The Art of Picking TV Titles: 9 Do's and Don'ts

10:48 AM PST 03/09/2012 by Lacey Rose, Marisa Guthrie
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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."

DON'T Be Too Witty

A title that gets executives excited may just be too cute for viewers. "We loved Better Off Ted internally," 20th Century Fox Television's Walden says of Victor Fresco's critical darling that was dropped by ABC after two seasons. "We thought it was so smart and funny. We went with the witty, pithy title, and it just didn't work."

DON'T Be Too Generic

If a title feels like it could be slapped on any one of a dozen shows, it's probably the wrong title. "Every year, there are 10 shows that all sound the same," says one studio exec. "You can't distinguish them. You want to avoid those generic titles." If Desperate Housewives had been called, say Housewives, would it have become a zeitgeisty hit? 

DON'T Be too Long

Titles that are too long will get reflexively shortened -- by your onscreen guide and viewers. So save everyone the trouble and stick to a half-dozen words or less. People referred to The New Adventures of Old Christine as Old Christine. Beverly Hills 90210 became 90210. When people write, blog or tweet about How I Met Your Mother, it's HIMYM. For the latter two series‚ one a reboot with high title familiarity and the other an established hit that came into its own in a pre-Twitter era -- it's not a problem. But for a new series finding its footing and in need of constant brand reinforcement, a long title can hurt.

DON'T Be Lazy

ABC failed to lure viewers with its unimaginatively -- and foolishly -- titled 2002 sitcom Wednesday 9:30 (8:30 Central). When viewers didn't show up, the network tried again with My Adventures in Television, but it was too late. The same argument has been made for That '70s Show short-lived offshoot That '80s Show.

DON'T Be Too Vague

Fox's quickly canceled romantic comedy, 2011's Traffic Light, is only one recent example of a show with a title that provided few clues to its content (hint: it's not a series about drug trafficking). "We had a terrible time with that title," admits Walden. "All of us really struggled with it. There was a period where the title changed to Mixed Signals, which wasn't any less confusing." More recently, The River and Up All Night have fallen into the unfortunate "what's this show about?" category. There's a fine line between intriguing and mysterious to the point of alienation.

DO Keep it Simple

Friends, Cheers, Frasier, ER -- sometimes the simplest titles turn out to be the most iconic, and they don't require too much of the viewer. "Single-word titles are very strong," says Blue Bloods executive producer Michael Pressman. "Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Damages -- these are such dynamic titles."

DO Be Specific

A title should neatly encapsulate the content and tone of a show, like Desperate Housewives and Modern Family. "If a title really contextualizes the tone of a show," says MTV's Janollari, "that's a big factor in helping you launch a show and market and position it to an audience."

DO Be Timely

The Good Wife came in the wake of the Eliot Spitzer scandal and has continued to resonate as improprieties by a succession of powerful men (Mark Sanford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Anthony Weiner) have made headlines with grim regularity. Observes Good Wife co-creator Michelle King, "There seems to be political sexual scandal at least every couple months."

DO Use Humor

"Anything that would make you laugh is wonderful. I happen to love the title Curb Your Enthusiasm, because it tells you Larry David's state of mind and his character's attitude," says Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal. Double entendres can fall into this category. Grey's Anatomy is a brilliant example, using the character's last name and Henry Gray's classic 1918 medical text Gray's Anatomy of the Human Body -- and it's an improvement over one of the other titles that was under consideration, Surgeons.

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