Do TV Shows Get a Boost From 'American' Titles?

AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE - Katy Mixon 2-Publicity-H 2016
Courtesy of ABC

ABC's American Housewife is entering a crowded space.

In addition to attempting to cut through a crowded landscape of more than 400 scripted originals, the comedy about a strong-willed mother (Katy Mixon) raising her flawed family in a wealthy town filled with "perfect" wives and their "perfect" offspring becomes the latest series with the term "American" in its title.

While FX tweaked its title from American Crime Story: People v. O.J. Simpson to lead with the latter in an attempt to differentiate itself from ABC's anthology American Crime, the patriotic title can also be found in series as different as FX's American Horror Story, Starz's forthcoming American Gods and NBC reality competition entry American Ninja Warrior.

With so much title confusion, how much does "American" actually help a show cut through the clutter?

"There's a lot of American and we discussed that when we thought about American Housewife. What we were trying to find for that show was something that would make the show feel more universal," ABC Entertainment Group president Channing Dungey tells THR.

The comedy, loosely inspired by the life of showrunner Sarah Dunn, went through pilot season as The Second Fattest Housewife in Westport, with the title ultimately tweaked to the blander American Housewife in a bid to dodge outcry from potentially offended viewers.

"As we talked to the producers about where the show was going, we realized that Second Fattest Housewife was more the title of the pilot episode and not a title that would then carry forward in the series," Dungey says. "We debated a lot of things and American Housewife felt like it was the most universal. But I do feel we are reaching a threshold of shows called American something."

Indeed. The crowded American marketplace also includes NBC's America's Got Talent, VH1's America's Next Top Model and ABC's America's Funniest Home Videos. There's also TBS' American Dad, FX's The Americans, CBS' American Gothic and TV Land pilot American Woman (plus Netflix's Wet Hot American Summer). Then there's also former shows including American Idol, American Dreams, the iconic American Bandstand and even NBC's American Odyssey, which added the former to its title but still failed to cut through. (There are also two networks with American in their names — BBC America and WGN America. We won't even get into Survivor, Survivor's Remorse and Designated Survivor.)

"In this form of scripted television, the word "American" allows writers to tackle social issues specifically relevant to the U.S., while still focusing on specific unique characters," says Linda Ong, CEO and founder of branding company TruthCo. "America codes for a multiplicity of perspectives and outlooks, which is why the word is so common in anthology series, yet also points to a larger collective experience, which is why the word accompanies so many shows that explore race and gender."

Ong and her team of analysts say there are four reasons "American" seems to be used in titles.

First, to represent traditional (or conservative) values of prosperity, upward mobility and competitiveness, with reality shows often using the title to distinguish itself from a global format. Second, to take an ironic outlook at what was once a proud identifier — like American Housewife. Third, to unflinchingly investigate America's sins (say American Crime Story, The Americans, etc. And fourth, suggesting an unthreatening patriotic genericism — what Ong and her team noted "what Donald Trump pretends to convey, while coding the conservative meaning to his fiercest supporters."

"As America continues to be a leading source of pop culture, the word shouldn't be a deterrent in international markets," Ong notes. "However, as the landscape becomes more saturated with titles bearing the word American, it might soon be smart to start avoiding the word to differentiate from other material."

If successful, Dungey hopes the title won't impact international sales. "I feel like there's always a lot of curiosity about what happens in America. To that end, it might be helpful [for international sales]. Sometimes shows are sold overseas with different titles so there may be opportunities there, too." 

Notes American Housewife exec producer Aaron Kaplan: "The use of the word American had nothing to do with whether or not we could catch a rating off of that term. It's who the character is: she is an American housewife. We looked at a bunch of different titles and this is a broad and grounded show about so many different things but we felt this title helped us tell the kinds of stories that Sarah Dunn wants to tell as a series."