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."
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 each Everybody 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."