody Loves Raymond on the original script. What I loved about it was that it was like I Love Lucy, and I was trying to do an old-fashioned show -- a traditional sitcom to break out from everything hip and edgy at the time. Plus, it had that specificity: Once you knew the show, you got that the title spoke to sibling rivalries, problems with parents, problems with your wife. Before I turned it in, I showed it to Ray. He said, "You can't call it that because then we're asking for it. I'm named Raymond. I don't want that pressure of everybody having to love me. The next thing is, 'Oh yeah? I don't.' " I said, "Let's turn it in and see if the network even likes it." CBS liked the script enough to go to pilot, and the whole time Ray is calling Les Moonves, saying, "You've got to change the title." And Les was like, "Ray, you're not even on the schedule yet. Don't worry about the title." Then we get picked up to series, and Ray goes nuts. He calls Les: "Thank you for picking up the show, but you've got to change the title." Les responds, "Ray, if you become a top 15 show, you can call the show anything you want." Ray says, "OK." By that time, Ray has come up with a list of his own titles. There was That Raymond Guy, Raymond's Way, What's With Raymond? They were all terrible, which he admits now. He wrote them on a piece of paper, which we then framed and put up in our office. We do become a top 15 show, and the moment we crossed the threshold, Ray calls Les and says, "Can we change the title now?" And, of course, Les says, "You can't change the title now. You're a top 15 show!" Every introduction for the rest of Ray's life will be, "Here's the guy that everybody loves." I'm happy for the success we had together, but I do feel guilty that he has to live with that until he dies, and probably after."
CONSIDERED: Six of One; Across the Hall
David Janollari, former head of comedy development at Warner Bros. TV
"We basically sold and developed the show at NBC without a title. The first draft was delivered to me with the title Six of One. I went, "Hmm, I get it, but I'm not sure it's grabby." Then [NBC entertainment president] Warren Littlefield pitched Across the Hall because the apartments were across the hall from one another, but that didn't feel right either. We must have kicked around 100 titles. We landed on Friends Like Us and delivered the rough cut with a title sequence accompanied by R.E.M.'s "Shiny Happy People." Then somebody at the network said, "Why don't you just call it Friends?" It's an iconic title now, but at the time we were cocking our heads going, "Huh? Is that a good title?" We really weren't sure."
CONSIDERED: Pop Idol
CHOSEN: American Idol
Sandy Grushow, former Fox TV Entertainment Group chairman
"After we acquired the rights to Pop Idol, which was becoming a sensation in the U.K., we grew concerned that the audience in this country might confuse it with a show that the WB network had failed miserably with in the recent past, Popstars. In a meeting with Rupert Murdoch (and several others, including Peter Chernin), I suggested we change the title to American Idol. Rupert looked at me disdainfully and said: "What is it with you Hollywood executives? You always have to fix things that aren't broken!"
Lloyd Braun, former ABC Entertainment Group chairman
"Years ago I was watching TV and a reality show came on NBC called Lost. It was produced by Conan O'Brien, and I thought, what a great title. A couple of years later, I was sitting on a beach in Hawaii and thinking about the movie Cast Away, which had been on ABC the night before. Wouldn't it be cool to do a show about people trapped on a deserted island and then marry it with Survivor and call it Lost? I pitched it at an ABC retreat, and we decided to develop it. The first draft comes in six months later -- it's not from [series creators] J.J. Abrams or Damon Lindelof -- and I see it's called Nowhere. I'm like: "What the hell? God forbid you use the title that the network exec wanted to use!" Ultimately, we started from scratch with J.J. and Damon. My one cannot-be-changed edict was calling this show Lost."
CONSIDERED: The Whole Truth; In the Spotlight; Leave the Bastard
CHOSEN: The Good Wife
Robert and Michelle King, show co-creators
Michelle King: "It wasn't titled when we pitched it to [Scott Free Productions president] David Zucker. We had spoken about Alicia being the good wife, so when he called our agent to say, "We loved the good wife," that became the title."
Robert King: When we were shooting the pilot, we got a call from the studio. They said we had to start thinking about a new title. It was the last three days of shooting. I remember being in Vancouver, and we just got a legal pad and started writing down everything that came to mind. I think I have that piece of paper somewhere.
Michelle King: We must have generated 75 to 100 titles.
Robert King: Strangely, the one that rose to the top was The Whole Truth; there was a show on ABC called The Whole Truth that came after. The studio liked it, but the network thought it was a little generic. There were some based on the word scandal: Scandalous, Scandalized. There was some playing off the publicity aspect: In the Spotlight. There was a ridiculous one: Leave the Bastard, which David was championing. I don't know how seriously he was taking it, but Leave the Bastard had a little play there for a while.
CONSIDERED: Teenage Wasteland; The Kids Are Alright; Feelin' All Right
CHOSEN: That '70s Show
Tom Werner, executive producer
"Teenage Wasteland was our tentative title. It was on the first draft, but we couldn't get the rights to it from The Who. So we went back to the drawing board and came up with 30 titles. [Among them was The Kids Are Alright, another Who song, which songwriter Pete Townshend shot down as well.] Eventually, we came up with Feelin' All Right [which then-Fox president Peter Roth presented to advertisers at the 1998 upfront in New York]. As we got closer, the network decided that wasn't memorable enough. And frankly, it wouldn't have been. Finally, [co-creator] Bonnie Turner says, "You know, why don't we just call it That '70s Show? Because that's what everyone is going to end up calling it anyway. No matter what we come up with, they'll say, 'Did you see that '70s show?' " We all looked at her and said, 'You're right.' It was inspired."