TV show titles: short, snappy and designed to get your attention
A hit drama called “Overspel” from Holland had plenty to recommend it — murder and intrigue in elite society circles, troubled romances and hot sex. What it didn’t have, for an American remake, anyway, was a good title.
“It’s called ‘Adultery,’ if you translate it directly,” said David Zabel, executive producer of the newly launched ABC series “Betrayal,” based on that Dutch show. “We never considered using that.”
Such an incendiary word as a show title would grab attention, no doubt, but it could’ve proved distasteful for ABC’s female-heavy audience. Those same viewers largely stayed away from the midseason drama “Mistresses,” after all. And “Adultery” isn’t overarching enough to describe a twisting, neo-noir thriller that deals with issues other than cheating spouses, producers said.
“‘Betrayal’ sounds juicy, and it’s salacious enough to get you to check it out,” said Lisa Zwerling, the show’s executive producer. “But it’s applicable to the series in a bigger way, because there are many types of betrayals — between married couples, between business associates, family members, friends.”
With prime-time soaps such as “Revenge” and “Scandal” already pulling in die-hard fans and lighting up social media, why not try another snappy one-word title? “It just seemed to fit with what ABC already had,” Zabel said. “It’s in line with their brand.”
“Betrayal,” which debuted last week with stars Hannah Ware, Stuart Townsend and James Cromwell, came by its name easily (the word “betrayal” pops up several times in dialogue in the pilot alone). That’s not always the case, however, with producers, studios and networks sometimes going through laundry lists of titles before settling on one that seems right. The goal, they say, is to find something descriptive, catchy and memorable while keeping it broad enough to allow for growth in a series and to draw in the widest possible audience.
That’s a tall order for a few words, but it may make the difference between getting a show sampled and seeing it left in the competitive dust.
“A distinctive title can get you out in front of the fray,” said Christina Davis, executive vice president of drama development at CBS, which counts “Hostages,” “Reckless” and “Intelligence” among its new-season shows. “The content has to be there, but in a cluttered marketplace, the name of the show is more important than ever.”
Why then do networks often go with generic names such as “Mom” (CBS), “Dads” (Fox) and “Believe” (NBC) instead of picking quirky monikers favored by cable channels such as TLC’s “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” or MTV’s planned prankfest “Jerks With Cameras”?
“It’s all about risk mitigation,” said Tom Sepanski, senior director at branding firm Landor Associates, New York. “No one wants to alienate advertisers with a controversial title. And they want to keep it flexible. The names end up being relatively benign, watered down and lowest-common denominator.”
Not so for “Killer Women,” an ABC midseason drama with a name that Sepanski likens to “Snakes on a Plane” or “Sharknado.” Pop culture fans may latch onto it ironically, which could propel it in the ratings, but “it’s a huge risk,” Sepanski said, “the equivalent of shooting the moon.”
The show, by the way, stars Tricia Helfer (“Battlestar Galactica”), a Texas Ranger who butts heads with macho men while trying to do her job. It’s based on an Argentine crime drama, which helps explain the colorful, telenovela-style name.
“The Crazy Ones,” a CBS sitcom that marks Robin Williams’ return to series television, stands out from a 2013-14 broadcast pack that includes vanilla-named comedies such as “The Millers,” “The Goldbergs” and “Welcome to the Family.”
It doesn’t matter that Apple super-fans may be the only ones to recognize the show’s title from the brand’s ad campaign, “Think Different,” which used images of Albert Einstein, John Lennon, Jim Henson and other envelope pushers, saluting them as “the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels.”
It’s appropriate for an ad agency-set comedy, said executive producer-director Jason Winer, and it carries a dual meaning, because Williams’ character might be a little touched. The producers reference but don’t air the Apple ad during the show, skirting any legal or rights issues.
When there’s source material, it makes sense to use the original name, such as the NBC remake of “Ironside” with Blair Underwood. John Fox, an executive producer on the drama, said the equity of the name and fond remembrances of the original Raymond Burr show should help the new version gain traction, though it’s a much more violent, muscular series.
Having a familiar saying, ABC’s sports-themed “Back in the Game” with James Caan, for instance, may give audiences a comfortable entree into a show. Fox, among the executive producers of NBC’s “The Blacklist,” is counting on it, even though the drama has nothing to do with the McCarthy era’s communist witch hunt of the early 1950s.
Instead, the crime show stars James Spader as a wanted man who starts spilling his guts to the FBI after turning himself in for reasons unclear. He has compiled, over his years as a master criminal, a “blacklist” of crooked politicians, mobsters, international terrorists and spies. With his help, the feds will track down members of this rogue’s gallery.
“The name feels like it has a stickiness to it — it has a connection to the zeitgeist,” Fox said. “It has some historical weight.”
Producers most often come up with their own titles, although at least a handful of untitled projects from well-known show runners advance nearly every season. Networks say they try not to micromanage that process, but show names do go through audience testing and sometimes brand consultants.
Plenty of oddly named shows have become hits — “How I Met Your Mother,” “Ugly Betty” — based on the product and not the moniker, Sepanski said.
“If you’re asking the name to do a lot of work for you, you’re in trouble already,” he said. “If the premise or the pedigree isn’t driving the conversation, you could be in trouble from the start.”
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