The Art of Picking TV Titles: 9 Do's and Don'ts
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."
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."
THE DO'S AND DON'TS: Nine vital title tips from execs and producers who know you don't get a second chance to make a first impression