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."
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
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.